Excerpt: A chapter from Dian Malouf’s Along the Rio Grande: The Earliest Ranches in South Texas

by | Culture, Travel

Old cemetery near Las Cuevitas. Photograph by Dian Malouf

Guerrero Viejo
(Dedicated to my friend Linda because of her fondness for crossing bridges)

I curse this town and it will end under water.

-Bishop don Ignacio,

Poet and Latin Scholar

I traveled to Guerrero when I was six years old, wedged in the back seat of our 40’s Buick with my close friend Carol and a stack of sheets my mother was taking to the nuns to be made into tablecloths. The linen sheets looked entirely different after the nuns performed cut work and embroidery miracles, turning modest sheets into treasured table clothes never once used, to the best of my recollection, on any occasion for family gatherings but brought out for the “Self Culture Club” that met at our house once a year.

Crossing the Rio Grande into Guerrero over a thin-slatted wooden bridge that humped and dipped up and down like a roller coaster was my first encounter with abject fear. If I had to cross that bridge today I would seriously consider jumping into the silvery Rio Grande with its swift current, hoping to God that I would make it across without (a) drowning or (b) catching a litany of contagious diseases from which recovery would be seriously doubtful.

To this day, entering Mexico with its abundance of expressive, stirring energy and activity always makes me wonder…how does crossing a river make so much difference in people’s behavior? Perhaps it’s the zesty spirit that excels there. Whatever it is, once across the Rio Grande, things appear much livelier and much more colorful than they appear on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.

Guerrero was different. It was much older than any place I had ever visited. Its original name was Revilla, and it was changed to Guerrero in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1821 after Mexico gained its independence from Spain.

San Ignacio de Revilla (now Guerrero Viejo) began in July, 1767. José de Escandón commanded the organization and colonization of this once Spanish colonial settlement close to a river with good water, air, and arable land. Revilla moved three times between 1750 and 1754 before it reached its present location, where it now rests under water.

Settlers here discovered an abundance of Gamma grass, which was the grass of choice for fattening cattle and sheep, making them far superior to animals of other places. Black cows were considered the most desirable because milk from a black cow was considered best for ailing children.

After we delivered the sheets to the nuns, we walked Guerrero’s ancient streets, knowing that this beautiful Spanish colonial town would soon be submerged under water after Falcon Dam was built.

Acres of water, as a result of the creation of Falcon Lake, would settle and cover clusters of thick-walled sandstone buildings, possessions, and historic continuity.

Existence here was coming to an end.

Losing Guerrero’s ancient grandness is a tragedy and a loss to both Texas and Mexico. “Why,” I ask, “would governments, presidents, engineers, whomever, agree to submerge a site of ancient historical buildings with great cultural significance that far pre-date the State of Texas by DESTROYING AND FLOODING THIS IRREPLACEABLE ARTIFACT?”

When Mother and I walked along the narrow streets where one had to take a tall step up to reach the sidewalk, Mother said, “Let’s go into the Hotel Flores.” There in the lobby was a beautiful piano, although in retrospect it must have been a harpsichord or a claracord. My memory of it was its excessive length-ornate with lots of gold and such. My mother read the small brass plaque that was just above the ivory keys: “Martha Washington.” My mother always commented, after the flooding of Guerrero Viejo, “I hope they moved Martha Washington’s piano to higher ground.”

We also visited the interior of one of the thick-walled houses just off the main street in Guerrero Viejo. Because of the thick walls, the rooms inside were very cool. An old woman with a wrinkled, leathery face and hands offered a small beaded purse for sale. It jingled when you held it. I wanted it so badly, but my mother took me aside and said, “That purse may have germs, and I don’t want you to touch it.” Carol’s mother bought the beautiful little purse for her.

` The lady said it had been given to her as a child by the Indians while she played on the banks of the Rio Grande River. I never forgot it.

On my 40th birthday, my friend Jane Rote hosted a dinner in Santa Fe in my honor. After dinner I opened gifts. Wrapped carefully in mounds of tissue was the coveted purse from my friend Carol. To this day, I cry when I think about her generosity. Around the table at Jane Rote’s, her knowledgeable friends said in unison: “Comanche.”

In 1952, Mexico and Texas signed an agreement finalizing the building of the dam that would inundate old Guerrero, and the water began to rise. Soon, 250 of history would be covered by the now rising Falcon Lake.

Water slowly rose in the lobby of the Hotel Flores sans Martha Washington’s harpsichord (we hope).

On the 11th of October, the remaining residents of Guerrero Viejo sang Mexico’s national anthem, and the flag that waved proudly over the plaza was lowered for the final time. Before final departure to New Guerrero, thirty miles away, residents placed little lamps in the doorways so that strangers could find lodging, along with a lantern of the Novena, a sign of mourning. Thousands about to depart remembered their dead, leaving behind an offering of flowers and a promise to return.

The curse that the Bishop don Ignacio, poet and Latin scholar, had placed an old Guerrero came to fruition after soldiers rummaged through his luggage, “I curse this town and it will end under water.”

The town did indeed end at the bottom of a recreational lake. Flooding would be controlled, droughts avoided, and tourists would come. The ancient and historic city would be permanently under water. Today excessive drought and diverted waters have caused Guerrero Viejo to partially re-emerge from its watery grave. Its skeletal grandness seriously deteriorates under a hot sun. What remains is one of Mexico’s finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture; the settlement exemplifies the strong influence left by the Spanish in northern Mexico.

Thick stone walls of this once formidable city have decomposed. Citizens who lived there, robbed of their heritage, must watch in horror as their city attempts to lift itself from the water. I suppose the possibilities of restoration here are impossible, but I would like to think that this “Old Warrior,” as it was once referred to, will re-emerge in defiance from its curse—and live forever.

One can always hope.