Forum Journal & Forum Focus

A Land Between Two Nations: Preserving the Cultural Resources of the Lower Rio Grande Region 

12-09-2015 17:35

Along the lower Rio Grande a distinctive cultural corridor extends from Laredo to Brownsville, Texas, and from Colombia to Matamoros, Mexico. This corridor extends for almost 200 miles along a border region distant from the centers of power of Mexico and Texas. "A land in between two nations" is a name that accurately describes a region that over the course of 250 years has developed its own geographic, ethnic, and cultural identities.

These identities, still struggling to be recognized, add to the cultural diversity of two nations. In Mexico, the region vies for the attention showered upon the ornate colonial cities and the legacy of the Mayans and the Aztecs. In the United States, the region remains a distant interest of scholars and preservationists who are not fully aware of its history.

It is the history of this "land apart" that holds the clues to the cultural distinctiveness that reveals the region`s sense of place. Between 1749 and 1755 Jose de Escandon, an enterprising explorer, founded settlements on both sides of the Rio Grande that have survived to this day. The history of the region is that of the interrelationship between river communities that know no international boundary and that, over the years, have shared a common ancestry, language, folklore, economic livelihood, and architecture.

Based on this community history, I began a project in 1989 to preserve and interpret this compelling heritage for the benefit of the region`s residents and to promote cultural tourism. Initiated with a grant from the Meadows Foundation awarded to the Texas Historical Commission, the project is entitled "Los Caminos del Rio" in reference to the two river routes that link these border communities along both sides of the Rio Grande.

In undertaking Los Caminos del Rio, my training as a historian and an architect have proved to be invaluable. Architecture taught me not to look at a building in isolation, but to take into account its urban and regional contexts. Los Caminos del Rio thus develops not as a single structure or community but rather as a series of interrelated architectural landmarks and communities.

History taught me to search for themes and underlying connections between events and people. It was this background that made me realize that the "shared experience" of these two sides of the border made them inseparable and that the project needed to be developed binationally. Being a native Spanish speaker was also of benefit in this region where English and Spanish are intermixed.

Los Caminos del Rio thus takes its cues from the historical and architectural contexts of the lower Rio Grande; it approaches the region as a heritage corridor that transcends political boundaries and geographical divisions. The project does not focus on the limitations set by county lines or international borders, but rather on the historic linkages of these communities. These ancestral linkages can be used in a contemporary regional approach to foster historic preservation, tourism development, binational cooperation, and community pride. Los Caminos del Rio is based on the premise that by recognizing and preserving the contributions of the lower Rio Grande, the untold story of a shared ethnic heritage can be used to combat negative images and enhance the quality of life.

This untold story, not well known to outsiders, began to unfold in 1990-1991 during the inventory phase of Los Caminos del Rio. Agencies in Mexico and the United States collaborated in gathering information on historic events and designations on both sides of the border. An assessment of twenty architectural landmarks was conducted in the United States along with an assessment of the arts and crafts of the region. Entitled "A Shared Experience," this binational survey of the cultural assets of the lower Rio Grande began to mold the project and to provide a contextual framework for its activities.

In addition to its inventory, A Shared Experience presents a conceptual plan that chooses and defines the elements that make up the binational corridor: the river, the roads, and the heritage themes. The river is the unifying element, while the roads link the communities and the landmarks that represent the following shared themes:

  • The Spanish colonial settlement theme is represented by Laredo and Guerrero Viejo, both founded by Escandon in the eighteenth century. The vibrancy of today`s Laredo is contrasted with the silent but impressive ruins of Guerrero, once the region`s commercial and cultural center.

  • San Ygnacio, founded in 1830, embodies the ranching theme with its casas mayores, or fortified compounds, that guarded the early settlers from the Native Americans who opposed colonization.

  • Once a navigable river that supported commercial steamboat traffic, the Rio Grande was dotted with several inland ports. Roma, Texas, and Camargo, Mexico, share the river trade-route theme. This theme is represented in the intricate molded-brick architecture that was built as a result of commercial fortunes.

  • Mechanized irrigation turned part of the region into a veritable cornucopia in the early twentieth century. The agricultural theme is represented by Hidalgo, which boasts a large structure that houses steam engines that pumped river water to thousands of acres.

  • Brownsville and Matamoros share the military theme with battlefields and forts that date to the Mexican-American War and the United States Civil War.

Architecture is a vital part of these themes, for it makes history tangible and readily perceptible. Lack of intense economic development has facilitated the survival of an exceptional ensemble of buildings and plazas. The strong visual character of these structures and public spaces helps define the distinctive identity of the heritage corridor and firmly imbed architecture as part of its culture. More important is the interpretation of these varied architectural landmarks, which offer opportunities to present the multiethnic mosaic created by those who settled the region: Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Anglo-Americans.

To successfully undertake its preservation activities, Los Caminos del Rio is envisioned as a long-term partnership among state and federal agencies, heritage groups, and private philanthropy of both nations. Since the inventory phase several public and private entities have come together to realize the plan. In the United States, the participants are the Texas Historical Commission; the Texas departments of parks and wildlife, commerce and transportation; the National Park Service; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; the Meadows Foundation; and Los Caminos del Rio, Inc., a binational nonprofit organization incorporated on both sides of the border. Together with the ministry of tourism and the Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, all of these entities meet regularly as a task force originally created by executive order of the governor of Texas.

The task force brings together a pool of expertise to guide project activities designed to instigate public participation in Los Caminos del Rio and to create local grass-roots organizations. In undertaking these heritage-related activities, Los Caminos del Rio has tapped into a source of regional pride that existed long before the inception of the project. We have also found in the course of these activities that "mainstream" preservation programs are well-suited to the region. The Secretary of the Interior`s Standards and the National Register are based on the premises of historical evidence and authenticity that are recognized by all.

However, like all mainstream communities, we have found that several vital factors are necessary to make a historic preservation project unfold. First, a catalyst must be present--an idea with which people can identify and to which they are willing to donate their time and effort. We believe that along the Lower Rio Grande, Los Caminos del Rio is that catalyst.

Second, the leadership of community organizers is crucial and an abundance of such leaders can be found in the region.Third, funding is necessary to finance pilot projects that promote the real possibilities of Los Caminos through tangible results.

Finally, historic preservation must be presented as a viable economic-development strategy. Communities must perceive the preservation of their heritage as beneficial to both their cultural and economic well-being.

Los Caminos del Rio has undertaken the following pilot projects to foster education, public awareness, and participation in the preservation of the regional heritage:

Historic Designations  The project has secured listing of Palmito Ranch Battlefield in the National Register. In the course of completing the nomination for the site of the battle that occurred thirty days after Appomattox, local historians produced a wealth of information, including their own battlefield surveys, for the project consultants.

A National Historic Landmark nomination for the Roma Historic District has been submitted to the National Park Service. Together with the project staff, the city is devising a plan to reincorporate their historic square into the daily life of the town.

Technical Assistance  An unfortunate fire in the Church of San Ygnacio showed how historic preservation can quickly bring a community together. Los Caminos del Rio funded a site visit by an architect/historian who provided cost estimates for repairs to the fire damage. Within weeks of the completion of the estimates, a church-restoration committee had raised funds through town festivals and had obtained a small grant. Originally a project envisioned as being confined to repairs, the endeavor has developed into a three-phase restoration bringing the church back to its 1896 appearance. The community undertook part of the work in the interior phase, which was being completed last fall.

The church-restoration committee has expressed its desire to remain active in other future preservation activities in San Ygnacio.

Publications  More than 400 copies of A Shared Experience were purchased by school districts in the region. Most of the 255 schools in the U.S. portion of the heritage corridor responded to a survey of the need for a teacher`s resource book to accompany the publication. Based on the positive response, an activities guide will soon be available.

Planning  The planning process has generated a considerable amount of public participation. The process will culminate with a regional heritage plan to be completed this year with the assistance of the National Park Service.

To initiate the process, a twenty-eight-member team representing thirteen agencies in the United States and Mexico traveled the length of the corridor last April. A site-visit report generated by the team has been published and will form part of the baseline data for the Heritage Plan.

In July six public-planning workshops were held in the corridor region, including Mexico. Comments were received from nearly 300 participants who attended the meetings and who urged preservation of their heritage. In the course of the week the project partners heard local residents discuss the importance of their architectural and archaeological landmarks, as well as other subjects that were of equal importance to them:

Genealogy  Family ties across the river are strong and residents identify themselves as descendants of the founding families granted land by the Spanish crown in 1767.

Protection of historic properties  Although these communities do not have historic-zoning ordinances, many of the citizens expressed a desire to protect the integrity of historic districts from demolitions and new construction.

Natural resources  Residents commented that native wildlife and vegetation could not be ignored, and recommended that the heritage plan take into account their preservation.

Ecology  Residents are aware of the fact that the beautiful riverscape cannot hide the pollution of the river and that efforts to clean it must be intensified.

Regional folklore and traditional lifeways  Several of the workshops, especially one in Mier, Mexico, focused on such intangibles as the preservation of traditional cooking, songs, and dances. The people of Mier believe that these traditions are as important as their historic architecture.

In Mier, heritage was once again used as a catalyst for innovation. Some were doubtful as to whether a public planning workshop could be successful in Mexico. In the end, we found that historic preservation opens up the lines of communication across international boundaries. The workshop in Mier lasted longer than any other during the week, and the project staff was treated to a banquet of regional delicacies and was entertained with dancing and singing.

Continuing its focus on history as the unifier of the region, the Los Caminos del Rio heritage project will formalize the commitment of its partners through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding. The signing ceremony will be held in Roma, Texas, on October 30 in conjunction with a heritage festival.

Now in its third year, the project develops, in part, because of the involvement of public agencies and private philanthropy. Los Caminos del Rio moves forward because the project has tapped into ideas that residents had been espousing for many years. A vibrant plaza for Roma, an agricultural center for Hidalgo, a park for the ruins of Guerrero are ideas championed by individuals along the heritage corridor. Linking these ideas, helping to shape them, and to slowly make them reality is the task of Los Caminos del Rio.

This task is no different than that of other mainstream heritage projects throughout this country. Different regions and ethnic groups all share a common point: that a part of their heritage should be preserved and recognized as important to the development of our society. In bringing about recognition and respect for the "lost histories" of these groups, historic preservation can act as a viable force in contemporary society toward establishing communication and bonds between all citizens. Along Los Caminos del Rio, thanks to the work of the project partners and the residents, we have begun to reclaim the lost history of the lower Rio Grande as a valuable part of the heritage of two nations.

Publication Date: January/February 1993


Author(s):Mario Sanchez