The circuitous path to Max Gutierrez’s grave

Max Gutierrez Sr., 1887-1952

It at some point may become necessary, and valuable, to backtrack and trace the path that led us to Max Gutierrez’s grave last Sunday.

It was my friend Scot who found Max’s grave, which is appropriate because it was Scot who found Max. Scot had already found what he thought might be Max’s house, on Griegos Road in what we now call Albuquerque’s North Valley. A little abandoned irrigation ditch ran behind the house which we might never have spotted if not for Scot’s cheerful obsession with Google maps satellite view.

Scot, who loves to read old newspapers, found Max after I tossed out a question about what farmers were thinking back in the 1920s about the future of agriculture in the Albuquerque valley as the modern institutions of flood control, drainage, and irrigation were being created. In Scot’s reading, Max’s name kept showing up.

We’d already been planning a Sunday bike ride to see Max’s old neighborhood when Scot emailed early Sunday morning to add a stop to our itinerary – Mount Calvary Cemetery in the old Santa Barbara neighborhood, where his sleuthing had unearthed what looked like Max’s grave.

Scot’s research skills are a thing to behold. “This internet has all kinds of stuff,” he said.

“It was said that Ofimiano used a cane”

Albuquerque Morning Journal, Wed. Jan. 15, 1919

The histories of Albuquerque generally barely mention Max, which is a shame. The steady stream of old newspaper clippings Scot has been sending suggest a character worthy of note. Here’s one example, in which Max, a Republican, takes to bed after an affray with his brother Ofimiano, a Democrat, on the occasion of Max’s 1919 Bernalillo County Commission election victory. Ofimiano seems to have been the losing candidate.

You just can’t make up shit this good.

The old 1918 survey maps of the Rio Grande Valley show an alfalfa field behind what we think was Max’s house, and thanks to research by my friend Bob – the third member of what has become Team Max – we know that Max’s occupation was variously listed in old census records as “farmer” and “rancher”, and in addition to his political career he also seems to have served for a time as a sheriff’s deputy.

Alfalfa has long been our dominant crop, and Bob thinks Max was likely running sheep on the mesa’s that flank the Rio Grande Valley here. (There also is some evidence of Max running cattle near Cuba, New Mexico, and of gunplay involving Max’s brother-in-law, and a dog. See above about not being able to make up shit this good. Max is a worthy subject.)

My life in the Time of Pandemic

Max Gutierrez sits at the convergence of two friendships that have been central to my pandemic life. Now nine months in, my world has collapsed onto my own family, especially Lissa; teaching; long bike rides with Scot wandering the valley floor looking at old ditches and feeling the shape of the city; and long talks with Bob, mostly walking around our park or sitting on Bob’s porch, trying to make sense of the history of farming and water and Albuquerque’s urban form.

These things take time. We have time, to slow down and work things out.

“little ditch”

In our bike ride planning emails, Scot had asked me to try to run down the name of the abandoned ditch behind Max’s house on Griegos. My old Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District maps identify it as a piece of the old Barelas Ditch – also known, per the map’s metadata, as “little ditch”. More work on this point is needed, but the 1918 map seems to show it running southeast across the valley floor, across a blanket of irrigated land, turning south through what is now the light industrial/warehouse district a block west of the cemetery where Max is buried.

The story of this ditch may matter. Bob (it’s great to have smart friends with research skills) has found what seems to be evidence that Max at one time owned a number of pieces of property scattered along the general path of the Barelas Ditch.

the Los Chavez riot

To the extent that Albuquerque histories mention Max at all, it is generally in the telling of the story of what the newspapers of the time called “the Los Chavez riot”. It’s a key plot point in our Chinatown/Owens Valley narrative, as Hispanic farmers stood down the heavy equipment of the newly formed Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The district in these tellings represents the push toward modernity, digging new drainage ditches that forever reshaped the old acequia irrigation of the valley. Like Chinatown and the Owens Valley, much of the modern telling has a suspicious ring as the story is pressed into the service of the morality plays imposed on the past by our modern minds. But Max for sure comes off as a heroic character, leading the litigation aimed at stopping the district and trooping down from Albuquerque to Los Chavez the day of the “riot”.

The Albuquerque Journal of June 4, 1930, describes the sweeping extent of the charges leveled against Max and his fellow travelers:

The defendants are charged with conspiracy to alienate the confidence of Indians of the Pueblos from the government as a result of speeches and talks they are alleged to have had with the pueblos of Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Isleta, Sandia, and San Felipe.

There remain questions in our minds about which side had guns the day of the Los Chavez riot. Further research needed.

The Rio Grande and the Making of a Modern American City

Some years ago, when I was invited to write an introductory essay for a water-themed issue of the Natural Resource Journal, I wrote this:

“Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream,” Herman Melville wrote in the opening chapter of Moby Dick. “There is magic in it.” It is always down – simple gravity and fluid mechanics mean water occupies a landscape’s lowest spot. It is also instructive. To learn about a new place, I’ve found, you can always start with its water.

And so I find myself, as I ponder my next book, in conversation with two smart friends about Max and the history of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande.


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