Our digital lives, in large part, have relieved us of the burden of discovery. But finding new roads, venturing into unknown communities, and meeting new people can take us out of a place of comfort and challenge us through new experiences. “This Is Us” is a series that explores the diverse communities that make up our vast state, sprawling across a land area that could challenge even the most intrepid explorer. Let’s set out to meet our neighbors and discover communities that inspire us to reconnect.
From the first whisper of ghosts in the valley, it was clear I was bound to chase the sunrise west. Past humid Gulf Coast prairies and into the Rio Grande floodplains and terraces, on a stretch of farm-to-market road near the U.S.-Mexico border, I went in search of art, remnants, artifacts, and buried stories. All I knew was that someone was building an arts foundation in the rugged landscapes of John Sayles and Coen Brothers thrillers.
I arrived in the steaming agricultural breadbasket of Texas, picking up an S.U.V., some water, and a healthy concern for the number of Border Patrol agents lingering about. There was no plan, little preparation, and an infinite number of possibilities for what kind of story I would find, but my curiosity was in the driver’s seat as I barreled toward Linn, Texas. For those unfamiliar with the Lower Rio Grande Valley, it is a region defined by its namesake river, forming a delta at the Gulf of Mexico near Port Isabel and South Padre Island. It is also a contentious political boundary between Texas and our neighbors in Mexico.
James McAllen Jr. and his wife, Katherine, run six ranches across three counties, living on the main one with their parents and employees. McAllen smiled as he talked about his wife: “She grew up on a ranch outside of San Antonio, graduating from Trinity University, then went to the University of Texas for her master’s and Harvard for her Ph.D. in art history. Her focus was on northern Mexico during the colonial period, following the trans-Atlantic trade of art from Europe into the New World and art installation into the northern missions. She fits right into border life.” After one blind date, they knew they shared an interest in rural living. The idea for an arts foundation grew from their mutual appreciation of art and a love of the Rio Grande Valley. After many years, they were finally ready to break ground when the pandemic stymied their efforts. With a farmer’s tenacity, they continued building their arts initiative, called the Guadalupe el Torrero Foundation, finally receiving 501(c)(3) status in 2021. Their vision lies in what they refer to as a “unique relationship between the cross-cultural frontera region of South Texas and Northern Mexico.” The foundation’s website highlights the McAllens’ restoration of three colonial cattle ranch structures and their goal of forging connections in the transnational relationship through patronage of the arts, preservation of historical architecture, and support for education.
My drive to the ranch was interrupted by swooping crested caracara. At nearly two feet in length with orange beaks and legs like turkeys, they are hard to miss. This is wild country — home to javelinas, bobcats, ocelots, and much more. McAllen met me near the homestead, giving the impression of a man in perpetual motion, with more work to do than daylight allows. Hopping out of his truck, he offered a sound handshake and a broad smile, carrying himself with the casual nature of a farmer and the warmth of a time when ‘visits’ were rituals. We went inside his family’s late-Victorian home through the side door, grateful to escape the pounding sun.
Milled beadboard runs in neat rows along the ceiling in the now-enclosed sleeping porch that opens to a formal dining room beyond. In many ways, this could be any of the houses of its era, except for the fact that every wall is festooned with art of different time periods and styles, echoing the lack of pretentiousness evident in McAllen’s easygoing nature. A piece by Clark Hulings that once hung in the home of a former Texas governor holds a prominent place near the head of the table, its ornate gold frame a masterpiece on its own. Hulings was a seminal artist known for his “modern realism.” According to the artist’s website, “Clark Hulings assailed our bias toward the ‘other’ by engaging culture through visceral daily reality.” It is fitting that his is the first piece that caught McAllen’s eye as a young collector who was chasing culture in a time before coolhunting.
“We love to collect art of all types — Western, traditional, contemporary, sculpture, photography. I don’t think there is a boundary of what we don’t like.” McAllen and I settled into the parlor, a closed room meant for “visiting” and bookended by a player piano in one corner and a brick two-way fireplace in another. Old Victorian furniture completes the space, working its magic to step you back to a slower pace of life. He grew up here, the son of a rancher who was a testament to the cowboys who came before him. His father was also a self-taught artist, inventor, and engineer. “He is a good artist, but he never took it too seriously. Whatever crazy inventions he had were for the ranch. That’s where I got my artistic skills and appreciation.”
The ancestral history of the McAllen family is deeply tied to the land and its place along the river. “My family’s been here for 11 generations. The ranch was given to us by the King of Spain, Carlos III, in 1791 as a land grant. We are what’s called the Santa Anita Land grant. On the McAllen side, they showed up around the time of the Mexican American War, around the 1830s.” McAllen knows his history and spent considerable time reading and learning from the original documents passed down through the years. Historical precedence is an important theme to McAllen based on his early family outings.
“As a kid going to Rio Grande City with my parents, we had a favorite restaurant we used to go to, and we would always take a mini tour of the city before we went to eat. I remember my dad pointing out the window saying, ‘Look at this old house. It was built by the Peñas, or this was built by the Villareals.’” Architecturally, it was an eclectic era, with indigenous structures meeting neoclassical buildings built by European settlers along the river. McAllen had me spellbound with his knowledge of the effects of a large Austrian-German migration to the area, of how French troops factored into the visual landscape during their occupation, and that deserters from the Mexican army, who were also European immigrants, settled in these towns, bringing their knowledge from their trades back in the Old World. “Driving around those towns and getting a beginner’s guide into border architecture from my father, you pick up on it. It’s like stepping back in time.” McAllen always knew he wanted to incorporate architectural history into their foundation as a way of linking past and present artists. That opportunity presented itself in 2004, when some nearby land became available.
We climbed into McAllen’s truck, the sun cresting into blistering afternoon, and made a short drive down the highway while he continued his story. “My dad brought me over here as kid. A lot of these ranches and communities had structures similar to the ones on this site, but these are the only ones I know that are still standing.” Outside, monarch butterflies flit past, landing on the abundant flora along their cross-country journey.
The property is part of the San Ramon Land Grant given to Julian Farias and the Farias family in the late 1700s. McAllen studied the original application, which preserved history in a time when little is known about the families of the area. Julian Farias, McAllen explains, had two brothers named Alejandro and Francisco. Each of them applied for 25,000 acres of land around 1770. They waited 34 years, finally receiving official ownership in 1804. During that time, they worked as livestock ranchers, proving to the Spanish court that they were capable of building a thriving enterprise and thus were able to pay taxes to the king. It’s a beautiful place with low scrub and scraggly trees. All around us limestone breach like whales bathing in the sun. Shards of broken ceramic artifacts with their telltale blue and white markings litter the ground in what is a veritable archeological site. What drew McAllen to purchase the land were the three historic structures still weathering the harsh Texas climate. “The draw of this place was because they could establish water here. Water is still an incredibly critical aspect of living in South Texas. They brought their technologies from Spain and built hundreds of wells that were dug as an expansion of agriculture out of Mexico.”
Two simple, single-story buildings sit haphazardly in the scrub. McAllen takes me to the smaller one, called Casa de Cabra, or “House of the Goat.” It’s constructed of small limestone rocks, mortared together, then plastered over with earthen mortar of the same material and lime-washed with multiple layers of white lime paint. He enters through the dark mesquite wood door, after verifying that no creatures are taking refuge inside. “The home was almost falling down. We looked at how we could repair it and did an analysis of the materials and how it was built.” They noticed grass impressions dried into the old mortar, and the interior walls were pocked with bullet holes. Above us, beams made from old cypress trees — which were once abundant in the area but have since disappeared — support the roof. “We knew it originally had a thatched roof, and the only type of thatching around here is a five-foot-tall grass called sacahuista with woody branches, which grows on the Texas coasts. We have old letters of my great-grandfather asking permission to the ranchers on the coast if his employees could travel by wagon to cut grass for the thatched roofs.” Searching for help rebuilding the roof, McAllen discovered a building transplanted from Del Rio to Lubbock. “The Ranching Heritage Center hired the Martinez family out of Laredo, who were a family of thatchers.” Texas Tech University Archive records provide specific information about the techniques perfected by the family.
The larger home, Casa de Guadalupe, feels cooler inside as we enter. Three layers of brick branded with the manufacturer’s symbol “H” form the walls, alluding to another mystery McAllen hopes to uncover one day. “You can go to parts of Coahuila in northern Mexico and see homes exactly like this. I’m always excited, because it makes you remember that there was a time when there was no border and people went back and forth.” The modest rectangular structure uses large limestone blocks called sillar cut from the ground and stacked with mortar between, then plastered and washed with lime. The drip line shows evidence of special craftsmanship: When water beads down over the brick, it doesn’t draw back against gravity due to capillary action.
Downwind of the houses, a well known as a noria de buque fights the forces of time as it is held up by scaffolding, a testament to perseverance in the wilderness. McAllen and I climb the supports to peer down into the dank unknown below. “They would draw the water up from the well then dump it into a hole that would fall into a cistern called a pila. From the cistern, it would deliver water into a trough that was about 75 feet long.” The trough has long since been destroyed, but remnants of a foundation remain. McAllen theorizes: “They called this area Torrero, which translates to a tower or a light tower like a lighthouse. If someone is traveling from Camargo on the road to Rancho Guadalupe, when they were riding up, they could probably see it from 10 miles away. It was most likely painted white and looked like a torrero. They took Rancho Guadalupe, combined it with El Torrero, and now you have its name: Guadalupe El Torrero. That’s how I think the name of the site came to be.”
Their plan is for the Guadalupe el Torrero Foundation to showcase local artists and offer educational scholarships, art exhibitions, and a residency program where artists from Mexico and from the U.S. work together on art. It all requires money, a challenging hurdle for self-starting nonprofits, especially rural ones. As an art and architecture lover, it seems natural that McAllen would reach out to architects to design their gallery and event spaces. “I read about DUST a couple of times in some articles and then saw them on a Netflix show.” A meeting was organized for Cade Hayes, AIA, and Jesus Robles, Assoc. AIA, the founders of DUST, to visit Guadalupe el Torrero. McAllen was drawn to the Tucson-based studio founded on land ethics and rooted in their love of craft and place. His mind drifts to the future as we discuss potential architectural prospects. The first step is finding grants and donors with a passion for the arts. Then, when they are ready, the relationship McAllen is building with Hayes and Robles will forge a new path forward for the growth of the foundation.
As our afternoon came to an end, we listened to the wind sing through the trees and silently appreciated the intangible qualities of life that brought us together. Although the Valley called me with promises of ghost stories, what I found was a treasure far more precious. At the rugged edge of Texas, a husband-and-wife team are fighting to preserve history, rebuild lost ties, and lay claim to a culture brazed together by adversity. Beyond the myths of kings and rivals, humanity still connects us, entreating our dedication to the purest of goals: water, shelter, art, and friendship.
Jes Deaver, AIA, is an architect and writer in Austin.