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With Its Heart in the Past

Written by Penelope Warren.

When you take in the view of the Rio Grande from the bluff-top village of San Ygnacio, it’s tempting to imagine that you’ve stepped back in time. And with a few exceptions, a quick visual inventory of the village itself does little to dispel that sense of timelessness. Descendants of 19th-Century settlers live in sandstone houses built more than 150 years ago, with walls that now reflect the glow of burnished bronze from the South Texas sun. Other sections of buildings long since abandoned offer only a stretch of wall and an empty doorway for the wind.

“This town has always had a will to survive and follow its heart,” says third-generation rancher and relative newcomer Meg Guerra. The village understands conflict, having survived incursions by Lipan Apache and Comanche as well as by Mexican bandits and warring Confederate and U.S. troops.

San Ygnacio survives because its people simply, stubbornly, refuse to surrender their homes—even after the drowning of its mother settlement of Revilla/Old Guerrero on the opposite side of the Rio Grande, another colonial village claimed by Falcón Reservoir when the lake was created in 1953. “Aquí nos quedamos,” the old stones seem to say, “here we remain.” San Ygnacio first came to life in 1830, when Don Jesús Treviño trekked north from the Spanish colonial town of Revilla to settle in the angle of the Río Grande and Arroyo Grullo on land carved from the 1750 grant made to José Vasquez Borrego. “El fuerte,” the now-famous fort, began as a single room, with only a door to break the solidity of the sandstone walls. While later additions include gunports, two troneras-rounded embrasures with firing slits-enabled the defense of the original structure.

This segment of the fort is marked off from the outside by the kitchen chimney to the east, and the later casa larga, or “long house,” which forms the west wall. The original dirt-floored building served as a residence for Don Jesús on his visits to the ranch and for protection from the Comanche and Lipan Apache who had forced inhabitants of earlier settlements to flee. A log fence or palisade enclosed a corral where livestock could be kept and, with luck, protected from both Native American raiders and colonial banditos.

The prototype of Don Jesús’ house, and others constructed in the early years of South Texas settlement, was probably the Vidaurri rancho at Los Corralitos, six miles north. Dating to 1783, the house is a stone box, with walls half covered by locally made stucco concocted from cactus juice and pulverized limestone. Instead of windows, gunports pierce the walls and punctuate the roofline. Near the floor on one interior wall, where the original plaster has been preserved, someone etched the beginnings of a six-petaled flower into the stucco, together with a cross inside a circle. This primitive decoration amplifies the starkness of the single long room and amplifies the simple, stark reality of 19th Century life. Like el fuerte, Los Corralitos was built to endure the harsh climate. In that simple combination of form, material, and function, one finds a raw beauty.

The second phase of construction at San Ygnacio’s Treviño fort saw the south wall extended and the installation of the village’s well-known sundial. Local legend recounts the exploits of 13-year-old José Villarreal, captured at Revilla by a party of Lipan Apaches. He and his cousin slipped their captors’ grasp and high-tailed it for home, traveling at night and navigating by the stars. With that harrowing experience behind him, Villarreal journeyed to another of the colonial cities of northern Mexico, where he marveled at a sundial and was able to learn the secrets of its construction. On a visit to San Ygnacio 30 years later, José built and installed the now-famous sundial. Local raconteurs will assure you that he oriented his masterpiece by sighting through the drilled stone at the same North Star that had guided him home. The sundial still marks time accurately, read on the north side in winter, on the south side in summer.

At about the time of the sundial’s construction, the west side of the fort was extended by the addition of a residence for Don Jesus’ daughter Juliana and her husband, Don Blas María Uribe. This is la casa larga, “the long house,” distinguished today by its white stucco and pitched roof. Older photographs, though, show the same sandstone block walls as those seen in the rest of the fort, and a flat roof with canales to carry off rainwater. Like the earlier sections of the structure, la casa larga was furnished with gunports, long since plastered over. The original motto, though, remains: En paz y liberated obremos: “Let us work in peace and freedom.”

The final section of the fort complex, the casa pinta or “painted house” at the northeast corner, was built by Don Blas María for his second wife, María Tomasa. The building takes its name from the flower and garden murals that once adorned the inside walls. Still austere by today’s standards, the house offered considerably greater comfort than its predecessors. One of the ceiling beams still bears the motto La paz de nuestro Señor Jesucristo sea con nosotros 3 deciembre 1871 San Ygnacio, ruega por nosotros. (The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us; December 3, 1871; Saint Ignatius, pray for us.)

The rafter also bears the same decorative motifs found in the century-older Corralitos house. There, between the text and the date, are the six-petaled flower with the cross and circle.

With those building projects complete, Don Blas María turned to a second project at Doña Tomasa’s request. He donated land for a church and plaza to be built about a quarter mile east of the fort. The church was originally to be named for the town’s patron, San Ygnacio Loyola. After the builders were unable to obtain a statue of the saint, they substituted an image of Our Lady of Refuge. So the people of San Ygnacio dedicated the church in her honor instead.

In 1991, an arsonist attacked the church. The fire exposed the original wooden ceiling vault hidden under modern acoustic tiles, as well as beautiful mes-quite lintels and a stone altar and niche. Artisans from Mexico and the United States worked to recreate 19th-Century, hand-forged hinges as well as the classic tongue-and-groove construction of the vault. They recreated doors, pews, windows, and shutters—all by hand—relying on historic methods. The statue of Our Lady of Refuge survived the fire but still required restoration. She still possesses a wardrobe of beautiful, hand-stitched garments, including the black outfit, which is reserved for Good Friday, when parishioners carry her around the plaza and ob-serve the stations of the cross.

Fort Treviño today is owned jointly by members of the Herrera family and by the River Pierce Foundation. Established by artist Michael Tracy, who makes his own home in a beautifully restored historic house, the foundation is dedicated to the preservation of the rich artistic, cultural, and environmental heritage of the region. A 1998 plaque on the south side of la casa larga declares the fort a National Historic Landmark. Like other local buildings, the fort and the church are open to the public on the first Saturday of December as stops on the annual Historic Homes Tour. A visiting priest still says Mass in the church on Saturday evenings. San Ygnacio itself is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, with the unfortunate, added distinction of being one of the most endangered historic sites in the United States. Thirty-six sandstone block structures now transform San Ygnacio into a living museum of Mexican vernacular architecture.

Steeped in history as it is, San Ygnacio also offers the present and ephemeral. The San Ygnacio Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary, originally a one-man project developed and curated by Joel Ruiz, is a regular stop for birders and butterfly watchers. The Sanctuary occupies a narrow strip of land along the river vega, heavily vegetated with the Arundo cane especially favored by the white-collared seedeater. It’s a rare day that one or more of the small black-and-white males or buffy females fail to make an appearance. They are particularly easy to spot in the spring, when the males are singing on territory.

Along the river’s bank, brilliant orange and black Altamira orioles hang their pendulous nests from the black willow. Their black and yellow Audubon cousins also breed and nest here, as do clay-colored robins. Other resident avian specialties include red-billed pigeons, white-tipped doves, flamboyant green jays with their deep ultramarine heads and yellow breasts, Muscovy ducks, and chachalacas. Occasionally, exotic species fly in for a brief stopover. A roadside hawk, far out of its range, caused a mini-invasion of birders into San Ygnacio in 2005. The following year, a young blue-and-black jay stirred up a vigorous controversy, with experts offering reasons why he was absolutely (a) a Yucatán jay; (b) a San Blas jay; or (c) a bushy-crested jay.

The sanctuary was recently bought and donated to the Monte Mucho Audubon Chapter based in Laredo and Hebbronville. The Monte Mucho birders in turn deeded the property to Zapata County.

San Ygnacio offers its past and its present, both fragile and in need of protection. Today, the village’s historic structures speak eloquently of determination, perseverance, and of the courage required to resist having the village purchased, and abandoned a half century ago, ahead of the rising waters of Falcon Lake. San Ygnacio’s natural richness speaks to us, too, of a future that values and shares the region’s character.

The area code for places listed is 940.

Dining

IN ZAPATA

El Paraíso, 1909 US 83, 765-3558.

The Steakhouse Restaurant, 11 US 83 S., 765-4523.

Lodging

SAN YGNACIO San Ygnacio RV Park, N. Hwy. 83. 765-5182.

Zapata Best Western Inn by the Lake, US 83 S. at Veleno Bridge. Call 765-8403 or 800/528-1234; http://bestwestern.com. Rates $85.80/single room, $90.20/double. Boat parking.

Falcon Executive Inn, South US 83. 765-6982. Boat parking.

LAREDO Rialto Hotel, 1219 Matamoros St. 725-1800; www.rialto-hotel.com www.rialto-hotel.com. A restored 1925 office building. Breakfast and lunch at the Rialto Café.

Attractions

San Ygnacio Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary. Turn off US 83 at Pepe’s convenience store.

Historic Fort Treviño, corner of Uribe and Treviño.

Our Lady of Refuge Church, corner of Washington and Laredo.

La Paz Museum, corner of Lincoln and Hidalgo.

Christmas Home Tour. Historic sites are open to the public. Call the Arturo L. Benavides school at 765-5611 for information.

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From the January 2008 issue.

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