Back From the Grave
Mexic-Arte Explores Guerrero Viejo
The reservoir filled in three weeks. Beatriz de la Garza remembers her grandmother Zoila, who swore she would never leave the city where she'd spent her whole life, being rescued by relatives as the water lapped at her kitchen door. Plans for orderly evacuation were replaced by the more realistic option of fleeing for dear life, households be damned. Water quickly engulfed the town's exquisite plazas, public buildings and flat-roofed houses, and the residents of Guerrero Viejo joined the 20th Century by learning one of its bitterest lessons: displacement.
Thirty years later it was the reservoir's turn to retreat, beaten back by persistent drought. The half to two-thirds of the town that had been underwater became accessible to historians and photographers, a treasure trove of Spanish Colonial structures even in its ruined state. And a little over a decade after that, Beatriz de la Garza, now an attorney and writer best known for her stormy tenure as president of Austin's school board, is walking through Mexic-Arte Museum looking at Richard Payne's beautiful black-and-white photographs of the town where she spent her early childhood. She pauses before one of them: It shows the ruins of the elementary school she attended, still largely intact. Visibly moved, she explains that she had forgotten how large and beautiful the building was, but it's obvious that words are not equal to the emotion the picture has called up.
Guerrero Viejo: Así Es lets the old town speak for itself by way of several dozen photographs, about half in color and half in black-and-white, along with a few sundry installation pieces, notably a collage of aerial photos that offers a bird's eye view of the area's inundation. While the color photos, by Eugene George, Sandra Jasso Ramirez, Marcos Chavez Rojas, Marcos Rodriguez Leija, and others, and the aerial collage, by Toby Topek, are full of fascinating details and perspectives, the exhibit turns on the black-and-white series by Houston architect-photographer Richard Payne. He shoots with an eye for the site's lonely grandeur as well as key design elements, arranging soft contrasts of shadow and stone to suggest time echoing all over the place. Given a less evocative set of ruins, the effect of so many luscious grays might have been hokey. Guerrero Viejo being what it is, the pictures glow with feeling for the old New World, seductive and eerie. If I were a ruin, this is how I'd want to be photographed.
For all the eloquence of the photography, the exhibit can be faulted for not providing a narrative to go with it. Undoubtedly due to limited funds, the absence of a text nurtures the suspicion that you are viewing the evidence of a crime without confirming it. The suspicion is well founded. Guerrero Viejo does have a significance beyond its sheer physical beauty - though that should be enough: It was worth saving, and the men who covered it with water were blinded by self-interest.
Originally called Revilla and renamed in 1827 after a hero of Mexico's war for independence, Guerrero Viejo was situated where the Salado flowed into the Rio Grande, about 60 miles downriver from Laredo. It thrived from the cattle industry and the Lower Rio Grande's connections to the Santa Fe Trail. The short-lived breakaway Republic of the Rio Grande was proclaimed there, the first steamboat on the Rio Grande stopped there, and its status as a duty-free zone made it a favorite of smugglers. By the turn of the century, Guerrero was home to 20,000 souls, give or take a few thousand, and it went on thriving for a while even after 1885, when the railroad bypassed it in favor of El Paso. But the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 drove thousands of people across the river to the United States, and the population had dwindled to 5,000 when the city had its bicentennial in 1950. Beatriz de la Garza remembers the foot-thick stone walls that protected them from the sun, the pleasure of sleeping canvas cots in the courtyard in the summer, and above all the orderly routine of life there. Time never seemed to race along until her family moved to Laredo.
A political deal lurks behind nearly every big water project. Gus Garcia, whose career on the Austin City Council rarely gives full rein to his passion for history, remembers the machinations that destroyed the town where five generations of his family lived.
"The Bentsens owned a lot of land downriver, and they needed irrigation and flood control." Which is saying a mouthful, for Lloyd Bentsen, Sr., was a powerhouse of the Rio Grande Valley, and getting the appropriation approved for the Falcon Dam was one of Lloyd, Jr.'s most pressing tasks as a freshman in the House of Representatives in the Forties. Landowners had agitated for a dam since the early Twenties; with the help of cronies Lyndon Johnson and John Connally, Lloyd, Jr., got the project off the blocks with impressive dispatch, especially considering that it required a cooperative effort between the governments of Mexico and the United States. The ranching interests reaped an irrigation bonanza from the dam, over a million acre-feet of usable water.
"Look here," Garcia says, pointing to a photo of Guerrero's church, reminiscent of and much more impressive than the Alamo. "You can see the waterline. If they had lowered the water table 20 feet it never would have gotten to Guerrero.
"The people who lived there did not know how to fight the project. To have destroyed this town was a goddamn sin."
Garcia has been instrumental in creating a non-profit foundation, Los Amigos de Guerrero Viejo, that will raise funds for maintaining the city as a historical site with an eye towards eventually restoring it. Los Caminos del Rio, a binational, public-private partnership devoted to preserving the cultural heritage of the lower Rio Grande, has made Guerrero one of its top priorities, and the Mexican government's historical commission, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historica, is working on a federal initiative to protect the townsite, a crucial step since vandals are slowly carting away the stones that make the ruins.
Guerrero has found a passionate advocate in Laurie Mann-Gauthier, a University of Houston graduate student in architecture who organized the MexicArte exhibit - it debuted in Laredo and will move on to San Antonio, Houston, and Monterrey - and is putting together a book of photographs by Richard Payne and former UT architecture professor Eugene George.
George's interest in the city goes back to the mid-Thirties, when he encountered the area on a boating trip up the Rio Grande, and he wrote his first proposal for study of Guerrero back in 1952. Once the lead architect on the Colonial Williamsburg project in Virginia, he is now in his early 70s and is revising a book he wrote on the architecture of the Lower Rio Grande, with emphasis on the importance of Guerrero Viejo.
"As an international historical project, this city has real potential," he says. "I mean, it's come back from the grave. I was at Colonial Williamsburg when they were 50 years into the project. Guerrero has that kind of potential, but you can't just go in there and grind out a Disney project. It's going to take a lot of in-depth scholarship on both sides. As far as the New World is concerned, it's almost on the order of Pompeii." n Guerrero Viejo, Así Esis on view through August 26 at Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress.