“It is a memory of a certain landscape that invades my dreams, tortures me when I’m awake, knowing that in a generation or two this landscape will be a thing of the past.”
– Juan Estevan Arellano, Enduring Acequias
Kudos to University of New Mexico Press for its timely publication of Juan Estevan Arellano’s amazingly intricate Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water released this year.
With the recent passing of Arellano, Northern New Mexico has lost one of its champions, as well as a native son who made his life about his ancestral home, dedicating himself to preserving the dwindling knowledge of place in a world where localized knowledge has been devalued to the point of quaint myth and folklore.
The Embudo Valley, south of Taos and north of Santa Fe has been home to the Arellano’s for generations and his family’s plot across the highway from the Rio Grande has served as teacher, muse, and companion for Estevan.
In his own words, Arellano says, “I was born into a family that always lived off the land and we have continued that tradition with the creation of our own experimental space in a harsh high-desert environment, a combination experimental farm and recreational site that I call my “almunyah,” from the classical Arabic word meaning desire.”
A major player of the 70’s Chicano movement of New Mexico, Arellano was part of a generation that set out to put down the unique record of their place among the annals of time, their journey oftentimes leading them along the Camino Real to the capital of Mexico, and from there back to Spain, South America and the Middle East.
For Arellano, decades of research into genealogy, land rights, Southwest history, and a plethora of other subject led him, in roundabout fashion, back to his family’s plot and its acequia, the open-air water canals common throughout the arid world.
It’s the acequia and its particular gravity-flow technology that bears the imprint of an intimate knowledge of land, going back to the development of agriculture, and including cultures from the Indus Valley to the high Andes, the Middle East to Europe, and from there to Mexico City.
It’s the acequia that gave voice to the almunyah of Estevan, bringing together all the disparate cultures that’ve left their fingerprints on it.
In Enduring Acequias, he tells us of his own acequia, the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga, “But la junta also has a different meaning, the gathering or coming together, the same as an embudo is also a funnel, where everything is gathered before it embarks on its journey; in a sense embudo and junta are one and the same, for before water goes through a funnel it has to come together. It is here that I have come to learn the secrets of the ancient acequias, but especially one, the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga, or the “ditch of the juncture and marshland,” which quenches the thirst of my land, my plants, my trees, my animals, and my family.”
Juan Estevan Arellano and I are distantly related through my grandmother on my father’s side – 5th or 6th cousins, or so – a fact I’d found out through a more closely related Arellano, my cousin Anselmo from Las Vegas, formerly of Highlands University, who I have to thank for preserving the family’s genealogy and presenting us pochos from California with a richly detailed family tree and clear picture of our past relative’s deeds.
About twelve years ago, when I first came to New Mexico from California, I landed in Dixon, a couple of miles up the road from Estevan’s. I’d read some of his writing and was very impressed, but had no idea of the scope or prominence. In the following year I got to know his amazing wife Elena and his sons and daughter. The Arellano’s invited me to their table and treated me as the long, lost relative, and I will always remember sitting in their warm and inviting home one Christmas eve many moons ago, eating Elena’s amazing tamales and picking Estevan’s brain for facts and information.
Back then I got the intimate sense of querencia – of place, what the French call terroir and the Argentines call terruño that Arellano felt. In Enduring Acequias, Arellano says querencia is, “that sense of place defined by the texture of biting into a recently plucked green chile, the smell of tortillas cooking over a piñon fire on my grandmother’s old wooden stove, the color of a ripe tomato waiting to be sliced.”
In the book he also recounts the Arellano genealogy, laying out the dizzying mix scholarly work has revealed of the original settler’s “Spanish” blood, now known to contain that of Jewish, Arabic and Basque from the old world, mixed with native Pueblo, Apache, Navajo and Comanche. The resulting mix – much like the acequia – is a completely unique part of history that now faces some of the most drastic changes in the landscape since Spanish arrival in the sixteenth century.
Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini writes in his book Slow Food Revolution, “An environmentalist who is not a gastronomist is sad; a gastronomist who is not an environmentalist is silly.” Through the body of his work, Arellano has effectively bridged the worlds of food and research, fusing his epicurean side with his environmental one in a life-long journey that is meant to explicate the uniqueness of place.
That place – the upper Rio Grande bioregion – has been the landscape in which dreams and reality, past and present have come together for Arellano in a complex and personal mix that carry the voices of all its living things.
It’s been the journey of a lifetime, Estevan himself saying this about it, “It’s my family’s odyssey, but more than that it’s a person’s journey in search of querencia, of breathing and living querencia, of defining querencia, both with words and with pick and shovel, with poetry and by planting trees.”
Juan Estevan Arellano leaves us with his thoughts about this place, its uniqueness and its place in the world, or rather; the place speaks through him about querencia, speaking all the time to anyone who’ll listen.
Coincidentally, the TCEDC will be dedicating a series of events this week to commemorate Estevan, which I’ve posted below, as well as the menu from their Fundraising dinner featuring Chef Loretta Barret Oden. All these events will give one a sense of the querencia of this place.
Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.