From depths to light of day Treasure: Mexican border town that was sacrificed 40 years ago to a reservoir has been uncovered by drought, drawing tourists and former residents.

Sun Journal

October 13, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

GUERRERO VIEJO, Mexico -- When the rising waters of the Rio Grande rushed into this historic border town's cobbled streets more than 40 years ago, residents retreated to higher ground, many believing it would be the last time they would see their homes.

The water climbed above window sills, washed away white plaster that once covered every building like icing and eroded the homes' sandstone foundations. Looters arrived next, plundering intricately carved wooden door frames, iron work and other architectural details that made this Spanish colonial town a jewel of the Mexican borderland.

The flooding was part of a joint U.S.-Mexican damming project that sacrificed Guerrero Viejo to create a reservoir along the Rio Grande. In 1953, the year more than half the town was submerged in more than 10 feet of water, Guerrero Viejo's 3,000 residents relocated to a new town at the edge of the Falcon Dam reservoir.

Only the town's fishermen returned to the ruins, mooring their boats to the bandstand at the center of the town plaza.

But in the past five years, severe droughts in the Rio Grande valley have caused the Falcon Dam's reservoir to shrink. The shoreline is now about two miles from Guerrero's border, and the town is open to visitors again.

Like a long-sunken ship raised from the bottom of the sea, Guerrero Viejo has emerged with a host of treasures: hand-carved stone arches, the walkways to the town plaza and the old parish church, Nuestra Senora del Refugio.

Last year, more than 30,000 tourists traveled down 10 miles of bumpy, unpaved road off Mexico's Highway 2 to visit the ruins. The daylong trip is especially popular among "winter Texans," retirees who flock to the Rio Grande Valley from November until March.

For the town's former inhabitants and ancestors, traveling to Guerrero Viejo has become a pilgrimage of sorts.

"It has the power of a lost city, a city that has come back from a deluge to reveal its beauty," said Dr. Mario Sanchez, program director of the Texas Historical Commission, which oversees a project to preserve and promote the history of the Rio Grande.

A nonprofit organization has sponsored town cleanups and is now working to stabilize the parish church. In July, some 500 supporters attended a church rededication, celebrating the first Mass there in more than 40 years.

"It is a place that attracts people both old and young. People did not want to leave. They have not forgotten it," Sanchez said. "It is not a dead city. It is still living in the descendants and the descendants of descendants."

A few of those descendants, like fisherman Eulogio Medelez Hernandez, never left.

"I've always stayed here because this is my house," said Hernandez, a wiry 56-year-old whose small stone home on the edge of Guerrero escaped flooding. On a blazing afternoon, he guards the entrance to town, sitting in a metal chair beside a stop sign and a chain suspended across two posts. He charges $1 for admission.

Hernandez said he prefers living in what amounts to a ghost town. "I don't like it when it's busy," he said, quoting a Mexican saying: "The goats look for green land." Like the goats, he looks for empty spaces. But at times, he admits, "I'm so bored I about fall out of my chair."

For decades, Guerrero Viejo was a destination for settlers from up and down the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Founded in 1750, it was known as Villa de San Ygnacio de Loyola de Revilla, one of 23 towns established under the direction of the Spanish colonizer Jose de Escandon. In its first decade, the town had more than 300 settlers with 50,000 cattle, horses and sheep in nearby ranches, and crops of corn, sugar cane and beans.

In 1827, the town changed its name in honor of Vicente Guerrero, a military captain during the wars with Spain who later became Mexico's second president.

Guerrero flourished during the 19th century as a commercial and artistic center. It had one of the region's only printing presses, a newspaper, markets and the two-story Hotel Flores, where Saturday-night dances drew visitors from more than 20 miles away. A clock in the city hall, imported from Paris, was one of the town's prized possessions.

The stone workers of Guerrero were known throughout the region for their skills carving sandstone quarried from the banks of the nearby Rio Salado. Its doctors were so well regarded that women from the United States would cross the border to give birth there. By the mid 1880s, 12,000 people lived within its borders.

At the turn of the century, the railroads bypassed Guerrero, eroding its prominence as a commercial center. The population dwindled to about 3,000.

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