December 6, 2002

A landscape that remembers

María Eugenia Castillo

By Mariana Martinez

I look very Mexican, María Eugenia had mentioned in her e-mail, and she was right, with her black and silver braid, and handcrafted earrings, María Eugenia Castillo is without a doubt, Mexican.

Born in México City, she started her college education in biology, but soon decided to change majors and go into architecture “your leaving a cake for bread crumbs” her father said, but María was ready to do what she loved, more than leaving her mark, like most architects, but combined with her passion for history, she would integrate the past with the urban present.

Since a young age she recalls traveling with her family by train, to her father’s ranch in Chilchipico, and her love for trains was reinforced when, after college, she went backpacking through Europe, a trip tightly linked to train tracks and stations, that she sometimes called home.

When she returned to México, she found a discouraging sight for architects; few jobs and little pay, like her dad had said a few years earlier ‘cake for bread crumbs’, She decided to continue her studies and go for her Masters Degree in Restoration at UNAM-Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico.

It was in 1985 when Mexico City suffered one of her most painful tragedies, an earthquake that devastated thousands of lives and buildings alike. María, recently married and with a one year old daughter, along with other preservation professionals went out to save the hurting buildings. She was called by the Cuahutémoc District to help them evaluate and restore some of the buildings damaged in the area, among them, schools, century old churches and cathedrals.

“Because of the earthquake a lot of housing projects were damaged, and others that weren’t damaged but they wanted to tear them down, taking advantage of the situation. That’s always the excuse, when a disaster strikes, such as an earthquake, the danger is not what’s damaged, but what they want to tear down in the meantime” says Eugenia. That’s how she got involved in the defense of a XIX century building in Guerrero neighborhood, a historical place that more than sixty families called home, and where some say, Agustín Lara lived, and composed his popular song “Farolito”.

That was the beginning of her fight for conservation. In México, the federal institution in charge of historic sight conservation is INAH-History and Anthropology National Institute- but it only considers landmarks, those made before 1900; the pyramids, missions, colonial period, all protected by INAH, but how about the industrial landmarks of the XX century? Aren’t those cultural patrimony as well?

She also decided to council the newly formed group in the Guerrero neighborhood, called the Urban Popular Movement: a group of citizens that fought for the right for proper housing, “I learned a lot about how people organize. For example the landlords would come at night and evicted them, but then, the Guerrero Movement developed a firecracker communication strategy; according to how many firecrackers were fired at night, the people knew which household was being evicted, and they went there. Police started to take the furniture out, they didn’t confront them, they just took the furniture back into the house, again and again, until they got tired and left”.

María Eugenia finished her masters degree with a thesis about her restoration work in coordination with the Urban Popular Movement, and receives the Gabino Barreda Medal of academic achievement, a true honor in architecture.

She grew apart from her husband and decided to get a PhD., in Historic Preservation Planning, at Cornell University in Ithaca NY and wins a CONACYT - National Council of Science and Technology- scholarship. While going to school there, she meets her new husband, who is also a researcher, James Curry.

She finished school and plans to graduate with her study about Mexican Railroad Heritage, a subject that follows her work and heart.

James got an offer to work for COLEF-Northern Fronter Reaserch Institute- and she follows him to Tijuana, without a clear idea about the place or what to do once she got here.

When she arrives, she finds a fascinating case, about an old railroad station near Tecate, from which the Tecate town was born. Considered old, useless and ugly, there were plans to tear it down.


A historical photo of the Tecate Depot.

A group of citizens got in touch with María and she, with all the experience and patience, tells them what to do in order to save it.

Now that the demolition plans are gone, restoration is being done, under María’s supervision, and people are learning the history of the station and are being trained in order to give tours, to the many visitors of Tecate.

Many people think conservation is expensive, while in fact, María has shown it can trigger economic and social growth by empowering the people and helping them feel proud of there culture and show it. México is full of tourism, mainly because of it’s cultural richness.

But María does more than defend her personal loves, just as she did for the train station, the same love and knowledge was used to save the Santo Tómas winery and warehouses, in Ensenada, where she helped a group of concerned citizens rescue them, from becoming a mall parking lot. The beautiful warehouses, with their high ceilings and huge wine barrels, are now open to the public and every year, they stage the wine festival, celebrated in Ensenada.

From those projects, María it paved her way to new projects; she became a part of the National Fund for History Preservation, in the U.S, and SOHO-Save Our Heritage Organization-of San Diego, the International Council of Mexican Monuments and the San Diego Railroad Museum.

From her involvement in SOHO, she heard of the efforts to save the SS Catalina, a huge white steamboat, half sunken in the Ensenada bay, with a very interesting story.

Built in 1924, the SS Catalina is a part of United States history, that transported over 20 million people over her thirty years of service to the Catalina island and other routes. It was later sold and shipped to México to avoid the American laws that didn’t allow its use. The idea was to leave it in Ensenada Bay and make it a floating bar and shopping center, unfortunately, the owner’s Mexican partner, ran off with the money and left U.S. owner with the debt. The workers then demanded to be paid for past wages and the owner left them the boat. But, how did it sink? The bay workers version is that it “sunk by itself”, but a lot of boat repair men from the area say that, with a recent expansion of the Ensenada Port, they moved the boat and it hit the rocks, sadly half sunken, the way it is today.

In 1999 David Engholm, founder of the SS Catalina Preservation Association- which María is now part of- asked María to help them convince the Mexican authorities to restore the boat, but, with a huge debt to the Port of Ensenada, of a thousand dollars per month since it has been there-and counting-; a hundred thousand dollars to re-float it and over 4 million dollars in damages, the SS Catalina is an expensive project the Mexican government can’t afford.

The Association then turned to private investors, who couldn’t see the SS Catalina’s worth or simply don’t have that kind of money.

After exploring other options, the Association decided to get the SS Catalina out of Mexican territory and into California, where, with the help of very generous private donations and some state funds, they plan to restore the boat and make it into a museum, similar to the work done for the San Diego based, SS Star of India.

In her approximately seven year stay in Tijuana, María has learned how to preserve what’s important to people, leaving politics and bureaucracy aside, but she finds the legislation from both neighboring countries, is very deficient in multinational safe keeping of their shared resources, such as the SS Catalina-know part of the memories of many Ensenada residents-or the train station in Tecate, built by Americans in Mexican territory, one of the oldest ones of her type in such great condition.

Other obstacles María faces are the strong stereotypes Mexicans and Americans have about each other, the lack of trust this creates, make a long lasting binational cooperation very difficult. According to her, the preservation in the border area, must follow a path similar to that of the environmental groups, who’s work in each side of the border is closely done with it’s counterpart in the other, making remarkable progress by sharing the resources each side has to offer.

Besides trying to change the existing laws, in order for them to include industrial patrimony, and helping Mexican and American people overcome their fear of each other, people have to understand that “History is everybody’s past, the care, but not the ownership is the government’s job, a lot of people don’t even dare to rescue a piece of their own history, because they think they don’t have a right to do so” and they do.

So María’s job has become more of a translator and advisor, to help the people concerned with their future, preserve their past, and explaining how a place with a historical sight heightens the market value of the houses and shops around it, and ads scenic uniqueness to the town it is in. It can even turn into a tourist attraction and create job opportunities, just as the Tecate railroad station is doing right now.

So as it turns out, María Eugenia Castillo has a lot to do and teach in Tijuana, and her plans include the creation of more restoration and conservation professionals; historians, architects, civil engineers, ready to preserve and create more and more landscapes that remember.

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