Elizabeth Dávila with collection of mammoth fossils / Tom Barry
I wasn’t expecting to spend more than a half-hour at Laguna de Bustillos.
Ready to get back on the road to Cuauhtémoc, I had accomplished what I had intended -- having taken a series of photos of the nearly completely dry lakebed strewn with thousands of dead trout. To see this graphic evidence of Chihuahua’s severe drought, I had taken the longer, free road heading southwest from Chihuahua City.
After two years without much rain, the lake was retreating as much as 200 meters a day, according to newspaper reports. A combination of factors – two years of intense drought, increased deep well drilling, and the disappearing watershed – were endangering the future existence of the lagoon.
Just when I was getting back on the libre toward Cuauhtémoc, I spotted a sign for the Favela Museum.
A dying community next to a badly contaminated and increasingly dry lake is an odd place for a museum. Curious, I turned into the lakefront community of Favela – one of more than a dozen dying or dead ejidocommunities that ring the disappearing lake.
Unlike most urban areas and more prosperous villages in Mexico, where home and business owners delight in painting their building in bright and joyous colors, Favela is the color of dirt and gravel – a couple of blocks of impoverished adobe and concrete-block homes that have probably never had a paint makeover.
The Favela Museum doesn’t need a sign to attract attention. The upbeat brash colors of the trippy murals that cover the walls of this house/museum demand your attention like a blooming cactus flower.
Just what is this place?
Standing at the door, the two owners/curators Eliseo Villegas and Elizabeth Dávila welcomed me to the Don Isidro Fabela Alfaro Museo.
If you feel the need for wonder and a healthy injection of inspiration, then take the libre from Chihuahua and pay the 25 pesos (roughly $1.85) entry fee to the museo – where North American prehistory, Mexican rural history, and a vision of homegrown environmental sustainability mesh in magical ways.
If you are longing for a bit of magical realism, then get off the libre and step inside the world of Eliseo and Elizabeth.
This isn’t Macondo; it’s Favela.
Flea Markets, Casinos, and Home in the Museum
It may have been my New Mexico plates that explain why Eliseo and Elizabeth were immediately so friendly and welcoming.
There was, of course, a crossborder connection here in Favela, like most anywhere you travel in Chihuahua.
Eliseo knows better than I the road from New Mexico to central Chihuahua. For many years, he traveled the long road to the other side -- up to Nuevo Casas Grandes, turning northeast toward Palomas, and then on to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Before his truck died and his visa expired, Eliseo used to load the back of his old truck with the arts and crafts of Elizabeth – his painter wife and New Age explorer (Her email prefix is “oriente del cosmos.”).
The old milk jugs abandoned by the ejidatarios and Mennonite farmers around Cuauhtémoc have become aesthetic objects in the artful hands of Elizabeth. The metal jugs were the most popular items on sale by Eliseo at the flea markets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Some of these cheerfully painted jugs – usually with flowers -- are currently on display in the museum’s patio.
After he sold all of Elizabeth’s art creations, Eliseo would go back on the road, heading south with a load of used appliances and other discarded items he acquired in the north. This crossborder entrepreneur made money coming and going – and saved money while in the north sleeping in his truck, spending the nights in the parking lots of the Native American casinos near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Entering their museum/home, I could only laugh – in appreciation and wonder – not knowing exactly how to absorb and understand all that was before me.
So what is this museum? Well, obviously, it’s hard to describe – a difficulty that Eliseo and Elizabeth have also confronted.
When they founded the museum five years ago, soon after they moved to Favela from Cuauhtémoc, Elizabeth chose upbeat, indigenous name: the Rayénari Museo (Ray of Light Museum). But it now bears a less New Age-tinged, more education-focused name: Museo Paleontológico Don Isidro Fabela Alfaro – a title that links its paleontological core with its trappings of local history, apparently designed to attract visits by school groups from Chihuahua City and Cuauhtémoc.
Elizabeth and Eliseo have turned their four-room home into a combination history and natural history museum – all crammed together in an art-gallery ambience. Colorful murals cover the walls along with beautiful paintings by Elizabeth, including a beguiling portrait of Frida Kahlo.
Huge mammoth fossils are piled on a long table that runs down the center of the main room, and everywhere you look something else that is equally surprising and delightful. Over five hundred fossils have been numbered and catalogued, mostly of mammoths – tusks, molars, and rib bones of Columbian Mammoths who roamed this water basin for many millennia and perhaps as late as 4,500 years ago.
Don Isidro Fabela Alfaro, whose image is displayed outside the museum, was one of early ejidatarios and found of the ejido that now prefers the “v” to the “b” spelling of Favela. There would, of course, be no Favela Museum without Favela -- not only because where Elizabeth and Eliseo decided to live but also because of what the ejido has done with his land since its founding in the early 1930s.
Ejido and Environment
How did all these massive mammoth bones come to occupy the central room of the modest home of Elizabeth and Eliseo? As I came understand, the answer involves the land use patterns of the Favela ejido.
For many decades, the area’s ejidatorios eked out a living on the shores of this ancient basin, which collects groundwater that seeps and flows from the Sierra Madre Occidental. Growing corn and beans and grazing cattle in the surrounding grasslands and forests, they led a hard life. They didn’t prosper, but they survived, at least until the last couple decades when the diaspora to the cities and to the United States began.
The well-organized collection of washbasins, antique furniture, farm implements, and photos – brought to the museum by the remaining ejidatarios and carefully displayed in the yard – tell this campesino story.
The lagoon and the land tell a parallel story – one of the exploitation, abuse, and death of the grasslands, the juniper forests, and the Chihuahuan Desert hills. Today, the land lies bare – primarily due to clear-cutting, overgrazing and unsustainable farming.
Adrian Estrada, 57, is one of the few ejidatarios who is still trying to make a living off the land, and he manages, he tells me, because he has many hectares of good land back in the hills and because he has cared for his land. Like most close observers of the rural economy in Chihuahua, Estrada attributes the current water crisis to global climate change and unsustainable land management practices locally.
Estrada points to the denuded hills past the lake, saying: “I remember when those cerros were higher. But over the years, the wind has blown the tops of our hills and mountains away, covering us with dust and not attracting the rains as they used to.”
Since the land no longer gives – “No se da la tierra,” Adrian explained -- the ejidatarios of Favela began to sell their land about a dozen years ago. Not selling the ownership to their properties (since nobody would want this now-sterile land) but actually selling the earth.
Sands of Time
Playas are scattered throughout the Chihuahuan Desert. These are hard-packed often-salty shallow basins that catch the seepage and drainage of the monsoons. Like desert playa, Laguna de Bustillos expands after the summer rains. But unlike the ephemeral water catchments of the playas, the lagoon traditionally has been more like a lake, with the quantity of water and its expanse varying according to the rain and snowfall of recent years. In some years, after the torrential rains during the summer, the lagoon even edged up to backyards of the surrounding communities.
It was such a year when Elizabeth and Eliseo, a married couple, moved to Favela from Cuauhtémoc to be near the lake, which, when full as it was then, is a thing of unusual beauty – vistas of seemingly endless expanses of desert and water.
Although highly contaminated, the immense lagoon seemed a miracle of nature – a large lake in the middle of the desert. But signs of environmental sustainability and rural development gone awry could not be missed. The wastes of the town of Anáhuac and Cuauhtémoc had long flowed into the lagoon, including the discharges of a cellulose plant on the edge of the lagoon. The surge of intensive agricultural enterprises by Mennonite farmers – who have drilled for water at unprecedented depths and whose crops depend on chemical fertilizers – have also contaminated the lagoon waters, leaving a layer of agrochemical dust that blows off the lakebed when the waters recede.
Behind their new home, materials companies from Cuauhtémoc were mining the land for the sand that had accumulated over the millennia in the region’s largest natural lake.
The sand and gravel quarry that borders Favela, extending to the backyard fences of some homes and bordering the road into the community, represents the last gasp of the ejido. The death of these campesino communities – created during the apex of the Mexican Revolution’s agrarian reforms – underscores the end of an era. Yet like the sheen of post-monsoon water in the desert playas, the era of ejidos in Mexico seems an ephemeral part in the course of the history of the land, especially when digging deeper into the region’s prehistoric past.
Along with the mountains of sand, the machinery uncovered a graveyard of prehistoric life. When Elizabeth and Eliseo came to Favela, they were horrified that the bones of mammoths and other still-unidentified vertebrates were not being collected and preserved.
Elizabeth is the official curator of the paleontology museum, which has the blessing of the National Institute of Art and History (INAH) and of the lead paleontologist at the University of Chihuahua.
According to researchers from U.S. and Mexican universities, the paleontological findings harbored in this homemade museum are largely vertebrates of mammals that emerged in the Pleistocene, although the Favela museum also displays fossils of numerous mid-Cretaceous invertebrates, including oysters, gastropods, ammonites, and bivalves.
Why were so many mammoth remains found next to Favela? Some have speculated that this area was a type of cemetery for mammoths, which weighed as much as 12 tons.
As Elizabeth guides me through the main showroom, she tells me: “People often say, ‘Aren’t you afraid to live in a mammoth graveyard?’ But no, I feel safe and rooted, as if the mammoths that lived here are now protecting us.”
But it is not just the remnants of almost incomprehensible past that amaze the museumgoer in Favela. It’s the conjunction with what seems, by comparison, to be almost the present. A collection of Apache daggers and arrowheads – dating back a couple of hundred of years -- are displayed on the wall. There are also rows ofmetates and morteros left behind by other indigenous people, including the Rarámuri, who found sustenance around the ancient water basin Also part of the unusual mix of natural and human history are sepia and faded black-and-white photos of the early ejidatarios..
Prehistory mixes with colonial, frontier, indigenous, and Mexican history with an ease and seamlessness that leaves you dizzy – especially knowing that this couple as captured all this past in only five years without any government or outside help.
A Sustainable Future
Elizabeth and Eliseo are, however, not stuck in the past. They are also living the future of survival and sustainability in Favela.
Taking to heart the lessons of unsustainable land-use practices and of the new challenges of climate change, Eliseo has in the last year created yet another dimension of the museum – establishing what apparently is the only garden in this rural area, building a greenhouse, and installing a solar water-heating system on the museum/house’s roof, all on the cheap.
Producing their own food supply and reducing their energy costs is, of course, one goal of this new museum display.
But Eliseo also aims to create a living museum for visiting schoolchildren –showing how seeds flourish in the greenhouse even in winter, how the sun not only bakes the earth but can also heat our water, and how appropriate technology functions in the form of a simple drip-irrigation system.
Elizabeth and Eliseo in front of new greenhouse / Tom Barry
Compost produced by Eliseo / Tom Barry
Eliseo's compost pile / Tom Barry
“I don’t understand why the government and the universities don’t help us maintain the fossils and the museum,” lamented Dávila. She and her husband would appreciate governmental financial support, but the government, she said, “complains that they don’t have enough resources to help.”
“Well, neither do we. We don’t have the room nor the money to preserve all this,” she said.
Yet, the couple doesn’t relish the thought of seeing all the remnants of natural and human history they have so carefully accumulated carted off to some storeroom in the capital.
“What we have here is part of the heritage of the nation,” observed Dávila,” but it is also the heritage of all humanity. And we want this museum to be accessible to everyone, not just a collection but a place of learning.”
While the community of Favela has supported the establishment of the museum, there are some who regard it as simply another way that a poor family has found to scratch out a living in these tough times.
Eliseo and Elizabeth hope that all their work and dreams for the museum will eventually result in a steady income stream, making possible, among other things, for them to separate home from museum. But they also dream of saving the pesos needed to buy a new truck. Eliseo is eager to get back on the road again and revive the flea market-based crossborder mercantilism that once proved so rewarding.
As we exchanged our goodbyes, Eliseo and Elizabeth stressed their hope in attracting more visitors from the across the border to visit their museum/house. I promised to spread the word and to pass their way again in the not-too-distant future.
As I was taking my leave, Eliseo handed me a strangely heavy, odd-looking black rock, explaining that it was a meteorite found in the desert nearby -- a “recuerdo” from another world.