How we understand and tell stories of the past is, in reality, a dynamic act of creation.
History is not static; it is a function of perspective. Each generation must reassess and interpret the past for itself. The Puebloan peoples of New Mexico have understood this for a long time. A resident and guide I once met at Acoma Pueblo said that whoever writes history is attempting to take possession of it into the future. The Acoma therefore did not want historians capturing their history, which, he explained, evolves with the telling — because it belongs to the living.
The built environment is another ledger of history — a tableau of power, resources, technology, and values across time. Like written language, it communicates the rhetoric of its institutions and patrons. But it also reveals many truths and omissions that are difficult to reconcile. Like Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” it is as if we are watching events crash over each other into the past while being blown backward into the future.
The past cannot be easily reckoned with; it takes great effort to even comprehend. But some historical sites exert forces that draw people to them and invoke action. Their power tends to lie in what they have come to represent, not in their original purpose or form — and what they represent evolves over time and is open to influence. While there are material facts of the past, history requires constant reinterpretation. And when the living apply their ideas to inherited sites, efforts at preservation are, in actuality, transformational events that reflect the current moment more accurately than any historical reference.
In the Big Bend region there are several such sites exerting forces upon their respective communities: El Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes in Presidio, Spirit Eye Cave in Pinto Canyon, the Blackwell School in Marfa, and the former Catholic church in Ruidosa, El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus. Current efforts to protect these places are driven by a desire to reckon with aspects of history that have been unacknowledged, lost, or suppressed, or are at risk of disappearing. The agendas emerging around their preservation and renewal tell us much about the role of history in the area’s multicultural communities.
El Cementerio del Barrio del los Lipanes
The Big Bend landscape is an arid exposure littered with ancient sites. The detritus from past epochs, be it fossilized shells from ancient seas or cracked-rock mounds of 10,000-year-old earth ovens, lies in plain sight if you learn to watch for it. Piles of stones marking generations of Apache graves can be found within a residential neighborhood in the border town of Presidio. In fact, the roads were built over them. Those that are left at least partly intact have become known as El Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes — the Cemetery of the Lipan Apache Neighborhood.
The Lipan Apache were the first settlers in the area now known as Presidio, says Oscar Rodriquez, a tribal member whose roots go back to the El Mulato settlement farther down the river. They located there in the 1790s near the Spanish settlement in modern Ojinaga in a negotiated truce. Over time, the Spanish left; the Mexican government agreed to partition the river; and American ranchers took control of the land. The Lipan took Spanish names, adopted the Catholic faith, and assimilated.
The burial grounds of the original settlement today lie within the Presidio. Though known locally, the site was eventually abandoned, platted, and sold and is now surrounded by residential development. What remains are five undeveloped lots that eventually fell back into the hands of local government entities due to unpaid taxes. Last year, many decades of activism led to an unlikely arrangement whereby the land was deeded to the Lipan Apache tribe by unanimous agreement of the city and county, leaving the Lipan in full control of the site.
MASS Design Group’s Santa Fe office was commissioned to provide a landscape design that would define and protect the site, establishing a space of respect for the graves and providing an opportunity to educate visitors. The project consists primarily of low gabion walls that arc and tack along the perimeter, creating a procession around the site. It is a light yet powerful touch that will formalize a place that for so long had been neglected. Currently there are labeled layout flags in the ground, and construction will begin soon.
In West Texas, cemeteries are easy to spot as clusters of juniper or cypress trees. It is grounding to take in the family names and bear witness to the care of the dead. There is a site, a system, and markers. They have not escaped the hierarchies and prejudices of the living, of course, but the distinctions are exposed for the trivial accomplishments that they are. El Cementerio del Barrio del los Lipanes is something else — a reminder of the chaotic progression of events that Benjamin sardonically labels “progress.” Mr. Rodriguez asks a philosophical question: Did I believe that those buried in Presidio were my ancestors as well as his? The answer for me is not difficult. I grew up an Anglo transplant in northwestern New Mexico where Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and other scattered sites of the ancestral Puebloans pervade the landscape and asserted an ancient authority over my childhood. My bond is neither familial nor cultural, but one established through the awe of encountering the presence and accomplishments of ancient humans. I do not carry the cultural inheritances — positive or negative — of those whose families lie under the mounds, roads, and houses there, and I understand that I cannot share in the specific experiences of the local families of Presidio. But the Lipan burials there represent humans buried anywhere, and that fact allows me to feel a kinship with them — and it most likely requires it. It is all the same quite easy to conjure a connection to an idea of the past on one’s own; the challenge lies in engaging with the living to shape the future of historical sites. That is the true nature of preservation.
Spirit Eye Cave
“Archaeology is placemaking,” says Bryon Schroeder, an archaeologist who runs the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University. Schroeder’s recent efforts in the Big Bend region — the exploration of Spirit Eye Cave in Pinto Canyon — have been helping to connect the past with the present, a powerful circuit that often shocks a system.
Spirit Eye Cave lies on private land northeast of Presidio. Long known to ranchers as a cornucopia of native artifacts, it was for a time a cheap pay-to-dig operation for locals and collectors of all stripes. Inhabited for thousands of years by giant ground sloths, and later by humans, the cave is a treasure trove of the past. Schroeder has been digging there the past few years, trying to put the site in perspective scientifically. Archaeologists distinguish themselves from collectors by documenting the context of the finds, sharing their data and conclusions in academic journals, and cataloging artifacts for others to study or the public to see. This distinction, however, is often lost on Indigenous groups asking for the return of their cultural treasures and ancestral remains, which to this day mostly remain locked up in institutions around the world. Schroeder’s work at Spirit Eye has led him into murky waters, as he is chasing down artifacts that today mostly sit in the personal collections of local ranchers.
In the Big Bend, the ranchers encountered evidence of ancient or nearly contemporary Indigenous life before archaeologists took an interest. They knew the sites first and to this day take great pride in their collections as a visceral link to a wild and storied past. They are often wary of sharing their findings for fear they may be judged or even asked to surrender the artifacts. Schroeder, however, takes another approach. He simply wants to see what they have and know where they found it. Every find and clue contributes to the larger story he is putting together. When it comes to atlatls (spear-throwers) and projectile points, collectors are often happy to share — but, Schroeder learned, they took more than stone and wood tools out of the cave. The naturally mummified remains of three human bodies were removed, and over the past few decades, they have been exhibited, sold, or privately kept. This story was recently detailed in the New Yorker article “The Bodies in the Cave.”
Through DNA testing, Schroeder was able to identify a local living relative of two of the bodies, which dated back 700–900 years, and that man is now seeking legal custody of the remains. While this kind of testing remains controversial within the archaeological and Indigenous communities, it is hard to imagine a more powerful device for cutting through our limited awareness of the region and resolving issues that concern the generational communities inhabiting it. Events surrounding the cave illustrate our evolving perspectives toward the past as well as the deep connections that the living have with it, whether we are conscious of it or not. Our powers to find connections to the deep and recent past are increasing, which creates the opportunity to shift our perspectives on what we value and what we envision for our collective future. Events involving the cave are an exceptional example of what is actually all around us — the artifacts, physical and psychic, of a living past both sublime and tragic, bringing to mind William Faulkner’s devastating revelation: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Certain sites are exposed to metamorphic forces after slowly accreting over time, like seashells at the bottom of an ocean being subsumed by pressure and heat to become calcareous stone. Today a historic site run by the National Park Service, the Blackwell School of Marfa began as one of numerous segregated schools of the early 20th century in the U.S. In operation until the town’s school system was desegregated in 1965, this site can still speak for itself. Many former students are still living, and efforts were made to record the stories of many others who have since died. For decades, alumni and local advocates worked to preserve the memory of Blackwell and the one remaining building of the formerly sprawling complex: an adobe schoolhouse from the 1930s. Located south of the railroad tracks on the traditionally Hispanic side of town, the schoolhouse sits isolated on a half-block of residential lots, surrounded by vernacular adobe homes. The former schoolyard has been built out into a playground and park run by the city.
Such activism requires courage. Students at Blackwell were prohibited from speaking Spanish at school, and administrators famously presided over mock funerals held for “Mr. Spanish” in the schoolyard. One can reasonably presume that the effects of segregation and cultural suppression imposed upon children are indelible and may continue for generations. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that all the memories are grim. While the institutional past is well documented in the displays at the former schoolhouse, which is now a museum, so too is the exuberance of youth captured in the images of sports teams, the school band, and cheerleading squads, reminding us that history is always multitextured and rich regardless of the circumstances.
But the forces that came to bear upon Blackwell eventually transcended local and personal interests, filling a void in the national historic record and entering national politics. In a notable progression of events, the school’s cause became favored by both liberal and conservative politicians, with Texas Republicans Tony Gonzales (TX-23) and Senator John Cornyn sponsoring successful bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate that declared Blackwell a National Historic Site last October. The future is now secured for the site’s preservation, though it will be increasingly up to the park service to interpret and represent its legacy.
Julie McGilvray, a historical landscape architect with the National Park Service, sees the world in terms of cultural landscapes. The attributes of any given site come into focus within this lens, whether they are architectural, historical, ecological, or ethnographic. Every site has some combination of these elements, and all must be taken into account when deciding how a site is interpreted and what particular form of preservation is most appropriate. Strict adherence to any single discipline might fail to capture the larger truths of a place. Blackwell will become the venue for a national remembrance of racially segregating children. The site, once a local concern, is now a window into the past, the modest adobe schoolhouse transformed into a vehicle for the national narrative.
The recognition that Blackwell has received in recent years has also changed the narrative within the Marfa community, according to Gretel Enck, a local transplant who spent years working with the Blackwell Alliance for state and federal recognition and can be found staffing the museum on weekends. She shares that the families of those who attended Blackwell now often include this fact in obituaries. (I have experienced this personally as well. At a recent holiday party, I met a woman in her mid-90s. The introduction by her son-in-law consisted of her name, age, and the fact that she attended the Blackwell School.) One hopes that at least some of the wounds of segregation and cultural suppression are healing within the community thanks to the efforts of preserving Blackwell, and that the national platform will help the entire country better comprehend its past.
El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus (Ruidosa Church)
Architecture is truth in plain sight. On approach, the Ruidosa church appears to have slid off its site into FM 170, which reluctantly curves just around the corner of the south bell tower. Wedged between the narrow two-lane road and a generous residential site that sports a vacation rental and swimming pool, the church feels out of place and time, an architectural orphan. The town of Ruidosa is obstinately an artifact of the past itself, with a single-digit population and currently no public businesses. It lies a few hundred feet from the Rio Grande in what had been a working agricultural and ranching community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus was built by members of the community under the direction of the Catholic priesthood in 1915, the same year that Elephant Butte, a reservoir upstream in New Mexico, began filling up and choking off the river south of El Paso. The church served the community for decades and presided over its dissolution. By the mid-1950s, the population of Ruidosa had plummeted and the priests had departed. For decades the building sat dormant, slowly melting back into the earth. The archdiocese thought it best to demolish the structure, but local advocates, including Donald Judd, persuaded them otherwise. Funding emerged for an initial effort at restoration, which saved the sanctuary with a new roof wall stabilization; however, the project was never completed, and work on the left bell tower was abandoned.
The church then entered a blissful state of poetic ruin — for visitors, a surreal discovery on a nearly abandoned stretch of road at the strained edge of the country; the ocular adobe arches — claimed to be the largest in Texas — wide open to both the curious and the livestock for escaping the searing intensity of the sun; without doubt a holy place, created to soar over the surrounding low-slung adobes and attest to the power of human aspirations. It represented the end of an era on the river, attending to the ghosts of those who once lived there, a shared secret for those who ventured to remote places.
Now it is something else again, under the stewardship of a group of architects, historians, and adobe-enthusiasts who plan to restore and manage the church as a holy and secular community center and pilgrimage site. The work is difficult and expensive. Adobe specialists are concocting the ideal mix of native earth and aggregates while plans are drawn and money is raised. What is happening in the meantime is possibly the most miraculous development: Community events are drawing people back to the church in a celebratory multicultural spirit that defies historic precedent. Families, bikers, hippies, and hipsters from around the region are finding common cause around this unlikely relic. At an event in November, there was a peculiar mix of spiritual joy and secular festival as mariachis and Matachine dancers from nearby Presidio performed in the sanctuary under an installation by an artist from Chihuahua City.
In this sense the restoration work alone will not be enough to resuscitate the site. It is clear that what is drawing locals to the church is not the progress of the restoration itself but the energy emerging around it. Hopefully the events will continue to restore a sense of community there for the region’s locals, many of whom are transplants in search of monuments to call their own.
Sites, like history, are ever-evolving. Any effort at preservation produces something new. Keeping places vital requires an evolving reverence for the past as well as brave acts of creation. Traditional barriers between preservation, design, and placemaking can be dissolved through the establishment of cultural landmarks, inclusive of the past and with an eye to the future. These sites — El Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes, Spirit Eye Cave, the Blackwell School, and El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus — are helping to redefine the values and establish the monuments of the sparsely populated Big Bend region. Their insights, however, are applicable to anywhere with a stormy past — which is to say, everywhere.
Stephen (Chick) Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.