WATCH: Acequia Communities Adjust Centuries-Old Water Traditions Under COVID-19

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May 29, 2020

With social distancing orders in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in New Mexico, acequia communities have modified springtime traditions — like convening to clean the irrigation canals and blessing the waters passing onto fields, gardens, and orchards — that have endured for centuries.  

In mid-May, instead of gathering for blessings, tossing flower petals into the waters and singing alabanzas, people had to watch online ceremonies to honor San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers and workers. (New Mexicans will also see his name spelled San Ysidro.) 

“On May 15, it’s customary and traditional to ask for a blessing from San Isidro, to bless our crops and our acequias, our fields, in hope of a good harvest,” says Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “The story of San Isidro goes that he was such a faithful servant of God, and he would attend mass even if he had a lot of work to do on his garden.” 

San Isidro is a role model for the faithful, she says.  

“Most often you’re tempted to skip prayer and mass because you have so much work to do in the spring,” Garcia says. “The story goes that he was so faithful that angels showed up to work in his fields.” 

Even if he isn’t the patron saint of the local Catholic parish, Garcia says agricultural communities will ceremonially bless fields or waters in his name. There are often large processions and masses, including in the South Valley of Albuquerque.  

This year, the annual San Isidro Day celebration in the South Valley was livestreamed via Facebook. And the New Mexico Acequia Association convened its own Día de San Isidro, complete with musicians singing the traditional alabanza, or praise, and elders offering “wise words and a blessing,” via Zoom. 

“We tried to make it more of a storytelling session and to keep the tradition alive; even if it’s virtual, in the hope that by next year we can resume the tradition,” says Garcia. 

Acequia communities are often held up as symbols of resilience in New Mexico. Or, Garcia says they are criticized for “clinging to this way of staying attached to the land, or growing food even when it’s not practical or competitive.” 

Now, people may be positioning themselves within a different reality. “Even though it’s painful to be in this moment of economic downturn, with the fear of the pandemic, this is a time of deep reflection,” she says. 

“With the pandemic and renewed focus and attention on the local food systems, I think that there’s a broader awareness [of how] important it is to keep our farmland intact and not developed over, and [how] important it is to keep water in agriculture because growing food is important—and not just from a cultural standpoint,” Garcia says. 


This story is part of a collaboration with New Mexico PBS through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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