MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

La Lucha Es Tu Herencia
(The Struggle Is Your Inheritance)

Several years ago, a wise man told me La lucha es tu herencia (The struggle is your inheritance). At the time, I was perhaps too young to appreciate the significance of this statement, but over the years I have made a conscious effort to understand what he meant. I began with a commitment to listen because the true nature of our inheritance is a synthesis of our attachment to place, cultural teachings, and our history according to the collective memory of community elders. And most of this inheritance is not explicitly told to you and is largely unwritten. It is learned by a process of listening and absorbing through experience.

Growing up in PeƱasco Blanco, in the embrace of the mountain with white rocks in the valley known as La Quebraditas near the village of El Carmen, you cannot help but be immersed in the landscape and its history. One of the most often repeated stories was of the loss of La Sierrita in the dispossession of the merced, or communal lands, through a series of shady land deals. My grandfather insists that the community should have banded together to purchase it before the land barons did. Perhaps it is unlikely that we could have outmaneuvered the Santa Fe Ring, a consortium of unscrupulous conspirators responsible for theft of the community land grants in New Mexico after U.S. conquest, but his strategy reflects a fierce optimism that the changes and exploitation brought by capitalism could be overcome with unity and collective effort.

There are countless stories like this one in every family and every village in New Mexico that illustrate the struggle we have inherited. We inherited both the effects of a particular injustice and also the desire to redress or prevent injustice. Perhaps this explains why the Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s gained a foothold in our family (even though we continue to refer to ourselves as mexicanos). As a toddler in the early '70s, my uncles made sure that my first words included "Chicano Power." As I later learned through involvement with the Partido Nacional de la Raza Unida, the goals of the decolonization movements around the world resonated strongly with what I understood was the struggle I had inherited.

Although the injustices of land loss, language loss and poverty among the people of my nacioncita were not among the worst in the world, they were still injustices, and I decided to start there. The Land Grant Forum was one arena where I became politicized particularly when I observed the Atrisco Land Rights Council mobilize to protect their merced from exploitative development. Through a summer volunteer program through Siete del Norte, I had the opportunity to listen to community leaders from several Pueblos and northern New Mexico villages about their efforts to sustain traditional, land-based culture in the context of a global economy. Some of those community leaders were the founders of the New Mexico Acequia Association, the organization that I now serve as Executive Director.

Our work is grounded in the traditional view of water as a community resource. This view is engrained in our culture but is also rooted in ancient spiritual and legal traditions that predate the United States. Some historians have attributed the custom of sharing water shortages among acequias to their Moorish/Arabic roots recognizing the Islamic right of thirst, which holds that all living things have a right to water. Water sharing as it evolved in New Mexico very likely incorporated the views of the Pueblo communities as well. The legal concept of "the commons" was strongly embedded in Spanish and Mexican law to the extent that communal lands were a fundamental tenet of settlement of land grant communities. The concept also applied to water through the principles that water was connected to the land and the right to use water from an acequia was understood as a usufructory right (use-right) to a common pool resource.

The legal recognition of the commons as defined under Spanish and Mexican law did not survive U.S. conquest, resulting in the loss an estimated 96% of the communal lands of the land grants. With regard to water, acequia governance largely remained intact. However, the legal nature of water rights was fundamentally altered with the 1907 water code, which became the basis for New Mexico water law and specified that water rights were transferable property rights. Generally, acequias remained oblivious to this change for several decades, continuing their customary practices and traditions as they had for hundreds of years. Our ancestors were probably unaware that water rights had been privatized and the process for the commodification of water was set in motion.

Generations passed before the new legal regime became apparent for most traditional acequia parciantes (owners/participants). In the 1960s, the state filed lawsuits, similar to quiet title suits, to determine individual ownership and the quantity of water rights on several stream systems with acequias. In the 1980s, acequia leaders in those communities organized regional associations of acequias to have a unified legal defense in the adjudication process. Most of these adjudications remain unresolved after decades of legal proceedings.

Also in the 1980s, acequias mobilized to file protests to water transfers with the State Engineer, the state's water administrator. Although the concept of a water transfer, typically the process of severing a water right from the land and selling the water right, was not consistent with the acequia traditional view of water, it was entirely allowable under the legal system adopted in 1907. In their protests, acequias argued that water transfers would lead to the unraveling of the acequia system which depended on the communal system of maintaining the ditch and was an essential cultural and governmental institution in the community. The results of the various protest efforts were mixed but acequia leadership also realized that filing protests could not be the only strategy to protect acequias.

In the 1990s, acequia leaders formed the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) to address the commodification of water and the threats posed to the survival of the acequia system. The growing concern among acequias was that the process of dispossession that resulted in the loss of the communal lands would also occur with the water of the acequias. This sensitivity to the erosion of water as a community resource made acequias very critical of water transfers and attempts to facilitate water transfers through changes in state water policy. For several years, acequias opposed legislation intended to expedite water markets by limiting the ability of people to file protests to water transfers. By 2003, the NMAA had drafted legislation to recognize the authority of an acequia to decide whether to allow a water transfer out of that acequia. That and another bill sponsored by House Speaker Ben Lujan and Carlos Cisneros passed the legislature and were signed by Governor Bill Richardson. This is a historic affirmation of the role of the acequias as democratic institutions of local self-governance.

The 2003 acequia laws are considered by the NMAA to be the most important legislative victories since statehood. However, it is only one small step toward realizing our vision for the future. We are well aware that in New Mexico all development decisions will hinge on the availability of water, and rural agricultural communities are viewed as a target by those entities seeking to acquire water rights. We believe that by retaining local ownership and control over water rights, acequias will play a key role in determining the future of our communities.

This is one part of a larger movement for self-determination in northern New Mexico involving organizations such as the Mexicano Land Education and Conservation Trust which is working to strengthen land grant governance, the Santa Fe Farmers' Market which is working to strengthen the viability of small-scale, sustainable agriculture, and many other community efforts. Our vision is that we will establish a greater degree of community self-sufficiency with a strong local food economy and other types of sustainable development such as renewable energy. We will retain our cultural traditions that celebrate our attachment to place and continuation of traditions with younger generations. Water, and decisions about its use, will be central to all these efforts. Be retaining local ownership and democratic control over water rights, my hope for the future is that we will reverse historic injustices by democratizing development so that more people in our communities can have just livelihoods. And in the words of the leaders who established the community health system in Mora, so that people can have una vida buena y sana - a good and healthy life.

— Frances Ortega

Paula Garcia is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), a statewide organization of acequias and regional associations of acequias. The mission of the NMAA is to ensure the continued survival of rural, traditional communities in New Mexico by protecting the historic water rights of the acequias through community education, community organizing and policy advocacy.

For additional information contact:
New Mexico Acequia Association
430 West Manhattan, Suite #5
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 995-9644
email: info@acequiaweb.org

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"Una cosa es vestir y alimentar a nuestras hijas, sin embargo lo esencial es enseñarles que otras personas — fuera de ellas mismas — son tambien importantes. Lo mejor que pueden hacer con sus vidas es dedicarlas al servicio de los demás."

"Giving kids clothes and food is one thing, but it's much more important to teach them that other people besides themselves are important, and that the best thing they can do with their lives is to use them in the service of other people."

--Dolores Huerta

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