The Heart and Soul of an Acequia—Land&People

Halfway into John Ford’s classic 1940s film, The Grapes of Wrath, the camera pans across some adobe houses and a church, behind which rises a wooded arroyo. The village in the film is San Antonio de Padua, seven miles east and 1,500 feet above Albuquerque, tucked into a saddle of land below a rumpled mantle of juniper-pinon woodland that rises gently to the west.

Once the fleeting backdrop to a film about dispossessed sharecroppers, San Antonio starred in its own drama of dispossession 50 years later, when a real-estate development threatened the village’s source of water and traditions that have governed its use for the past 150 years.

Founded by the Spanish in 1819, San Antonio de Padua is one of a string of settlements on the Turquoise Trail, now NM Highway 14 and commonly known as the “back way” between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In earlier times, springs above San Antonio served local Pueblo Indians, Apache bands, gringo traders, and Union soldiers regrouping after the 1862 Battle of Glorieta Pass. Eventually the trail became a road. In the 1970s it was widened into a four-lane highway to serve commuters who were fast populating the bedroom suburbs of Cedar Crest, Sandia Park, and Sandia Knolls, whose higher altitude and airy scrub forests lured people up out of the heat of Albuquerque.

The new highway cruelly bisected the old village, which is no longer recognizable as such. What’s left is a scattering of adobe houses and mobile homes. San Antonio’s three plazas are now memories. Most of its buildings have crumbled back to earth, intermingling with the shards of earlier pueblo occupants.

Yet something of the village’s spirit has survived in its colonial water use traditions. Above, in the wooded basin now known as Los Manzanares, two small springs feed the twin silvery ribbons of a tiny irrigation ditch system operated under Spanish water law. The ditch, known as the Acequia Madre de San Antonio de Padua, serves some 20 San Antonio Hispanic families, virtually all of whom are land grant heirs. The term acequia is Arabic, dating back to the Moorish occupation of Spain; it can mean either the ditch channel itself or the organizational structure that governs the ditch and distributes its water. An acequia is managed by a ditch boss, or mayordomo, a word of clearly Latin origins, and three comisionados, or commissioners, all elected by the landowning members of the acequia.

Spurred by the looming threat of real-estate development, a band of San Antonio activists began reviving neglected acequia traditions in 1985. They were encouraged by a coalition of Albuquerque land-use professionals and the Trust for Public Land, who were seeking ways to protect open space in rapidly sprawling Bernalillo County.

The Right to Water
As I drive up into a dirt expanse that was once one of San Antonio’s plazas, a figure sitting in the shadows of the stuccoed cement-block church stands up and waves. Chris Jinzo is a 43-year-old resident who has served as mayordomo of the acequia for the past 12 years. Jinzo can trace the origins of his surname back through Spanish land grant documents to 1789. I follow him on foot up the hill behind the church into the overgrown arroyo by means of a dirt track. From the depths of the gully there soon comes the sound of rushing water. A few more steps bring us up to a point where the little acequia reveals itself as a small, orderly waterfall, dropping 15 feet from a ledge into an old cement-lined basin. The water then exits via a pipe into another cement catchment box, which funnels the water into a long flume to the other side of the arroyo.

There are perhaps a thousand acequias in northern New Mexico, two of which I know well and dozens of others which I have some knowledge of, but this is certainly the smallest one I have ever seen. The flow we are looking at, Jinzo tells me, is about 80 gallons a minute. A wooden sign next to the waterfall warns: “THE COURSE OF DITCHES OR ACEQUIAS ESTABLISHED PRIOR TO JANUARY 20, 1851 SHALL NOT BE DISTURBED.” The date refers to one of the first acts of the legislative assembly of the newly created Territory of New Mexico.

It was here on October 6, 1998, that Mayordomo Chris Jinzo and his brother Steve, armed with shotguns, faced down developer Mike Knight, who had brought in a front-end loader and backhoe to work on the spot where the acequia crosses the steep dirt track up into Los Manzanares. Knight, a ruggedly handsome, motorcycle-riding real-estate developer, had purchased the 88-acre property that encompasses the acequia’s watershed in 1994. His plans called for some 30 upscale homesites in the sloping basin and on the ridge above it. What he didn’t take into account was the determination of a handful of village activists to keep their ancient acequia running clear and free.

The roots of this particular dispute reach back to the original Spanish settlement of San Antonio, which was part of the 36,437-hectare Canon de Carnue land grant awarded by the Spanish crown in 1763 but reduced to 2,000 hectares in 1901 by the U.S. territorial courts. For the Hispanic residents, this represented a vast loss of commons land for grazing and wood gathering.

As part of the 1901 settlement, Los Manzanares passed out of the land grant into private hands. Homesteaded in the 1920s, the property eventually was bought by Charles Wright, who built a house and barn, terraced the sloping basin, and planted trees and row crops. Though old man Wright drove off any villagers from below who tried to enter the property (and who began calling it La Wrightas), he respected the village’s claim to the spring water and kept the acequia running. The Wright house burned in the 1970s, leaving a concrete foundation and some typical relics of such sites, including the solid remains of a Paramount wood cookstove. From that time on, the villagers reclaimed the property as their de facto commons by gathering apples and pears and other fruit and by keeping the acequia’s twin channels clean.

After the death of Mrs. Wright, the property passed through the hands of two sets of owners, whose plans to develop it came to nothing. In 1994, Mike Knight, who had built subdivisions all over the East Mountain area, presented his plans for the new development to an unreceptive gathering of villagers in the church parking lot.

The Mayordomo at Work
We’re standing near the concrete foundation of the old Wright house, just above where the dirt track opens out into the miniature valley. Once a thriving farm, it is now spotted with emerging growths of cottonwood, juniper, pinon, oak, and box elder. Jinzo, whose father worked as a caretaker for the Wrights, spent his childhood up here. “When you’re a kid, you’re like Huck Finn. You go do your adventures,” he says with a wave toward the enclosing hillsides. The track becomes a path through long, yellowing grass toward a clump of old, unpruned apple trees, beneath one of which leans a weathered wooden table. Here and there the grass is matted in irregular wide paths, and as we draw close we can see that some apple branches have been ripped to the ground. The ample scat under the trees sends a shiver down my spine. Bears, Jinzo tells me.

Descending, we reach the PVC flume on the other side of the gully. Some day, Jinzo explains, this will be replaced with a more traditional wooden structure. From here on, the northern branch of the acequia, a tiny stream less than a foot wide, travels through the pinon and juniper trees on a shelf dug out of the slope, with a narrow footpath to one side. Perhaps every acequia in northern New Mexico has charmingly incongruous stretches like this, where the thin flow of water pulls riparian lushness deep into an arid slope of another life zone, in a kind of linear oasis. The grass along the ditch bank has been recently trimmed back. Toward the end of the almost horizontal stretch, which hugs the hillside like a contour line, Jinzo stops us to point out clumps of mint. “Our main drugstore,” he observes with a smile. There are three kinds of mint growing along the ditch bank, source of the villagers’ remedios, or traditional potions.

Acequia commissioner Gary Hefkin is a warm, enthusiastic fellow in his forties, who commonly leaves one sentence dangling in order to pluck the next thought out of the air. He married into the largely Hispanic community. His wife, Victoria, a handsome, vivacious woman, was born a Gutierrez and is a land grant heir, as are their two sons, Ian and Joseph. Hefkin can talk about the acequia, “the property,” and his adopted community for hours on end with the glee of someone who has found himself in the possession of a historical anomaly. On my first visit I was regaled with copies of land grant papers and old photographs of the family and the village, along with glasses of acequia water (filtered for drinking) in their mobile home on the family property. While Hefkin spun off into the intricacies of recent history, Victoria supplied genealogical details in between minding the boys.

Hefkin and Jinzo discovered that acequias were recognized as government bodies by the state in the 1960s, able to levy taxes and possessing the power of eminent domain. Starting in 1993, when the Acequia Madre filed papers with the State Engineer Office, “in just five years we went from one declaration of water rights to computers and filing cabinets filled with documents,” says Hefkin. By reconstituting the acequia as an organization, residents could begin to assert the powers the law had bestowed on it. And given the likelihood that the building of some two dozen 4,000-square-foot houses in and above the little valley of Los Manzanares would have severely degraded the acequia’s water quality and exposed its fragile channels to a suddenly dense population of homeowners and their pets, it was clear that the Acequia Madre de San Antonio had grounds to oppose the development of their watershed.

The 1998 standoff between the Jinzo brothers and Knight ended without violence. By the time the deputies and a county inspector arrived, the shotguns were unloaded–if they had ever been loaded in the first place. The county Development Review Department sided with the acequia, pointing out that Knight did not have the appropriate permits to move earth and work on the road. When the story hit the papers, Hefkin told me, offers of assistance poured in from land grant activists all over northern New Mexico–and even from Old Mexico.

Within a generation, many of northern New Mexico’s one thousand acequias are likely to find themselves in similar situations. The implications of this victory, achieved by this smallest of acequias, are vast indeed. In November 1998, voters approved a county bond measure that provided funding to purchase Los Manzanares. Kelly Huddleston, the Trust for Public Land’s project manager, brokered the deal between developer Mike Knight and Bernalillo County for the 88 acres of Los Manzanares.

Eventually the acequia association hopes to obtain a dedicated easement for its channels and official permission for other uses. But now that the property is safely in county hands, it is clearly quite enough for Mayordomo Chris Jinzo and his neighbors to be able to walk up into the hidden valley behind the church, gather a few apples, sit in the grass, and dip their hands in the clear water, knowing that this special place once again belongs to all the people of San Antonio de Padua.

Land & People, Spring, 2000

Stanley Crawford was mayordomo of the Acequia del Bosque in Dixon, New Mexico for ten years, and is the author of Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico (University of New Mexico Press).