Going Home Homeless

Going Home Homeless

I grew up in a small Spanish settlement community established in the 1600s at the south end of Taos in northern New Mexico known as Llano Quemado. Llano Quemado is part of the La Merced de San Cristóbal de La Serna Land Grant The maternal side of my family settled there in the 1800s. The Mondragones were a small farming people whose culture was imbedded in the agrarian traditions of the region. Some of my fondest memories are of my childhood growing up around my grandparents, family, relatives and neighbors. It was a tight-knit family structure that revolved around the basic chores of tending the land, harvesting the crops, and maintaining our religious and spiritual traditions. After graduating from high school, I worked for ten years at various jobs and then I began my undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico.  My undergrad application letter of intent to the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning Admission Committee read as follows:

My childhood experiences, plastering mud onto the hornos and making adobes with my grandmother gave me the foundation for building. Adobe construction created my family home from the dirt that I sifted, the straw that I shredded, the water that I mixed, and the brick that I formed. Old traditions and a vision for future environmental development inspire me to become an architect.

I eventually earned my undergraduate degree in Architecture in 2009 and graduated with a  Masters in Architecture in the spring of 2011. During my last semester in school I worked on an Independent Study project with School of Architecture and Planning Research Scholar Levi Romero, as part of UNM Taos’ Instituto de Agua y Cultura program’s oral history and documentation study of acequias and the upper Rio Grande watershed.

I approached the Independent Study project with checklists, timelines, and an academic attitude forged from my years as a student of architecture. Hoping to figure out where I was going to begin with this study, I Googled “Llano Quemado + Acequia” and to my surprise the result came back with a video on You Tube, “Cleaning La Acequia Francisco de Martinez.” It was a video post by the Taos News from 2007. La Acequia de Francisco Martinez is the ditch that serves my family’s property, and the mayordomo of the ditch in the video is my Tio Juan. The video was a shocking surprise!

After 15 years living away from Llano, studying the world’s architecture, contemporary building design methodologies and developing skills to analyze the built environment, I was now immersed in documenting the history, people and cultural traditions of my own village. Maps, surveys and other data were being offered to me by my relatives from their own collections. The surveys included information on various acequias with names that were as historically and geographically significant as they were poetic: La Acequia de Abajo, La Acequia de La Loma, Acequia del Medio, La Acequia Madre, Acequia Lucero, and, of course, la Acequia del Finado Francisco Martinez.

I felt confident in my research and oral history work. But as I delved deeper into my project, I found that the Llano I had left behind was no longer what I remembered and that the study of the acequias was taking me far below the surface of graphs and charts portraying the land that had sustained my family for centuries. My independent study filled me with unexpected emotions that came with each encounter that I had with a long, lost relative.  My Tio Jimmy gave me a DVD with footage of my family from 1962 that I did not know existed. The video stirred up so many emotions- sadness, laughter, tears, and excitement. I viewed my relatives in their younger days, many whom I have not seen in years, others who have already passed away, and some whom I never met! It was so wonderful to see the young with the old, all together, celebrating como familia. A segment of the video recorded a performance by the Comanche Danzantes of Llano Quemado. My uncles were all Comanche dancers. Most of them had moved away but returned each year to dance for the annual New Year’s festivities. I was frightened the first time I saw the Comanches perform at my great-grandmother’s house. To rid me of my fear, I was invited to participate. It was then I shed my fear for the masked and feathered dancers and became an honorary little Comanchita.

With such a visual recollection of my family and village life, and with each visit that my field work undertook, I began to have a sense of longing for a time and place that had been reconfigured over the years. I had returned as an educated woman lacking the skills to survive in the world of my ancestors. I began to feel like I was going home homeless. In contrast to the videos and my childhood memories, much of Llano’s farmland had been deserted. People had died and their homes stood vacant. I walked through the Llano of my childhood and along the acequia and ditch banks where my cousins and I had played through every summer. Several years ago my mother photographed the interior of a neighbor’s house that had been left abandoned when the owners moved away. My mom shared those photos with me. Nothing had been removed or salvaged. The furnishings and signs of daily life remained as if the occupants had only left momentarily. From the pictures, I remembered the house and went to see if it was still there. The only remnants of the house were the crumbled walls and collapsed roof structure.

I went to visit my grandmother’s house. She no longer lives there. My own grandmother’s house, with signs of her last activities before she was placed in a living center for Alzheimer’s patients, jolted me. I felt nervous and ashamed for entering her home. Everything was exactly as she had left it, her slippers by the door, palitos by the fireplace, her Sunday dress hanging on the door. I was experiencing what my mother had captured in her photographs of the abandoned neighbor’s house. But this time it was my grandmother’s home. My memories of chicos drying under her portal and the stories I had heard depicting traditional family life now withered like dried corn husks. I stood in her living room, numb and wordless, without a language to express my grief.

As a child, I spent most of my time at my grandmother’s. It was she who taught me how to survive. From her I learned where to find and pick poulaloo (red plums), garambullos (goose berries), manzanas, abarcoque, sour cherries, chokecherries, plums, pinon and the list goes on. I learned how to pick corn, hang it to dry on the portal, and roast it in the horno to make chicos to be dried and stored. I learned how to make frijoles, tortillas, buñuelos, bischochitos, and café in the stovetop percolator. She taught me how to set and clear the table. I knew how to reconfigure the seating arrangements and expand the table if more people stopped by to eat. I knew to put the food scraps in the bucket under the sink to feed the pigs later. I knew to rinse and save any cans or food containers for reuse. The only way I knew was the sustainable way. We seldom went to the grocery store and went to TG+Y even less frequently. We lived with the bare minimum but had an abundance of wealth. We were healthy— we walked, we talked, we read, we made, we lived.

As I continued to work on my acequia documentation, I found more and more abandoned houses with roofs collapsed, adobes crumbled, personal belongings left behind. In Llano, outsiders are not welcomed and there has been a generation shift to a metropolitan lifestyle. Those that do move in fill the orchards and fields with cheap construction and satellite dishes. Those that stay behind, stay behind. They get their high school education, set up a trailer next to mom’s house, and are somewhat content with living the simple life. The simple life is not wrong. The problem is Llano does not accept any kind of change — and maybe certain types of change are needed to survive.

My study of La Acequia del Finado Francisco Martinez has brought me back home. It has taught me that it is I who is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of traditions. I want to teach my children how to grow corn, roast chicos, play in the mud, and watch the sky move over the mountains, annotating the importance of agriculture and nature. I want them to grow up surrounded by family so that I may grow old, unforgotten and without an absent mind. I want to share this with future generations so that Llano Quemado may thrive in its rich history and culture and be a place of nurturing and sustenance. The history and endurance of my community, and others like it, relies on the acequias. The acequia is a community reflection of strength, diversity, and cooperation that attributes the qualities desired for a good life. “Sin agua, no hay vida.”

Long live La Acequia del Finado Francisco Martinez de Llano Quemado!



Video originally posted at newmexicomercury.com.


Cover photo by Cisco Velarde, www.ciscovelardephotography.com.