When neighbor helped neighbor

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I was recently reading Sylvia Rodriguez’s superb book “Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity and Place” (SAR Press, 2006), which describes the history and age-old customs of northern New Mexico’s traditional irrigation practices.

At the heart of the acequia, or ditch system, Rodriguez declares, is the basic principle of “sharing the waters.” That means, whatever the supply or volume available, “no one must go entirely without water as long as there is any at all.”

I had long understood that specifically, but her extended treatment of acequias got me to thinking how sharing, in a general sense, underlies much of the fabric of the old Hispano culture.

In 1936 an elderly Nina Otero recalled how rural New Mexicans in the not too distant past were accustomed to cooperate in farm labor and much else — neighboring communities joining together to share the work load.

One of the annual tasks was the spring cleaning (limpiando) of the acequias to ready them for the new planting season. Persons entitled to a share of the water responded to the summons of the ditch boss (mayordomo)and arrived to participate in the work.

In 1992, I had a conversation with Corina Santistevan at her home about the sharing of work in the farming suburb of Cordillera, west of Ranchos de Taos.

Its farm houses with adjacent fields were located in a line along the one main road. Winter wheat was a major crop well into the 20th century, Corina told me.

I asked whether she had ever seen lines of men at harvest time, bent over and cutting ripe wheat with hand sickles. “No,” she said. “By the time I came along, our grain harvesting was done with a horsedrawn reaper.”

However, in other respects, according to Carina, communal labor in Cordillera remained in favor up to World War II, when it began a steep decline, as many young men were called into service.

The yearly up-grading and repair of acequias in springtime, to allow for allocation of waters, persisted, though as a high point of the work year. And formerly, so was the threshing of grain by the old biblical method.

The circular threshing floor, made of hard packed earth, or even of adobe bricks, was enclosed by a simple fence. The cut grain was thrown upon the threshing floor, so that horses or burros, sheep or goats could trample it, separating the wheat kernels from the chaff.

As Carina reported: “Threshing time was a major annual event. Everyone came together on that occasion, not only to share in getting the job done, but to socialize as well.”

“In the same way,” she added, “women united to help plaster the outer walls of each other’s adobe houses.”

“They would start on one end and plaster down the line of houses in Cordillera. As soon as one coat of mud was on a building, the crew left it to dry and moved to the next. When that had been covered, they would return to the previous house and add the final smooth coat.”

While both men and women were working at their appointed tasks, Corina Santistevan recalled, they chattered constantly. Theirs was mostly “social talk,” gossiping about goings-on in the village, for it made the laboring time pass quickly. Thus, the shared activity became neighborly and friendly and less of a chore.

New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians, being an agricultural people, had their own shared experiences, some of them parallel to those in the Hispano community and others quite distinct.

The late historian Joe Sando of Jemez Pueblo, for example, wrote of “hoeing bees” in their cornfields, when workers moved from one family’s cropland to another, weeding.

He refers also to all the able-bodied men and boys in a pueblo helping to clean the community’s irrigation ditches, in a manner similar to the Hispano practice, but with some differences as well.

In reflecting upon this pattern of sharing, I tried to call up the little saying bandied about some years ago. I think it ran like this, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The idea behind those words is that through shared experience, the framework as well as the essence of a culture is more easily passed on to future generations.