Culture / Travel

Ambitious Mexico and U.S. Joint Lake Project Endangered by Trump’s Wall: Life in the Arty South Texas Border Towns

BY Mary Margaret Hansen // 05.07.17
photography Mary Margaret Hansen

Houston artist, activist, and blogger Mary Margaret Hansen reports for PaperCity from on the road to a country on everyone’s mind — Mexico. With partner and fellow artist Earl Staley, the pair set out on a South Texas border adventure. This is part two of their series as they head deeper along the Rio Grande.

From Laredo, we headed eastward to San Ygnacio, a quiet little town built high on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. Descendants of families who founded this ranching outpost in 1830 still live here, and the town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. We’d made San Ygnacio a destination before leaving Houston, scheduling visits to see artist Michael Tracy’s studios and tour Treviño-Uribe Rancho, an exquisite example of Spanish colonial Mexican architecture.

Rene Salinas and Sophia Solis, forever-residents of San Ygnacio, were our gracious guides and hosts. Tracy was traveling abroad, yet one could feel his presence throughout the day.

Treviño-Uribe Rancho is designated a National Historic Landmark. Its restoration is being carefully undertaken by the River Pierce Foundation with support from The Brown Foundation and the National Park Service Save America’s Treasures Program. We were eager to learn more about this building that is being so lovingly restored.

Jesús Trevino began construction on this fortified sandstone structure to protect ranch hands from Comanche raids in what was remote and isolated land. The original dwelling had but one room with a massive mesquite door mounted on pivots lined with leather. There is evidence that the fortress roof was covered with chichipil, a mix of lime and stone aggregate that resisted fire, thus adding protection.

After 1848, Treviño’s family moved permanently to San Ygnacio to guard the family’s land north of the Rio Grande. They built additional living spaces that connected to the original fort-like structure. Of note in several of the rooms are cypress ceiling beams with decorative inscriptions and dates that suggest the progress of constructing this compound, surrounded by nine-foot walls with gun ports.

The last room was completed in 1871 and boasts milled wooden beams and pine floors delivered by ox cart from Corpus Christi. Thanks to architectural conservationist Frank Briscoe for sharing details of the restoration of this historic South Texas site.

Our hosts set a fine table for lunch, with time for wide-ranging conversations. Our dining table was surrounded by Michael Tracy’s fiery blood red paintings, their intensity compounded with high noon sunlight. Of course, we asked the question that prompted our journey to South Texas. What about Donald Trump’s Wall?

Opinions around the table tended toward views that ‘the wall’ would be useless, far too costly and certainly divisive. Our host Sophia ventured that she had witnessed people crossing the river and might feel safer with The Wall.

After lunch and bracing mugs of coffee, we headed out to experience Michael Tracy’s several studios, tucked away in acquired buildings, and filled not only with paintings, but libraries and splendid dining rooms with hefty tables and chairs of his own design. I was mesmerized by countless details. Enjoined not to take photos, I write what I recall.

In the 1970s, artist Michael Tracy moved to San Ygnacio, and after his first decade in the town, he choreographed ‘The River Pierce Sacrifice II’, a Lenten procession as ode to the Rio Grande. From the catalog chronicling the procession, we see Tracy’s creative passions extend to the river. He wrote “the waters themselves… spark… interest in the giant problems of mankind with regard to water, to rivers that never wanted to be borders, never were designed by nature to be thought of, or treated as the despicable boundaries we designate them to be, and we think of as zone of death and no man’s waters.”

Border historian Manuel Ceballos is quoted in the catalog, “The region of the Rio Bravo/Grande describes a space which is particularly relevant today. It is a bilateral, geopolitical and inter-regional space that exists in spite of international war, regional difficulties, political decrees, economic circumstances, ideological campaigns and meteorological misfortunes.”

How prescient are both artist and historian.

Cactus abounds while entering Washington Street in San Ygnacio. The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tracy’s winter studio walls are covered with dense black paintings. In his summer studio, electric yellow canvases emanate light. The walls of another room hold large oval opalescent mother of pearl paintings, one of which suggested to me a sacred altarpiece. In correspondence after our trip, Tracy tells me these oval opalescent paintings describe the ocean, and many will soon be on display at Stanley Korshak as complement to Tracy’s art jewelry. Is a trip to Dallas in order?

Tracy’s personal spaces hold repositories of art history books that include volumes on Caravaggio and the Baroque, and a copy of art historian William’s Camfield’s first work on the surrealist Picabia. My eyes feast on religious statuary, agave stalks in tall glass vases, small bronze sculptures, vintage photos and memorabilia tacked to walls. All suggests overflowing creativity.

At another of Tracy’s dwellings, the artist cultivates an elaborate cactus garden. We circled among its paths to the wooden frame house at its center. Inside, we encountered yet another dining room with the now familiar massive table. Tucked in the corner of this room is a claret-red tiled kitchen with a shelf of well-used cookbooks. In that moment, I wanted Michael Tracy to be there with us to elaborate on ‘this world of his own making’, and his long-ago decision to settle in San Ignacio.

On visual and sensory overload, we walked back through the cactus garden to the quiet street that led to our car. Many thanks to our hosts for a very good day in San Ygnacio, Texas.  Art and passion and history are alive in San Ygnacio.

View from the 65 year-old dam that created the International Falcon Reservoir, a bass fishing paradise.

Heading eastward on highway 83 toward Roma, we encountered the Falcon International Reservoir. How did we not remember that a dam was built on the Rio Grande in 1953, a joint project of the U.S. and Mexico that created a lake in the middle of the river? The 98,960-acre Falcon Lake is stocked for recreational bass fishing, and visitors have use of Falcon State Park campgrounds. We entered the Falcon Lake Dam’s International Gateway crossing to get a closer look at this dam.

I wondered how The Wall will be built without destroying the lakefront, boating, fishing and camping, and without upending six decades of joint management of the dam and reservoir. The Wall doesn’t look promising for Falcon Lake bass fishermen or for Falcon Lake businesses. Bass fishermen travel from all over the U.S. to compete in tournaments that attract some of the country’s best anglers. In 2015, they spent $15 million in Zapata County.

Three days into our road trip along the border, we begin to understand that The Wall is infinitely complex and fraught with unintended consequences. We sense that the Rio Grande has historically been more connector than divider. Communities on both sides of the river have been intertwined for centuries by family, trade and culture.

WDC seems very far away as we head eastward toward Roma, McAllen and Brownsville.

To read part one of this border town series, click here.

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