Not Burying the Past: Efforts to Save the History of Guerrero Viejo

In a hot, quiet room in Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, in Tamaulipas, Mexico, you can almost hear time passing.

It is measured not in the tick of the second hand, nor the flipping of calendar pages, but by the soft nibbling of a rat or the persistent chewing of cockroaches and silverfish. It is the sound of 250,000 documents slowly fading, their sepia ink becoming lighter, the edges of the paper and parchment municipal records fraying and decaying to nothingness. This soft, persistent sound is an unnerving cacophony to Dr. Carlos E. Cuéllar ('90 ), Texas A&M International University assistant professor of history.

Since the spring of 1999, Dr. Cuéllar has worked to rescue the municipal and church records of Guerrero Viejo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, which flooded in 1953 due to unusually heavy rains coupled with the building of Falcon Dam on the Rio Grande. Guerrero Viejo became a ghost town and residents moved to Nueva Ciudad Guerrero to start their lives anew, transporting the records to their new home.

The archives date to the founding of the town in 1750, and contain information of interest to historians, genealogists and residents of the South Texas/Northern Mexico Region alike. Birth records, baptismal records, death certificates, official notices signed by such luminaries as José de Escandón, Antonio Zapata and Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara -- a treasure chest of information -- sits on metal shelves in stacks, exposed to heat, humidity and pests in two rooms of the Municipal Building. The beautiful handwriting and fascinating stories might disappear altogether due to the lack of preservation funding in Mexico. But the Guerrero Viejo Archives Preservation Project, directed by Texas A&M International University in cooperation with the government of Nueva Ciudad Guerrero and Tamaulipas, Mexico, is attempting to prevent such a calamity. Cuéllar plans to have every document microfilmed and then create digital records, stored on CD-ROM as picture images.

This awesome task began innocently enough when Cuéllar was invited to speak at a Pan American Round Table, a civic group in Laredo. Cuéllar, who since 1993, had frequently visited the ruins of Guerrero Viejo, decided to show his slides of the town.

They are arresting photographs: Nuestra Señora de Refugio (Our Lady of Refuge) Church, no longer submerged but with watermarks high up on the pale front columns, the back wall collapsed into the altar space; the empty plaza still recognizable by the X-shaped pattern of the sidewalks. Cuéllar discussed the state of the archives, seen on a trip with Dr. Stan Green, A&M International professor of history. A small photofeature, which included reference to the decaying documents, appeared in The Laredo Morning Times.

Then the phone started ringing. Mrs. Raúl Vela called because her husband was born and lived in Guerrero Viejo until the flood. Dr. Vela had eight large photographs of Guerrero Viejo, taken in the early 1950s, which they wanted to donate to the University. Their only stipulation: they must be exhibited, not left in some forgotten drawer. This donation was the start of the Guerrero Viejo Archives Preservation Project, and the photos can now be viewed on the second floor of the Sue and Radcliffe Killam Library.

The second interesting call was from Tom Elmore, a businessman who had extensive experience with microfilm and had worked with courthouse records. He understood immediately the value of the documents, not only for family histories and genealogists, but to clarify deeds and titles. "What can we do to get this started?" he asked Cuéllar. He even offered the use of his 16mm microfilm camera.

These two calls pushed Cuéllar into action and soon an expedition consisting of Cuéllar, Elmore, Rodney Webb, director of the Killam Library, Renée LaPerrière, special collections librarian, and Dr. Green, travelled to Nueva Ciudad Guerrero to view the archives and begin discussing saving the records with the local officials. In addition, the group met with Maria del Carmen González Carvajal, the volunteer archivist who has worked with the archives for 10 to 15 years.

"She is the real hero in this story," explains Cuéllar, "because she's been the guardian. Other people have seen these documents and view them as old paper that needs to be thrown out to make room for new paper. If it wasn't for her, we probably wouldn't have any of them." González organized the documents by date and shooed away carpenters, repairmen, painters and neat-freaks who wanted to "tidy up" the place.

Two years later, the Project is well underway. Approval has been gathered from Dr. Rafael Contreras Gutíerrez, presidente municipal, as well as the governor of the State of Tamaulipas and the Archivo General de la Nación (The National Archives) in Mexico City. Cuéllar has raised $38,000 towards his goal of $112,000, including a $12,500 grant from the Summerlee Foundation which supports Texas history research, among other projects.

It is estimated that the photography, digitizing and indexing will take from 18 months to two years. Filming could begin as soon as August, as the University has already purchased the 35mm microfilm camera and is beginning to coordinate training on the machine. In time, CD-ROMs containing the documents may be distributed to area institutions such as the Laredo Public Library and Laredo Community College, in addition to being installed at the University. They will be shared with officials and institutions across the river, and might even be available for sale to the general public.

Guerrero Viejo may be a ghost town, its streets empty with only stone arches remaining where once there were houses, but its townspeople and their collective memory lives on in the archives.

Herein is the joyous flourish of a birth announcement, or perhaps the somber letters of a death certificate. Through the Guerrero Viejo Archives Preservation Project's effort to maintain and preserve 250 years of records, more people will learn about the important lives and joys of ancestors known and unknown.

For more information about the Guerrero Viejo Archives Preservation Project, please contact Dr. Carlos E. Cuéllar at 956.326.2626, or email him at ccuellar@tamiu.edu.


Journalists who need additional information or help with media requests and interviews should contact the Office of Public Affairs and Information Services at pais@tamiu.edu