The Multi-Layered History of Acequias in the West
By ROBERTO LOVATO
This sidebar is a supplement to Acequias and the Hydraulic Genius of Shari’ah Law
Acequias arrived with the legendary (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) expeditions to New Mexico and Colorado led by the best-known conquistadors: Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, Juan de Oñate, and Diego de Vargas—all native-born Spaniards. Less commonly known is the fact that these conquistadors who brought acequias to the southwestern U.S. region were most often minorities in expeditionary armies. Their fighters were mostly mestizos (mixed race) and, especially Mesoamerican, Tarascan, and other indigenous peoples from what is now Mexico.
Similarly, most of the craftsmen doing the manual and artistic labor of the colonization were Texcocano, Tarasco, Tlaxcaltec, and other indigenous speakers of Nahuatl and Purépecha—the language of José Avila’s people in present-day Michoacán, Mexico.
Eventually, the languages and ethnic boundaries between these different peoples were slowly erased, or subsumed, by the advent of words like “indio” (Indian) and “mestizo” (mixed race). Nonetheless, traces of these cultures remain in the ancient acequia systems these people built, cleaned, and managed—and in the language acequia managers use today.
The name of the oldest European neighborhood in the United States, Analco, is an example. The name of this Santa Fe neighborhood comes from the Nahuatl language, spoken by Tlaxcaltec people, and means “on the other side of the river.” Tlaxcaltecs were among the most important guildsmen involved in the construction and maintenance of the acequias of New Mexico and Colorado. And, like José Avila, they brought with them the knowledge of farming, agriculture, and, especially, the water wisdom of the great civilizations of the southern regions that built Tenochtitlan, Michoacán, and other regions. Tenochtitlan, for example, was built on water, and was larger than London or Paris in the 15th and 16th centuries.