Wisdom of the Mayordomo

Santafe.com | - April 3, 2013

"The view of water as a community resource has never swayed from the acequia tradition, and it is this concept of the repartimiento, largely implemented by the mayordomo, which has sustained acequias for generations"

Acequia irrigation in northern New Mexico

New Mexico’s acequias, the centuries-old irrigation ditches that traverse our agricultural valleys, have long proved to be a sustainable water management system. Even during periods of drought they have remained resilient throughout their history because acequias operate in such a way that fulfills the common good. It’s based on a practice referred to as repartimiento, which signifies the water-sharing customs of the acequia tradition, ensuring a fair distribution of irrigation water for all parciantes, or acequia members, during times of abundance and sacrifice alike.

Water allocation during drought differs from acequia to acequia, with each community tailoring its methods to meet its needs based on community dynamics and the physical geographic characteristics of its watershed and irrigated lands. But consistent among all acequias is that the mayordomo is charged with a demanding job, which becomes even more challenging during drought. The mayordomo plays an esteemed role in the acequia and has traditionally been a highly revered community member. He or she displays a distinguished knowledge of their acequia and its surrounding community. From the watershed that nurtures the course of the stream that eventually reaches the acequia diversion, to the last parcel of land irrigated by the acequia, it’s often the mayordomo’s mental map of his or her acequia’s intricacies that surpass the community knowledge of most others on the acequia.

Put simply, the mayordomo is the “ditch boss” who works to ensure equitable water distribution, and makes him/herself available to address issues that come up throughout the growing season, as well as observing the activities of the surrounding environment during the off-season, such as snowpack, beaver dams, etc. It’s a year-round commitment and it’s often unpaid.

Additionally, given the increase in demand for water, some acequia communities have had to adapt to minor changes in the way they allocate water during shortages, making the duties of the mayordomo even more challenging. For example, La Mesilla Community Ditch in Río Arriba County once flowed through a much more rural setting, with only 17 families in the 1950s. Now the acequia runs through an underground pipe and serves roughly 2,000 families in the community, including many newcomers. The population growth has resulted in fragmented land parcels and an increase in the number of land-owning parciantes, making water allocation somewhat more complicated.

Yet nowadays, acequias have had to address the fact that many of them have aging mayordomos, coupled with the lack of younger parciantes willing to fill that vital role in their community. The New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) has many years of experience working with communities throughout the state, and because the mayordomo has a special role in the acequia, the NMAA believed it was vital to contribute resources to address this concern.

New Mexico Acequia Association Mayordomo Project tour

In 2008, the NMAA partnered with the University of New Mexico’s Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies to establish the Mayordomo Project. It is a participatory community-based approach to addressing what the NMAA calls the “Mayordomo Crisis.” Through this effort, the NMAA has established a mentorship program that fosters the transmission of local knowledge to the next generation of mayordomos. Additionally, the NMAA has developed educational materials to assist in the training process, including a short film and a companion field guide.

The project has evolved through its different stages of development, but has maintained its focus on the mentorship model. In its initial stages, the project team interviewed a number of mayordomos in different communities throughout northern New Mexico, gathering valuable insight that guided the development of a mayordomía methodology, including the duties and knowledge of mayordomos. For the past couple of years, the project team has followed and documented the trials of Juanita Revak as she shadowed her father, Gilbert Sandoval, a longtime mayordomo, to succeed him as the next mayordoma of their acequia in Jémez Springs. The team also documented and interviewed other mayordomos in the field in a number of different acequia communities, including La Mesilla, Cuarteles and El Guique.

Mayordomo Gilbert Sandoval

Using video footage gathered in the field, the team developed "The Art of Mayordomía," an educational film, which will be released soon, along with the "Mayordomo Handbook & Field Guide," an in-depth companion guide to the film that illustrates the method of mayordomía, developed through the information extracted from the interviews, as well as from specific knowledge contributed by Sandoval and Kenny Salazar of La Mesilla.

We have now entered a new phase of the Mayordomo Project in which we have recruited the next cohort of mayordomo interns and mentors. They will be integrated into NMAA’s Escuelita de las Acequias leadership development program, which is intended to foster a community-based learning process that affirms traditional acequia knowledge while also cultivating leadership for the future. Our new round of interns will have the opportunity to share their knowledge and take part in the mentorship process to pass on the tradition of mayordomía in their community. This is a living, fluid project, and to further this endeavor, this year the NMAA will host mayordomo workshops, widely distribute the "Mayordomo Handbook & Field Guide" to acequia communities, provide support to interns and mentors and  continue to develop the best approach to documenting the activities related to mayordomía.

The contribution of mayordomos to their acequias—their wisdom, local knowledge and self-sacrifice—have undoubtedly contributed to the resiliency of acequias, which are based upon the principle that everyone shares in times of abundance and in times of drought. Water shortages can be a challenging hardship for parciantes, as has been evidenced in recent years, but acequias have a long history and a good track record for managing water in a fair and sustainable way. And although some acequias have had to adapt to new methods of water allocation during drought, they are still rooted in the idea of equally sharing this vital and sacred resource.The view of water as a community resource has never swayed from the acequia tradition, and it is this concept of the repartimiento, largely implemented by the mayordomo, which has sustained acequias for generations. 

Quita Ortiz is the New Mexico Acequia Association’s project specialist. quita@lasacequias.org