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Poet Olivia Romo sings to the acequias

The irrigation ditches laced throughout the valley provide a conduit for Taos poet to express her individuality

By Teresa Dovalpage
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 6/5/19

The first thing that farmer, poet and water rights activist Olivia Romo wants Tempo readers to know about her is that she is very proud of being a Taoseña."I am truly indebted to my community …

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Books

Poet Olivia Romo sings to the acequias

The irrigation ditches laced throughout the valley provide a conduit for Taos poet to express her individuality

Posted

The first thing that farmer, poet and water rights activist Olivia Romo wants Tempo readers to know about her is that she is very proud of being a Taoseña.

"I am truly indebted to my community and parents who have taught me the literacy of the land, our culture, and to acknowledge our history that has shaped my identity and pathway as a young woman," she said.

Romo holds a dual bachelor's degree in English and Chicana/o Studies from the University of New Mexico and is the communications and outreach coordinator at the New Mexico Acequia Association.

"The most significant part of my job is to work with our people and in the most sacred and remote parts of our state," she said in Spanish. (She switches easily and gracefully between the languages.) "Our way of life here in New Mexico is at risk and through my job I feel confident I am helping our traditional people stay on the land and have the tools to continue managing their acequias."

Romo was the New Mexico State Slam Poetry Champion in 2011 and was recently featured in "Work Songs of the Cowboy Poets" in The New York Times.

"It was a huge honor to be recognized among critically acclaimed land-based poets and musicians who have a strong presence in the National Cowboy Poetry scene," she said. "It is humbling to know that I am trusted to represent New Mexico and share our stories. I can only hope to pay homage and uplift our experiences as New Mexicans. Put us on the map!"

You can find a copy of Romo's Spoken Word CD "Raíces" at SOMOS or contact her at poetadelatierra8@gmail.com. You can also check out her poem "Bendición del agua" at westernfolklife.org/benedicion-del-agua.

When did you know you were a poet?

My mom, who was a schoolteacher, always encouraged me to write and express myself through song, theater and writing short stories. She is my biggest champion and has my heart! However, it wasn't until high school when I was a student of [Taos High School teacher] Anne MacNaughton when I actually began to identify as a poet. The slam poetry movement gave me a platform to tell my story to gain confidence in my voice.

This confidence is reflected in your poetry. Can you share what inspires you?

Of course, my surroundings, my community and the history. Every place I travel in New Mexico I find crazy characters and juicy stories. I don't need to go looking far. One of my mentors as a young high school student, Francis Hahn, told me, "Olivia, write what you know." I did and look how far it has taken me. Some may call me a "regional poet" but I can communicate global, political and archetypal issues through my work and enter dialogues with other artists and activists fluidly.

"Agua es vida.""Agua es comunidad." How do you relate to these statements?

The acequia system is based on community participation and strength. We are probably one of the last peoples in the United States that still govern communally, have local autonomy over our water and an enduring tradition of sharing this scarce resource. We are one with water and place. I use my poetry to demonstrate the symbiotic relationship we have as traditional people with land, water and one another in order to survive. Poetry, music and powerful cinematography can move hearts, restore querencia and educate people about the changes we are experiencing. Water is community, water is life, water is poetry in action. Art is one of the most powerful ways to communicate the problems we face and to celebrate the resilience of the people.

You are a poet, activist and have a full-time job. How do you find the right balance between work and art?

Con el poder de Dios pido cada día la fuerza para trabajar, escribir y prestar servicio a mi comunidad. (With the power of God I ask each day for strength to work, write and serve my community.) I can't do it all and I find myself struggling every day to find time to write, go months without writing or have to turn away opportunities or projects. But I just pray that God gives me the right words so that when I do sit at my desk or am out in these beautiful acequia communities even just 20 minutes will give me a strong poem.

How does magical realism inform your work in both poetry and films?

I am a believer in the powerful spirit, energy and magic of this place and our people. We need to be creative in solving modern-day problems and some of my stories demonstrate miracles asking advice from the animals and divine intervention. One new poem I have written titled "Roadrunner, The Chosen Prophet" talks about a magical journey the bird takes to deliver a message to some cowboys out in the desert, ultimately changing history. Magical realism turns the common person into a superhero, the desert animal [into] a prophet or engineer and the natural elements [into] characters with human qualities, which I think, are more realistic than we want to believe.

The manito dialect and culture of Northern New Mexico is a key element in your work. How do you define it, for those who aren't familiar with the term?

The term manitos is one of endearment and kinship and derives from the Spanish word hermano, "brother" or "sibling," inclusive of both brother and sister. It was given by Mexican immigrants to the Indo-Hispano populations of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado as they worked mano a mano, side by side, as sharecroppers. It is a term of identity of those who survived in the mountains and valleys before this territory was Mexico or America. The term mano, hand, celebrates the hands that constructed the plazas, moradas, acequias and turned the earth with pride of their mixed blood regardless of the government, flags and national pressures. The manitos/-as of New Mexico are those who are thriving in the high desert despite the changes of the generations. They are my people.

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