Life Looked Over
Life Looked Over is a series of photographs inspired by the history of Texas border-towns and the transition of once-bustling communities in West Texas. I was initially drawn to understand the history of this slice of Texas because my grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from Leon, Mexico and was a part of the cultural roots that now define life in Texas and beyond. Research on towns like Shafter and Valentine shed light on a once booming silver and gold mining industry that proved to be short-lived and ultimately yielded fascinating shadows of communities that are now often over-looked and forgotten.
Initially I was intrigued and inspired to understand more about how an thriving community could become an abandoned ghost-town, and I wanted to document this fascinating transition through photographing places that gave new lives to people. The parallel of big money in the form of silver and gold mining to our local struggles with big oil and their lack of concern for local communities was striking and all too familiar. The practice of moving in, raping the land for natural resources, rewarding the economy with the benefits, but ultimately having no concern for the longterm welfare or existence of the citizens is a pattern that appears to repeat itself. Although the ecological consequences of silver and gold may not be as severe as fracking or transmitting hazardous materials through protected land and communities, the general disregard for human life based on a low population density is apparent when looked at from an historical perspective.
The irony is that although these towns are largely documented as abandoned and sad, when they are experienced in person they are beautiful communities thriving on their own terms. They are remnants of the way the Mexican immigrants helped to define and shape the culture not only in Texas but also throughout the United States. They are towns satisfied with their status and aren’t seeking any change or progress as defined by many in more densely populated areas.
It was only after physically being in these towns that I learned of the story of Milton Faver, who owned the largest ranch in Texas and employed countless ranch-hands from Mexico, or the struggle of Shafter residents to fight the installation of the Trans-Pecos pipeline, or the immensely expensive TARS program that created a larger than life blimp to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. I wanted to show the people of West Texas, but it felt too intrusive into their way of life. Instead the structures left behind, looked-over, or forgotten seemed to paint the picture of life in West Texas, both from its beginnings in the 19th century to present day. Every image is in some way over-looked but crucial to the past and present of the history of West Texas and its many border towns.
The Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) has been used by the government since 1978 to detect and deter drug smugglers and illegal immigrants from crossing the border in Texas and other locations in the United States. In 2012 an accident caused by high winds caused it to break away and crash, ultimately costing $8.8 million in damages. The program is still in effect as of early 2016.
Milton Favor was an early cattle driver in West Texas and Mexican history in the late 1800s. He started out as a freighter between Meoqui and Ojinaga in Mexico transporting goods on the nearly 2.5 day journey back and forth between the two Mexican cities. As his business became more profitable he expanded to bring goods over the Chihuahua and Santa Fe Trail. By 1883 he had come to claim ownership of 2,880 acres of land near the Texas/Mexico border in Presidio County where he built a vast ranch empire.
History shows that Milton paid cheap wages to Mexican laborers at a rate of 12.5 cents per day to tend cattle, goats, sheep, and to cultivate fruits and vegetables in the orchards near the springs. He used much of his crop as a commodity and bartering mechanism for items he was unable to produce himself; peach brandy was one of his popular items used to trade with outside entities.
Milton was an eccentric businessman, accepting only hard currency for each head of cattle that passed through his gate. He was one of the earliest Texas trail drivers and was known as one of the largest ranchers in Texas at the time. He died in December of 1889. This picture shows his land where he is said to be buried in an unmarked grave at an undisclosed location somewhere within the property.
This image depicts what is left of a once booming silver and gold smelter plant in West Texas. At one time it was the center of the local economy but was largely abandoned in the early 20th century as natural resources became scarce.
In early 2016 a nearly $770 million contract was secured to install a 143-mile-long natural gas pipeline through the Big Bend region. Despite the efforts of locals in the region and conservationists’ effort to protect Big Bend National Park, rail shipments of pipe for the project have already begun shipping as of May of 2015. Residents have taken strong action against the project through town hall meetings and multiple activist campaigns but their demands have yet to successfully ban the project.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was brought on to the board of directors of ETP (the company spearheading the initiative) to offer “strategic guidance to ETP’s executive management team” according to a spokeswoman for the company. Governor Perry had previously received nearly $250,000 in campaign donations from Kelcy Warren, the CEO of the company leading the Trans-Pecos Pipeline campaign. However, the project was commissioned by the Mexican Federal Electricity Commission in an effort to update its energy infrastructure.
Because of the rich geology of the Big Bend region including mountains, desert, and ranch land, the residents strongly oppose the pipeline because of ecological, territorial, and other threats posed against their region. The pipeline would carry roughly 1.4 billon cubic feet of natural gas per day at enormous pressures and would travel directly through communities and the national park. Unfortunately in Texas pipeline companies are allowed to use eminent domain to seize private lands if an agreement isn’t reached with individual land owners.
This photograph was taken of a residence in Presidio County where the pipeline project continues to progress despite the objections of many residents.