Drought-Diminished Reservoir Allows Submerged Town to Resurface
Jul. 03, 1995
GUERRERO VIEJO, Mexico (AP) _ Each step brings back a childhood memory as the Briseno brothers walk through the sandstone ruins of their hometown, submerged by progress 42 years ago.
``This is the market,'' Joventino Briseno says, pointing to a structure with graceful arches. ``And here we all played ball,'' Armando Briseno says, swinging an imaginary bat in a clearing.
The Brisenos were teen-agers in 1953 when the government moved the residents of Guerrero to higher ground to make way for Falcon Lake, created by a new international dam of the Rio Grande. The town, then 200 years old, was sacrificed so the border boom towns and sprawling farms of the Lower Rio Grande Valley could prosper through flood control and irrigation.
``The water was coming up and up and up. The people were watching it come up and they didn't want to leave,'' recalls Armando Briseno, 58. ``They cried and cried.''
A nostalgic reunion is happening this summer for many who lived in or trace their roots to this once-ornate provincial town at the crossing of the Rio Salado and the Rio Grande. One of the harshest droughts in decades has shrunken the lake, leaving normally submerged parts of the ghost town back on dry land.
In times of high water, the lake overtakes six blocks of Guerrero, including the main square, the school and many homes.
Fishermen seeking shade or shelter can steer their boats inside 194-year-old Nuestra Senora del Refugio, a sandstone cathedral with a gently sloping bell tower and a pine roof.
The Franciscan-mission styled church, still structurally sound despite 42 years of flooding, is an example of excellent work by Guerrero's masons, said architect Carlos Rugerio Cazares of the Los Caminos del Rio Heritage Project. The 5-year-old group is seeking to preserve long-neglected historical buildings along the Texas-Tamaulipas border.
This summer, the water that normally reaches six feet up the cathedral walls is more than a mile away. Falcon Lake has dipped almost 40 feet below its optimal level, losing enough water to supply the City of Los Angeles for more than three years.
Guerrero _ now known as Guerrero Viejo, or Old Guerrero _ bustled with more than 15,000 people at the turn of the century.
But railroads through Laredo, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and economic decline each took their toll, and Guerrero's population dwindled to about 2,000 by the time it was flooded.
Today, buildings above the normal waterline are eerily overgrown with prickly pear cacti, mesquites and other scrubby brush jutting out of piles of stones.
``It makes us a little sad to see the city this way,'' says Armando Briseno.
``At the same time you feel good to remember the town where you were a child. You walk around, thinking,'' he briefly closes his eyes. ``And remember how it was.''
He looks to the main square where bands used to play in the kiosk _ where they still could: The concrete structure is still there, as are sturdy sandstone benches.
``I slept many days on those benches,'' Briseno says.
The brothers, who now live across the lake in Zapata, Texas, remember attending Guerrero's school, normally under several feet of water but now a muddy walk from the square.
And there's Hotel Flores, built in 1871, once an elegant stopover on the road between Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo. It had a wrought iron balcony around its second floor, a shop of fine imported goods and a grand piano from Germany.
``There was a staircase here, and a ballroom up there,'' Joventino says, pointing inside the building toward the open sky, where the upper floor and roof used to be. ``There was a hardwood dance floor _ beautiful, beautiful.''
The town's residents were moved to Nuevo Guerrero, a government-built town where homes of cinder block and brick replaced the 2-foot-wide sandstone walls of Guerrero Viejo structures. Many, like the Brisenos, made new lives for themselves in the United States.
But 64-year-old Julia Zamora couldn't tolerate the new town, a hilltop sprawl with gas stations and a drive-through beer store. She moved away briefly, then came back to Guerrero Viejo.
Despite the primitive lifestyle _ no electricity or other services _ she and two others have remained since the flooding, and have been joined by others over the years.
About 20 people now live in the quiet of Guerrero Viejo, surviving off the fishing in Falcon Lake. Ms. Zamora welcomes visitors and sells soft drinks cooled by ice blocks from Nuevo Guerrero, a bumpy 36-mile ride away.
``I don't like going into town,'' Ms. Zamora says. ``Ever since I was a little girl I've been enchanted with the life here.''