Acequias are hand-dug, gravity-fed irrigation canals that divert stream water to sustain the agro-pastoral economy Spanish colonial settlers established in the upper Rio Grande valley in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Acequia agriculture extended riparian habitats, transformed regional ecology, and created the cultivated New Mexican landscape we see today. Ditches divert, divide, and deliver water to crops and livestock. They form borders and pathways. They connect and define communities of irrigators who manage water as a commons. They sustain biodiversity along riparian corridors and replenish underground aquifers wherever they reach. This illustrated talk looks at acequias in relation to local hydrology, sacred sites, and outdoor cultural practices involving collective linear movement through social and geographical space. The seemingly unrelated activities of procession and ditch cleaning are both dynamic linear formations that move through a particular cultural landscape. Procession is a calendric prayer ritual that symbolically inscribes and circumscribes a sacred topography. Ditch cleaning or la limpia is an annual secular work ritual that maintains the efficient, cooperative operation of an acequia. Like irrigation itself, both activities also inscribe the bodies that perform them and publicly enact personal commitment to a community of place.
Sylvia Rodríguez, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Former Director of the Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies, University of New Mexico