the rambling boy
Marfa Public Library’s hidden treasure
By LONN TAYLOR
Last week I had occasion to revisit the Junior Historian files at the Marfa Public Library. I have written about these files before, but every time I use them I am reminded what a treasure they are, and this time I got a new insight into their value.
The files are the work of a remarkable Marfa schoolteacher named Lee Bennett and her high school American history students in the 1960s and 70s. One of Bennett’s teaching techniques was to introduce her students to history by having them write papers about their own family’s history. She showed them how to interview their parents and grandparents, how to find documents like marriage certificates and naturalization papers, how to interpret family photographs. She taught them a historian’s investigative skills, and then she placed their finished papers, along with the photographs they had collected, in the Marfa Public Library, where they make up the Junior Historian Files.
Seventy-six of the families whose histories are in the Junior Historian Files are Hispanic families. Some were ranching on the Texas side of the Rio Grande long before Marfa was founded; some came from Mexico to work in the mines at Terlingua and Shafter in the 1880s and 90s and moved to Marfa seeking better opportunities for their children; many came as refugees from the violence of the Mexican revolution between 1910 and 1920. In spite of the fact that there are several published histories of Marfa and Presidio County, virtually nothing has appeared in print about Marfa’s Hispanic heritage. The Junior Historian Files and photographs are an invaluable source of information on that subject.
Some of the histories take on a mythic quality. Arthur Fuentes wrote about his great-great-great uncle Francisco Fuentes, who died in Marfa at the age of 105 in 1944. Uncle Chico, as he was known in the family, was born in the mountains of Mexico in 1839 and as a young man had fought the French and served in the army that brought Porfirio Diaz to power. He became an outlaw, crossed the Rio Grande, worked for a while in Fort Davis, settled down and raised a family in Ruidoso, and ended up in Marfa, where he owned several rent houses. Relying on his father’s memory, Fuentes wrote, “He never did like to sleep in a bed and he never did like to eat in a house. He used to take his food outside to eat.”
Some of the stories preserve minute details. Bentura Contreras hauled freight from Marfa to Shafter, Ruidoso, and Presidio in the 1890s and early 1900s. Seventy years later his 90-year old widow told their great-grandson about his freight business. She remembered the names of his mules: La Soranda, La Naranja, La Maja, La Sota, La Nica, La Pola, La Nene, La Tane, El Sarco, La Conga, El Tortola, El Venado, and El Negro. The fourteenth animal was a mare named La Palomina, whose bell kept the mules close to her.
Jesus Cabazuela’s life, as recounted by his granddaughter Nora Cabazuela, was fairly typical of the men whose families made up Marfa’s Spanish-speaking middle-class in the 1920s and 30s. It also demonstrates the permeability of the border in the early 20th century. Cabazuela was born in San Lucas, Chihuahua in 1879 but shortly after his birth his family moved to Fort Davis and then to Shafter, where his father and two older brothers worked in the silver mine. He started school in Shafter, but after he finished the second grade his family moved to San Antonio del Bravo, Chihuahua, and he did not return to Texas until he was in his 20s, when he crossed the Rio Grande and went to work as a cowboy on the Brite Ranch outside of Marfa. After several years of cowboying he moved to Candelaria, Texas, directly across the Rio Grande from San Antonio del Bravo, married a local girl and opened a barber shop, and, during the Border Troubles in 1917 and 1918, worked as a scout at the cavalry outpost there, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1917. In 1920 he and his wife moved back to Marfa, where he used his savings to buy a gas station and a small tourist camp. He later added a grocery store to his holdings. He retired in 1948, prosperous enough to maintain a winter home in Mesa, Arizona.
Max Cortez’s life, chronicled by his great-granddaughter Martha Cortes, had a somewhat similar trajectory. Cortez was born in Aldama, Chihuahua, in 1867, the son of a tailor. In 1877 his family moved to Ojinaga, and at the age of 13 he was hired by a Fort Davis rancher, George Perrin, and moved to Fort Davis to live on the Perrin ranch. As a young man he worked in a saloon in Fort Davis, serving drinks to soldiers from the Fort and earning extra money by taking photographs of them, as Lucillia Perrin had taught him the rudiments of photography. He married a Fort Davis girl, Francisca Lujan, and in 1900 they moved to Marfa, where they opened a small grocery store in their adobe house on Alamito Creek. That house was destroyed in a flood in 1904 which swept away everything the Cortez family had. They made a fresh start in a new house on Dallas Street, and the grocery store they opened there grew into one of Marfa’s major mercantile stores, selling not only groceries but clothing, china, medicine, coal, and petroleum. Max Cortez believed in progress and was an investor in both the Marfa Power Company and the Marfa Telephone Company, which were organized in 1908 to bring electricity and telephones to Marfa. He died in 1944, but when his great-granddaughter wrote about him in 1965 he was still remembered for the sacks of candy, nuts, and fruit that he distributed to the children of Marfa from his store every Christmas morning.
As I read through these files the other day, I realized what a fine book could be made from them and the photographs that are in them. It is a book that needs to be written by someone from Marfa who knows the families involved and has the skills to supplement the information in the papers with interviews and further research. It would be a most significant contribution to the history of this region and of Texas.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.