Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a book I’m writing on managing water as a right of the commons, honoring the women of northern New Mexico who are doing just that.
By KAY MATTEHWS
It’s important to remember that during the many years men had to leave the villages of northern New Mexico to make a living in the mines of Colorado or the factories of California, their wives took care of all the household and outside needs, which were extensive. In those days kitchen gardens provided much of the food consumed by the family, hay fields provided forage for the cows, sheep, and goats that had to be herded and cared for on a daily basis, village molinos ground wheat into flour, and firewood had to be brought in from the common lands to be cut and split. When we moved to El Valle in 1992 a generation of village men who were still involved in this migration had returned home to retire and serve as acequia commissioners and mayordomos. But a sign of the times were the women who filled these official roles as well: Jane Stanley was a commissioner in Vadito for many years; Tanya Leherissey was (and is) the mayordoma in Llano; Esther Garcia of Questa served as a commissioner on the Cabresto Irrigation District as well as mayor of the village; and Carol Miller helped her acequia in Ojo Sarco fight the Forest Service over access rights. I became a commissioner in 2006 and women started showing up to help clean the ditches at the annual spring limpias around that time as well.
In the larger acequia community women have played predominant roles for many years. Paula Garcia became the director of the New Mexico Acequia Association when it was reorganized in the early 1990s and continues in that role today. I served on the NMAA board for several years with Josie Lujan, a member of the Santa Cruz Irrigation District in Chimayó, and Janice Varela of Pecos (now a San Miguel County Commissioner) was the longtime community organizer at the NMAA.
Trudy Valerio Healy, a native Taoseña, is a partner with her husband Ed in the Healy Foundation, which has funded numerous water and acequia projects and advocates, including La Jicarita, for many years. Daughter of Juan Valerio, longtime acequia commissioner in Ranchos de Taos, Trudy also served on the Water Trust Board, a state-appointed committee that approves funding for state sponsored water projects, until the Republican Governor Susana Martinez nudged Trudy, a loyal Democrat, off the board.
Trudy was best friends with Butchie Denver who seemed to be involved in everything: Democratic party politics, government accountability, county land use planning, water and acequia issues, anything and everything that mattered to the citizens of Taos County. Butchie was always there, at all those interminable county commission meetings, all those county planning meetings where volunteer citizens struggled to help the staff come up with a viable land use plan or subdivision regulations.
God knows, Butchie never gave anybody any peace. She’d show up in their office—county commissioner, planner, attorney, town mayor—track them down at home, or confront them in public to express her displeasure when they failed to contribute to the common good. Seeing her in action was like watching a bulldozer in the guise of a southern California surfer girl with her blue eyes, shoulder length blonde hair, and mostly sandaled or bare feet. Which is where she came from, actually: Los Angeles. How she ended up in New Mexico is a long and complicated story that involved being married to the actor Bob Denver back east, but she made it here about 40 years ago and things haven’t been the same since.
Tony Trujillo, Butchie’s partner of 38 years, was the one who characterized Butchie and two of her comadres, Trudy Valerio Healy and Fabi Romero, as Las Brujas. It was Bill Whaley, longtime editor of Horse Fly, the alternative Taos newspaper that addressed all things political, who ran with it over the years as he reported on their doings. Las Brujas first worked their magic on the Taos County Democratic party machine back in the 1990s when the usual suspects ran everything under a patronage system reminiscent of the baddest patrón of them all, Rio Arriba County Emilio Naranjo (progressives in that county were taking Naranjo on at the same time). Las Brujas, along with other progressives in the party, managed to kick them out and install a new chair. They then went after an inept county commission, county manager, and other assorted misfits and actually helped elect a commission that actually did do something for the common good.
I didn’t meet the infamous Butchie until the 2000s when we both began working on the Taos County Regional Water Plan. The New Mexico State Water Plan, promulgated in 2003, divided the state into 16 regions and stipulated that each region would develop its own water plan under the direction of the Interstate Stream Commission. We served together on a subcommittee whose task was to help define what constitutes the “public welfare” when water rights are transferred. The criteria the Office of the State Engineer uses to approve or disapprove proposed water rights transfers are: 1) whether the transfer will impair other water rights; 2) whether the transfer is contrary to the conservation of water; and 3) whether the transfer is consistent with the public welfare. This last criterion has never been defined; that’s what Butchie and I and several others on the steering committee tried to do. When we ran into some obstacles working within the parameters of the Taos Regional Water Plan (as I extensively documented in La Jicarita), we then worked with Taos County to pass its own ordinance setting up a Public Welfare Advisory Committee to review all proposed water transfers within or from Taos County to assess their consistency with the public welfare. I served on that committee along with Tanya Leherissey and Glorianna Atencio, a parciante from Arroyo Hondo. Butchie died on June 25, 2012, not long after being diagnosed with cancer. It came as a shock to all of us, friends and coworkers alike. She always had our backs, and we were unsure how to proceed without her. I knew that at 74, having experienced the many disappointments that any activist acutely feels, she was tired.
There are many others who have worked and continue to work to protect the waters of el norte: Phaedra Greenwood in Arroyo Hondo; Stella Gallegos in Arroyo Seco; Jean Nichols in Llano; Peggy Nelson in San Cristobal; Candace O’Donnell as Taos County Commissioner; attorneys Mary Humphrey and Connie Odé; and others I don’t even know about. To all of them, happy International Women’s Day.