Acequias: a forgotten history


The Acequia is a communal irrigation ditch, and its continued use is a testament to the cultural resiliency of the New Mexican people. But where does this tradition come from? Sadly, most New Mexicans have a distorted understanding of Acequia history, and credit its creation solely to Moors and Spaniards.

For example, a recent article in National Geographic frames the origins of New Mexican Acequias as follows:

This communal water system traces its roots to the Spanish conquistadors, who brought their traditions to the territory in the 1600s, and who themselves borrowed it from the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century. Indeed, the word acequia (pronounced ‘ah-seh-key-uh,’ stress on the ‘seh’) is an adaptation of the Arabic as-saqiya, meaning water carrier.

But is this really true? Well, as Captain Kirk would say, “But that’s not the way it happened.” In fact, there is way more to the story.

You see, when the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica in 1519, they encountered civilizations that were thousands of years old. These civilizations gave rise to exquisite works of art, philosophies, monolithic architecture, systems of government, schools, libraries, and of course, highly developed systems of agriculture.

One of the hallmarks of Mesoamerican agriculture was a system of irrigation ditches and canals known as Apantli (or Apantle). The Apantli formed a network of irrigation ditches that were fed by the Huey Apantli (“great canal”), which was used to distribute water to individual fields, or milpas. (I should mention that irrigation ditches were in use at this time throughout the Americas, the Hohokam in Arizona built a vast system of irrigation ditches, and the Ancestral Puebloans of New Mexico also had highly developed systems of water governance, for example.) Some communities used the Apantli as part of their name, which was expressed visually in Mesoamerican text by a drawing of the cross section of an irrigation ditch, along with a phonogramic symbol.

Ahuilizapan (Codex Mendoza)
Totolapan (Codex Mendoza)
Acocozpan (Codex Mendoza)
Perhaps the best depiction of the vast network of Apantli that stretched across Mexiko-Tenochtitlan is the Uppsala Map. In this map, we see just how deeply this agricultural technology was ingrained into the social fabric of a Mesoamerican city-state:
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Uppsala Map from the World Digital Library

When the Spanish first saw the Apantli, they were reminded of the irrigation ditches they had seen used by the Moors, which they knew as “Acequia”. The rest, as they say, is history. The Spanish simply chose to refer to the Apantli with a term that was more familiar to them, and an ancient mesoamerican technology was rebranded with an Arabic name.

Don’t believe me? Lets take a look at the entry for “Apantli” in Alonso de Molina’s 1571 Nawatl language dictionary:

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Alonso de Molina, Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana y mexicana y castellana, 1571, part 2, Nahuatl to Spanish, f. 6v. col. 2.

The importance of the Apantli in Mesoamerican agriculture is made abundantly clear in book 6 of the Florentine Codex. This book, which contains the Wewetlahtolli (“ancient word”), relates the moral philosophy which guided the lives of the citizens of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan.

For example:

auh oc cenca iehoatl, xicmocujtlavican in cuemjtl, in apantli, ipan xitlatocan: auh xontlatepeoacan in mjlpan = And especially take care of the ridge, of the ditch. Plant and sow in the field.
Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain; Book 6 — Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy, Pg. 193


cujx vel cuemjtl, apantli = perhaps thou wilt make well the ridges of land, the canals.
Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain; Book 6 — Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy, Pg. 90

Later, the Spanish enlisted thousands of Nawatl speaking Aztecs to colonize New Mexico, and the Aztecs brought this Mesoamerican agricultural technology with them. The introduction of the Apantli system into New Mexico is discussed in the book “Thinking Like a Watershed.”

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Thinking Like a Watershed, Page 162. Juan Estevan Arellano

As noted in the National Geographic article, Acequia culture remains a vibrant and important aspect of New Mexican cultural identity. But sadly, its Mesoamerican origins remain largely ignored. Most historians simply repeat the myth told by National Geographic: the Acequia is purely an old-world invention. Now, the point of this article is not to say that Acequias are solely an invention of Mesoamerica, nor to discount the Moorish and Spanish contributions to Acequia governance. But there already exists a preponderance of information detailing that history.  I simply hope to make the Mesoamerican contributions to Acequia development more well known.

If you scratch just beneath the surface, the Mesoamerican origins of New Mexico’s Acequias become visible. For example, the term Apantle is still used by some in New Mexico to describe parts of the Acequia system. The term Tapanco, a small, temporary dam used to divert streams of water, is also of Mesoamerican origin. It comes from the Nawatl word Tlapantli, which is a “heap” or “pile.” But perhaps my favorite is the term Tequio, a word in the Nawatl language used to describe a traditional, Indigenous system of communal social organization and labor. In New Mexico, this word is used to describe the communal act of cleaning the acequias. However you choose to slice it, acequia communities in New Mexico are as much an extension of Mesoamerican institutions as they are of Arabic and Spanish institutions.

Most Chicanas and Chicanos with roots running deep in New Mexico descend from the Mesoamericans who helped settle this state. And if we take the time to look, we can see the imprint left by our indigenous ancestors all around us. It is in the food we eat, the language we use, the customs we practice, and the agricultural heritage held dear by so many New Mexicans.

It is in us.

We only need to look.


Interested in learning more? Check out my book “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” available on In it, I detail the major influence that the Nawatl language has had on the “Spanish” spoken by Chicanos and Chicanas in the Southwest.

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27067174_10155069830186283_3128871264205765212_n1.jpgKurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica and its connection to New Mexico. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. Kurly lives in New Mexico.

Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa

And instagram: kurlytlapoyawa

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