Week-end Book Review: Juan the Bear and the Water of Life / La Acequia de Juan del Oso

Enrique R. Lamadrid and Juan Estevan Arellano, illustrated by Amy Córdova,
Juan the Bear and the Water of Life / La Acequia de Juan del Oso
University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

Ages: 7+

The 19th century waterways that irrigate the Upper Mora Valley in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains are a marvel of engineering to this day. In places, the water seems to defy gravity, and no one is quite sure how the people who built them—lacking tools as basic as a metal-bladed shovel—accomplished it. Though the history of their construction is lost, stories about the dedicated pioneers who built them have evolved, through oral tradition, into regional legends presented here in picture-book form.

La Acequia de Juan del Oso comes from the story of “The Three Juanes”: the remarkably strong Juan del Oso, son of a local woman and a bear; Juan Mudacerros, who moves mountains; and Juan Mudarríos, who can change the course of rivers. Folklorists Enrique R. Lamadrid and Juan Estevan Arellano recognize similar characters in Spanish tradition, from which the acequia technology of the American Southwest is also derived. The super-human young men, all of them exiled from their communities as a result of unintentionally misusing their special strengths and powers, work together as only they can to bring the water up and over the mountain. Amy Córdova’s rich and colorful illustrations bring the landscape and characters to life in this story that is not only about the reward of hard work but also the pain of exclusion and the value of community.

The authors skillfully incorporate what is known about the building of the canals (such as rudimentary tools, including a half-empty brandy bottle used as a level) with the legend of the boy whose mother married a bear but is forced to return home. When an innocent swipe seriously injures another child, the half-bear Juan flees to the woods where he finds his welcoming father and the other legendary Juanes. Together they accomplish the work that enables the expanding village population to inhabit a valley on the other side of the mountain. This book brings both the folktale and the limited known history of the acequia together in a way that celebrates not only the past and the legends but also the people who live in the Mora Valley today who continue to make a beautiful life in this stark, arid, and high-altitude environment.

Abigail Sawyer
May 2012

One Response to “Week-end Book Review: Juan the Bear and the Water of Life / La Acequia de Juan del Oso”

  1. PragmaticMom Says:

    Fables to explain an engineering feat really gets the imagination going. Kids will love this, I’m sure. Thanks for the post!