In the original story of El becerro, the old man waits until spring to ask the mayordomo when the widow’s son will be getting water for his fields.
What is a mayordomo? And what does irrigation have to do with the cow in the story?
Irrigation has long been part of life in northern New Mexico. During a good year, enough snow falls in the mountains to fill the streams in the spring. (The picture is of the East Fork of the Jemez River.) These streams carry the water into the farmers in the valleys. The water in the streams is diverted into the ditches or acequias and then flows into the fields of the landowners along the ditch. As Stanley Crawford explains in the preface to his book Mayordomo, landowners whose property is served by the same irrigation ditch or acequia, belong to an association (also called an acequia) which elects a mayordomo, the man who is responsible for the day-to-day management of the ditch.
The mayordomo arranges for ditch maintenance in the stream and allocates the available water to the acequia members. Both the amount of maintenance work expected from and the amount of water allocated to a landowner is proportional to amount of land the individual owns. (In the old communal system that came from Spain, it is the land not the owner which owes work and receives water.)
This system works very well in a wet year. It is more problematical if there has not been enough snow. That is when the mayordomo must be a man who is both diplomatic and trustworthy.
The mayordomo I once knew was a relative newcomer to the upper Rio Grande Valley. He was a civil engineer who worked for the County of Los Alamos who had chosen to live in “the valley” rather than on “the hill.” As a landowner he became a member of the acequia where he was soon elected mayordomo. This, he explained was due to the fact that he was not a local. The two families who owned most of the land along the ditch were engaged in a long-term feud. Neither family wanted a mayordomo who was a member of the other family, so they elected the newcomer who they hoped would be fair to all. They got what they wanted. The civil engineer used Lotus 1-2-3 (yes this was a long time ago) to allocate the water.
A life on an acequia is a life controlled by the schedule of the water. In River of Traps, deBuys and Harris quote their neighbor who chided them: “never to ‘give holiday to the water.’” If a farmer’s water is scheduled for midnight, that farmer is at the water gate, la preseta at midnight.
That was the key to the old man’s plan. He wanted the widow’s son out in the dark, by himself. It was the end of summer, the end of the irrigation season, when the widow’s son refused to pay the debt.
The old man could wait.
There are times when I let this research thing get out of hand. During the first part of August I went to New Mexico just to see if there are still cows in the mountains. (Well – not really. I went for the green chile cheeseburgers at Blakes, but I kept an eye out for the cows!)
The New Mexico Department of Transportation even posted signs to show me where to look! I took this picture along NM 502, near the Valles Caldera National Preserve where there were, indeed cows, grazing for the summer, just like in El beccero.
The Preserve covers almost 90,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains. As its name implies, it encompasses a great bowl of a caldera, formed when a pair of volcanic domes collapsed over a million years ago. The resulting valley is filled with forested hills laced with rich meadows.
Old maps call this area Valle de los Bacas, memorializing a use of the land for communal grazing that began during the late 1700’s. The ranching families who owned the Valle after New Mexico became part of the United States also ran cattle in those meadows during the summer. The Forest Service management of the Valle as a National Preserve still includes a limited grazing program. (All this is covered in Kurt Anschuetz and Thomas Merlan’s More than a Scenic Landscape: Valles Caldera National Preserve Land Use History published by the United States Forest Service in 2007.)
The widow’s calf could well have been grazing in the Valle when she wanted beef. When she sends her son to borrow a calf, she refers to her neighbor as a compadre.
In this story, what does compadre really mean?
The word is often translated as “companion” but there is another meaning, one that sheds more light on the relationship between the neighbors in the story. “Compadre” can also mean either “father of my godchild,” or “my child’s godfather.” (The feminine version of this term is comadre.) The traditional relationship between parents and godparents is one of promises made and obligations met. This is part of what weaves a community together. The neighbor had every reason to “lend” the widow a calf. He also had every reason to expect that she would provide him with an equivalent beast at the end of summer.
Unfortunately the widow died before the cattle returned from the mountains. Worse, her son refused to pay the debt. An awareness of the compadre relationship makes it clear that this is a shocking violation, especially since the villagers of Northern New Mexico usually didn’t own more than a few cows for their personal use. The old man had a problem. He needed that cow, but he didn’t want to make an enemy. As deBuys and Harris observe in River of Traps “Having an enemy in a city or town is no guarantee of excitement…not so in a village.” He had to convince the woman’s son to pay her debt without setting off a lasting feud.
Next up: adding another character to the story (and I won’t go to New Mexico this time)