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The following is an interview transcription from the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival with participant Charles Aguilar of Bernalillo, New Mexico. Interview by Sonia Salazar, a presenter at the Festival.*
The Rio Grande
Agricultural Cycles and the Acequias
SS: We are going talk about agricultural cycles and acequias in New Mexico with Charles Aguilar from the Rio Grande Valley, from Bernalillo, New Mexico. Tell us about the planting cycles and their correspondence to the weather. Let’s start in February.

CA: In Bernalillo, it starts getting warm or what we consider to be warm around February when most of the snow is over. Most of the snow takes place between November and December, some late January. So February, about February the 2nd, with El Dia de la Candelaria, which is the day of the candlelight. That’s a signal to the people in the area that it’s time to start putting out things that grow well in cold weather which are the onions, garlic, and peas.

SS: When you say it starts getting warmer around February, how warm?

CA: Well it’s about 40s, 50s, but it’s good weather for peas because peas taste really juicy if they are raised during the colder weather.

realaudio(Real Audio 521 Kb)
CA: If you wait until May/June peas will grow but they are dry. They don’t have the juicy texture that they do when they’re grown in cold weather. So these onions, garlic, peas do very well in February, March. In March we have the apricot trees, the first trees to bloom in our area. So that signals that it is time for the trees to start blooming most of our fruit trees are gonna follow: cherries, apples, and so forth. Then in April, right around Easter, we start planting melons, melones indios sandias, that is the word for watermelon, and then cantaloupe, and guajes. There are a lot of gourds that are planted in the area. Some of them are used for making servers to drink water. Some are used in arts and crafts. People paint little scenes, they carve the outside of the rattle, and there is a little nativity scene and something put inside of them, and then calabasas and these are your orange squash that you know as a pumpkin, that are used for halloween and those are ready by October, but those are planted early so they have time to grow.

The last thing to be planted that is really a real staple, in New Mexico is chile, if you don’t plant chile by May 3rd, you are not going to harvest it because chile is harvested in two cycles. First the green chile, which is around the end of July and you’ll have stands pop up everywhere; people are roasting chile on the side of the road. Hatch, New Mexico is a big producer in the southern part of the state, and a lot of chile is taken to northern New Mexico because Hatch, New Mexico is warmer. Chile is harvested there before it is harvested in northern New Mexico. Hatch, New Mexico chile makes it into Albuquerque around July. So, then by May 3rd, at the end of Santisima Cruz, if chile is not planted, you are not going to get the both red and green.

Then, June 13th is the deadline for planting corn. And I planted some corn then and it is doing pretty well. I think it was planted right around the thirteenth because it is already up. You usually plant three seeds together, three or four seeds because one might not be good. Now corn in New Mexico, we use two kinds: we use the white corn and the blue corn. Now blue corn is used for blue corn meal. Today you have your blue corn chips that are used for salsa and dips of all kinds, so that is where your blue corn chips come from.

Then, on July 14th when I return back to New Mexico, that is the last planting for pinto beans. Ok now, you plant the pinto bean, but you can also harvest them green for green beans, ok. So what happens is that the soil that was used for the peas is reused, because all the peas have been harvested. So the soil that was used for that can be used for the planting of beans. And so, that day is the Dia de San Beadento, and that is the Feast of Cochiti Pueblo. My friend Arnold here is Cochiti Pueblo. And so, on that day if you didn’t plant beans by that day, forget it! You are not going to harvest them by October. So, from July 15th to October there is the harvest of the green chile and the red chile.

Also, at the end of July or early August, depending on what variety of grapes you have, you start harvesting the grapes, and then the process of making wine starts. The grape has to be harvested; then it has to be put to ferment; and then it is taken through the process; and the barrels are sealed after a two-week process; and then you wake for the Dia de San Andres which is November 14th. There is a little saying that on November 14th you can open barrels, vinagre es o vino es. So you find out if it is vinegar or if you get wine.

SS: Is there a big wine industry in New Mexico?

CA: The Rio Grande valley was known for its wine making. It is said that the Catholic Church had their headquarters right in Bernalillo. The missionaries went there and brought all varieties of grapes. And, in fact, I still have some of the grapes that my grandfather used for winemaking, which is called the missionary grape—it is a small purple grape. There are other varieties that I have planted, about 35 vines, but they are a white grape, which are not native to that area. My grandfather made most of the wine from a grape that was purple. And then, there was also a plum, a real juicy purple plum that was used to color the wine. And, I used to gather those, and my grandfather made his own wine for him and his friends. Wine is starting to make a comeback. In Bernalillo we’ve started the Wine Fest, which is in its 10th year. Every Labor Day weekend we get an excess of 25,000 people to Bernalillo for a three-day event. It’s called the Wine Fest . We have a park named The Bernalillo Wine Fest. So everybody’s come back because that was the hub for wine-making. But you have other vineyards sprouting up around Belen, Jémez area—in all that area everybody’s putting in grapevines. It’s an industry that’s coming back.

CA: I guess the other aspect of people’s lives is water. Water is sacred to the people in Rio Grande Valley. Yesterday, June 24th, was theDia of San Juan de las Aguas . People believe that the waters are holy and so, the priests and the community go out and visit the waterways. Some of the communities bathe in the waters.

SS: Can we go back and take a look at the pictures, or refer to the pictures?

CA: Sure. Some of our Native Americans go to the river and there’s community bathing... It is believed that the waters are not only holy, they offer our livelihood.

realaudio(Real Audio 152 Kb)
Without water from the acequias, we wouldn’t have the plants growing. Actually on May 15th, on the feast of San Isidro , who is the patron of farmers, is when the blessing of the water takes place. On June 24th, there are no blessings. There is bathing in the water, but there are no blessings. We believe that San Juan [Saint John], who is believed to have baptized our Lord in the River Jordan, has made all the water that flows through our acequias . . . which as the veins in your body, you know. They take life through, and so the acequias are maintained by systems, mayordomo systems. We have people that are in charge of making sure acequias are clear of weeds and debris and that the water can flow to our lands. So, now, in the smaller communities you have the mayordomo system. In the communities in the mountains, you have water coming from ojos , which are natural springs that come out of the ground. In Bernalillo, we have a system that is run by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is the conservancy district. We don’t have anything to do with managing the ditch, but we are privileged to have an outlet to let water into our lands. And we pay taxes for that so. . .

SS: Do they look like this?

[SS points to sample of acequias built at the Festival]

CA: These are community ditches which are run by the mayordomos and what happens here is that this section is closed off so that people up above can irrigate. And then when they’re finished, when their days of the week are over for irrigating, this is open and they can’t open it again. The wheel is taken off so that the people down further can irrigate. So there’s a system developed by the mayordomo system and sometimes it works well and sometimes. . . . If any of you have been to small communities you know there is a real close-knit community, and you’re related to everybody. Sometimes they try to get away with, "I’m your primo (cousin), let me irrigate. I wasn’t free that day" or whatever. So you have to just be hard-nosed and say "I have no relatives. I’m the mayordomo and everybody’s going to get water. You wait until next week when it’s your turn." So, that’s the way the mayordomo system works, but it is a job for that person. It is something they take very seriousy, because we need the water. There is no way about it.

realaudio(Real Audio 110 Kb)
CA: We depend on snow for good irrigation. If we get snow up in Colorado, in Taos, and the northern part of the state, we are sure to have water for irrigation. If there is no snow in the winter, then we have drought, and we depend on rain. Now, a lot of the people use the irrigation system. There are other people who use temporal, which is a system where you plant and you depend on the Almighty to shower the land. And a lot of people raise beans, in the Instancia Valley. Most of the beans are raised in the Instancia Valley, are raised by Temporal, by rainwater. And so they planted in valleys where there is going to be moisture from the snow melt. And any little rain will hit in those areas, but that is temporal. In the Rio Grande Valley, we don’t have temporal, because the river is there and there is the acequia system.

Visitor: Do they irrigate the acequias for drinking water as well? Do they treat it?

realaudio(Real Audio 184 Kb)
CA: In the mountain areas, the closest to us is Placitas. Their water system comes from a spring that comes out of the ground. With that system, when the water comes out of the ground it’s put into a retaining tank. But Placitas is growing so much now that they’ve had to sink wells everywhere. The system that they had for the old community is not enough to feed all the new homes. But you do have water systems that are a spring coming out of the ground, natural water coming out of the ground. This water here is water that has melted in the mountains from snow and you have the runoff and it gathers at the river. And now, well the Jemez mountains. . .there’s a dam that comes out of the Jemez mountains and water is retained there so that it’s let out a little at a time. Cochiti has a dam, and so water is held so that we can have water throughout the summer. But it goes into one river and it goes down. Now for drinking water we don’t advise that this be used. In fact there is big old concern, there’s some litigation going on by Native tribes. They’re trying to put in their own water standards because they live on the river and they use it for some of their sacred ceremonies; and the waters are used for that. So for us, the communities around there that have a sewer system, we have to have the water so clear that you can actually drink it before it goes back into the village. And it costs these communities a lot of money.

Visitor: How is it treated?

CA: I don’t have that knowledge of the system, but it had to be tested by the state and there has to be so many parts per million before it’s allowed in the river. I’m also mayor of the town that I come from. We’re battling with how are we going to pay for the plant to produce the water that clean. Right now there is a little chlorine and stuff going in the river, but they are concerned about a bird and a fish that eat mosquitos. And they say we’re killing those. They want to maintain those species on the river. And so there’s a lot of litigation, a lot of working with people to work something out so that we can save everything. . . .

* transcript edited for clarity

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