HISTORY and TIMELINE
The foundation of San Ygnacio, Texas (Zapata County) had its humble beginnings in a Mexican colonial "rancho" which came to be on the banks of the Rio Grande shortly after Mexican Independence from Spain; its oldest building was constructed in 1830 to protect the owners from relentless Comanche raids. After the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, the community found itself in newly designated American territory and was overrun by a shifting geography of war, as allegiances and authorities continued to struggle for control of the frontier. Enduring limited disruption from the Civil War, the Mexican Revolution, and the Mexican Border War, the community's isolation proved crucial to its stability. When the Falcon Dam was inaugurated at mid-20th century, the historic settlements of the region were inundated to accommodate the resulting lake, their communities moved to higher grounds, and the buildings destroyed. Having endured previous disasters and calamities of various scales, San Ygnacio's residents opted to remain in place, and in 1972, its remaining structures were acknowledged as the last standing collection of ranch vernacular architecture from the era in the U.S. and were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1978, visual artist Michael Tracy moved to San Ygnacio and began a very distinguished career. He formed the River Pierce Foundation in 1990 to bring artists to work in the quiet isolation of the village. The "River Pierce" name however comes from a Buddhist koan suggesting that water is the hardest substance because it can not be cut. When contemplated in the context of a river as international border, and the daily attempts to forge it, the result is a spectrum of social and geopolitical problems that require deep introspection. It was not until 1997 when the Treviño-Uribe Rancho became a National Historic Landmark (the highest designation for historic properties in the U.S.) that its national significance began to play a role in our programming. Today the Treviño-Uribe Rancho is open to the public via virtual tours, although the site was restored in 2017 thanks to the Brown Foundation and the National Park Service's "Save America's Treasures" program.
In preserving and studying San Ygnacio, we are working with an uninterrupted lineage of history - from Neolithic nomads to recent settlers - which has had little disruption from outside influences. This is very rare in this country, especially in Texas. In our region many of the properties have changed hands only once since being awarded as Spanish land grants. Thanks to resources like the River Pierce Foundation, and its partnerships with the Texas Historical Commission, the National Park Service/National Trails, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we were able to find artisans and conservators capable of preserving the most important historic buildings in this region. As we move forward, we expect to create a nomination for the proposed Vasquez Borrego National Historic Landmark District, which would encompass the historic settlements of northern Zapata County, including Dolores Viejo, Dolores Nuevo, Los Corralitos, Rancho San Francisco, San Ygnacio, La Union, Ramireño, and Uribeño. One of the things that links these sites together is the appearance of the Flower of Life inscribed into the architecture. Its use is not only decorative as a form, but the design's proportions evoke irrational numbers like the square roots of two, three and five, and give rise to the building blocks of sacred geometry.
The Dolores sites have been prominently featured in recent media earlier this year, as construction of the border wall continues throughout the southern US border. Even COVID-19 policies have not slowed its pace. In our region of the border, much of the river frontage is in private hands, and land-owners have stood firm in their decisions, pro or con. Nonetheless, as border wall construction work continues, so must ours. While we find the border wall to be the most evident threat, it is not the only threat. However, with a long range plan that includes restoration, preservation, and creative engagement with historic sites, we can continue to build on the touchstones left for us by the ancestors of a legacy we have yet to fully interpret. Thus we are in a race against time, working step by hobbled step, to preserve as much of the original historic fabric of this traditionally under-served community.