San Luís Peoples Market & Traditional Crops for a Solidarity Economy
Growing a “regional food system” involves the delicate and often difficult coupling of different sub-systems. One familiar coupling in our movement involves the merging of ecological, economic and social subsystems.
A ‘bioregional’ agri-food system recognizes and privileges ecological values, how and why regenerative land and water use practices matter. Soil health is plant, animal and human health. Dirt to gut. And spirit. The rhizosphere and human gut microbiomes are similar and interconnected. Caring for soil means caring for all our relations.
A ‘bioregional’ agri-food system operates through a “solidarity economy” and values local acequia farmers and food artisans through mutual aid, cooperative labor and shared wealth. A solidarity economy focuses our collective action on strategies like no-interest mutual aid revolving loan funds rooted in our own mutualista traditions. A ‘bioregional’ agri-food system recognizes and values diverse social systems and especially the local acequia water democracies that support the totality of the bioregional agri-food system. Without acequias there can be no bolitas (beans), chicos, nixtamal (pozol), chiles, habas (fava beans) or tortillas. There can be no adobe ovens or suertes brimming with heritage food crops. This means preserving and diversifying the heritage landrace crops we grow and wild relatives we forage
in our unique subbasins. This recognizes the distinct place-based Indigenous and diaspora cuisines and culinary practices that have emerged in the Río Arríba over centuries.
The San Luís Peoples Market and Annex is the center of our coupling of the ecological, economic and social systems of the Culebra watershed acequia communities. But before we
get to that story, a bit of a history excursion to set the context of our current work with the San Luís Food Sovereignty Initiative.
It was in April, 2009 that Gov. Ritter signed the historic “Colorado Acequia Recognition” law (HB 09-1233) acknowledging and partially correcting the erasure of acequia law caused by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1882. This structure of settler colonial land and water law disrupted the coupling of the ecological, economic and social systems that had been painfully stabilized in the Upper Río Grande over many generations of conflict and confluence of peoples, classes, races and ethnicities.
One of the most profound long-lasting effects of the La Sierra enclosure (1960-2005) was the transformation of the proven resilient acequia agroecological, economic and social system. Shut out of the common lands for more than two generations, acequia farmers increasingly shifted from diverse polyculture and agropastoral systems to an alfalfa monoculture to survive financially, if not ecologically or culturally.
By the end of the 1980s, the transition was almost total, and Costilla County had become, like so many other acequiahoods, a hay and beef export colony. The cost of this shift was the loss of our own food self-sufficiency and multi-crop farming systems.
Another cost was community health and wellbeing and the loss of our traditional diets and heritage cuisines. Scientific studies suggest the erosion of heritage food systems and culinary traditions is associated with horrifyingly high rates of diabetes (15 percent in our case) and obesity (42 percent) with multiple associated morbidities. We are dying because we no longer follow ancestral foodways or lifeways. And acequia farmers have stopped widely growing healthy crops to feed our families and communities.
It is this challenge—the community health effects of a legacy of settler colonial
violence—that led to the San Luís Food Sovereignty Initiative.
In December 2021, The Acequia Institute (TAI) received $1.6M in grants from The Colorado Health Foundation (TCHF) for the Initiative. We have since received an additional $700,000 in grants and donations of more than $500,000 for a mutual aid revolving loan fund. These substantial financial resources have allowed us to start reviving the local agroecological, economic and social systems that will lead us back toward food sovereignty and improve community health and wellbeing.
To rebuild local economic system assets, in February 2022, TAI purchased the historic R&R Market, which was established in 1857 and is the oldest continuously operated business in Colorado. It was included on the “Most Endangered Places” list by Colorado Preservation and was in danger of closing, which would have made Costilla County a “food desert,” or a casualty of food apartheid, with the closest grocery stores 100- to 130-mile round trips to Alamosa or Taos.
We have made significant investments to modernize and upgrade this historic building which hosts the main facility for the San Luís Peoples Market (SLPM). The entire plumbing and electrical systems have been modernized alongside a smoke and fire alarm system with carbon monoxide detectors. All the mechanical, refrigeration and other equipment (meat department, forklift, etc.) have been replaced with new units.
We matched this facilities asset with the polyculture productive potential of acequia farms including the TAI home farm (Alumnyah de Las Dos Acequias), a 181-acre extension (riparian long-lot) in Viejo San Acacio.
We cannot attain food sovereignty without safe buildings and healthy soil. We are currently starting a major asbestos-lead paint-black mold abatement project at the Main Street Market building with funding from federal and state sources. The Brownfields reclamation problem is present among most of the buildings along Main Street in San Luís. Many northern New Mexico rural townships face the same challenge, itself a legacy of environmental racism that prioritized cleaning the ski resorts and tourist destinations and ignored land-based farming communities.
To revive our agroecological systems, we have established two vital programs: A partnership with the Move Mountains Youth organization is preparing the next generation of youth and young adults to become skilled acequia farmers. The partnership works to share the knowledge of acequia farming methods and practices. As paid interns ($15/hour), our youth are learning to farm in a regenerative mode while providing scarce labor to our acequia farmers who need this support to transition away from the alfalfa monoculture habit into traditional heritage row crops like bolitas, maíz concho, calabacitas, habas, col and all the other brassicas.
The second program is to work with acequia farmers to embrace a multi-crop system that still has alfalfa and livestock but includes these traditional row crops for the community food cooperative we are building at the San Luís Peoples Market.
To encourage and support the social system, TAI and the Market, alongside the farmers in the Milpa-Molino Collaborative, are offering free decolonial cooking and nutrition classes to local youth, SNAP recipients and other community members, and especially the elderly.
The heart of our work to promote the resurgence of the acequia social system is the mutual aid institution. The Acequia Institute’s Revolving Loan program is designed to provide no-interest loans to farmers who deliver traditional crops to the market and food artisans who
use our certified commercial kitchen to produce value-added products from our crops and wildcrafted foods. This is vital to our mission of improving community health outcomes by
investing in the increased capacity of our people to create and keep agricultural wealth in our bioregional community.
A few final words about resilience.
We started this project in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a dreadful impact on us and the entire bioregional community. We weathered the pandemic and moved forward with all the multi-levels of organizing. In June-July of this year, a team of experts we hired found what we had expected all along: They detected asbestos, lead
paint and black mold in the building hosting the San Luís Peoples Market. On July 6 we made the decision to close the market until abatement is completed.
We did not panic or lie down in the face of this new challenge. Instead, we found a new home, a building three blocks away with a certified commercial kitchen and space for
our local foods business incubator and volcanicrock corn mill (molino) operations. The Head Start building was constructed in 2003 (in the post-asbestos and lead paint era) and is now home to the San Luís Peoples Market Annex. Our partners at Rocky Mountain SER (Service, Empowerment, Redevelopment) made this possible by graciously agreeing to a lease.
This new asset is allowing us to continue feeding the communities of San Luís, Costilla, and northern Taos County (Amalia, Costilla). We have hosted three food pantry events since establishing ourselves in the new annex. We held our first “Decolonizing SNAP Nutrition Education” cooking class this past weekend and have five more through the end of September. We started our volcanic rock nixtamal operations and are producing high-value artisan masa harina products and will soon launch the first of our no-interest loans for the local artisans’ foods incubator.
People often talk about the resilience of acequia culture and communities. The way our project managed to flourish despite the conditions of pandemic and the challenges posed by the need for environmental mitigation, which could have made San Luís a food desert, is a testament to the resilience of the acequia way of life. Sin agua no hay vida. Sin tierra no hay paz. Creer es resistir y resistir es crear.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D. is executive project manager of The Acequia
Institute. Linnette Ramirez is director of the Commercial Kitchen and
Molino, San Luís Peoples Market