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The Politics of Adobe Could Reshape Far West Texas – Texas Monthly

The humble material has long been used to build homes in the desert. But working with adobe isn’t so simple anymore.
The house of an adobero is identifiable by the quantity and type of stuff in the yard. Those who work with adobe are natural scroungers and re-users: a heap of leftover mud bricks from someone’s demolition over here, a pile of wooden forms stacked there, sheet metal sourced from the dump, waiting to cover sacks of plaster. Then there is the house, or shed, or studio itself, rising nakedly half-finished amid a landscape bristling with shovels and ladders. 
This was our yard 26 years ago, when my husband, Michael, and I used our savings for grad school to buy a one-hundred-year-old house in Marfa. Looking back, it was a falling down, spooky ruin whose chief inhabitants for untold decades were snake skins and mummified cats. Yet despite its absence of plumbing or solid flooring, its wide dogtrot hallway and tall windows felt friendly and right, as though it had been waiting for us. Surprisingly, not everyone was so charmed. I once stood looking at a city hall map that color coded the condition of every home in town—Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, Dilapidated. It also showed which structures were occupied. The city administrator slid up to me, pointing at a dot on the map. “That’s the one house in Marfa that’s dilapidated and occupied,” he told me. It was, of course, ours.  
Adobe is the humblest of building materials, for which earth, straw, and water are formed into bricks and then dried in the sun. It appears in arid places where dirt is the cheapest and most abundant natural resource. Adobe buildings have thick walls for structural integrity, and the earthen bricks absorb heat, keeping the interior cool. Some of the world’s oldest cities, going back to 9500 BC, were made of mud bricks. Native Americans had used earthen bricks for centuries by the time the Spanish arrived. But as ancient as it is, adobe remains contemporary. Perhaps half the planet’s population lives in earthen houses. 
Adobe buildings are common throughout West Texas, but particularly in the communities of the Big Bend. Of Marfa’s 1,059 houses, half—530—are adobe, scattered throughout town, with examples both grand and rustic. Unlike the iconic, softly rounded edges of New Mexico adobe houses, Marfa’s are typically quite stark or retain elements of whatever style was popular at the time of construction: Victorian fish scales below the roofline, for instance, or a Craftsman bungalow’s detailed woodwork. The town contains one of the largest concentrations of adobe buildings in the state. It’s a community that comes from the earth.
Our beloved house cost $9,500 back in 1996—to us, all the money in the world. Taking something that was disregarded and broken and making it beautiful felt important, even if it took a very long time to fix, which it did. As in many local adobe buildings, its walls met the ground without the structural intervention of a foundation. And as with many local adobe buildings, the capillary action of the bricks’ earth and straw had drawn moisture from the ground, to deleterious and melty effect. Daylight streamed through a gash, about 1 foot wide by 22 feet long, that ran along the base of a load-bearing wall, which was itself held upright by spiderwebs and magic. We despaired, thinking we’d made a terrible mistake. An architect who’d restored an adobe building in Fort Davis stopped by one day. “This will be fine,” he said breezily. “It’s adobe. You can fix anything that’s adobe.”
So, we did. It’s just mud, we thought. This is doable. Too broke to buy adobe bricks from Mexico, where, then and now, a few commercial adobemakers exist, we instead cadged bricks from a friend’s derelict building in Valentine, a half-hour drive northwest. These bricks were almost too heavy to carry, and large, twelve by eighteen inches, which matched those in our house. It was dusty work, removing bricks from one place, hefting them into our Toyota, which groaned under the weight, carefully placing them so they didn’t crumble, moving them into the house and fitting and packing them into the wall until the great gap filled, hearing the constant scrape of shovels while mixing mortar, trundling wheelbarrows of dirt, old lath, and plaster to piles by the street, loading the poor truck again for trips to the landfill, and then replastering the wall inside and out and pouring a concrete buttress along the exterior. Sometimes, as the dust floated between us and the thermometer’s mercury rose, we intoned the words of the architect: “It’s adobe. You can fix anything that’s adobe.”
We weren’t alone. Marfa was that place where, with a little luck, some guidance, and a permit in hand, a lot of us who were cash-strapped but plucky built lives while rebuilding our houses. These days, those opportunities seem harder to find, since even the cheapest adobe homes are desirable and valuable. Yet despite those obstacles, some folks who really want to live here have turned to adobe’s old tradition and the earth beneath their feet to do something not so simple at all: commit to a place, make a life, create a home.
On the front of a house owned by Michael Camacho and Mallory Jones hangs a single strand of Christmas lights and blue-and-white posters emblazoned with the image of a cowboy-hatted man holding a large brick. “Defend the Adobes,” says one. “Adobe Is Political,” reads another. Bought from the city in a delinquent tax auction in 2017, the place has two small original rooms nearly at street level, a classic 1920s adobe. Camacho and Jones gutted the interior, and a new, two-story additional structure is also in progress a few feet behind the main house. More than a hundred homemade adobe bricks lie drying in the yard; hundreds more finished bricks are stacked nearby. No one lives here yet, but if all goes according to plan the couple and their sons will move in within the next year. “The goal is to build a house,” says Camacho, draped over a shovel. “The goal is to prove that building with adobe is cost-effective.” Jones looks up at him from a cot on the porch, where she cradles their sleeping two-year-old. “And to empower people that they can build it themselves,” she says. 
The couple bid $38,000 for the six-hundred-square-foot house. It had sustained a fire sometime in the past. It no longer had workable plumbing or an electrical system—it was just a shell. “It needed someone to take care of it,” Jones says. “We’re just helping it.”
Besides, says Camacho, “there’s no way we could afford any other house in Marfa.”
Despite its sophisticated reputation rooted in high art and ranching, Marfa generally skews poor: 99.7 percent of its public school students, for instance, are deemed economically disadvantaged. Houses, even very modest ones, aren’t generally available for less than $250,000. Folks who’ve been here for generations typically own their homes outright, so when they sell in this hot market, the deal delivers a great profit. For those who arrived in more recent years, however, homeownership can be a distant aspiration. Wealthy second-home buyers have the means and the desire to move shockingly fast on available listings. While prospective buyers will consider houses of any building type, says Mary Farley, a realtor who’s sold homes here for seventeen years, adobe is usually preferred. “People are interested in historic homes and they like the Marfa style of adobe,” she says. “They like the shape, the fact that it’s not adorned, for the most part, and the simplicity of it.” Many of her clients, she says, are from out of town. 
This atmosphere has made even renting a challenge. A schoolteacher friend called one night this spring, her voice staticky with disbelief. “My landlord just sold my house,” she said. Her place was small, quirky, and objectively run-down. It was also adobe. It had been for sale for a few days, at an asking price a smidge less than $300,000. “No one even came to see it,” she said. “They bought it without seeing it.”
Quite a few of these properties are destined to become vacation rentals. The Presidio County Appraisal District, which tracks such things, reports that 150 houses in town are specifically short-term rentals, and a quick visit to a well-known website indicates there are 300 possible “stays” in town. In a market where vacation rentals soak up the housing stock, there are few available long-term rentals, and the rent can be quite dear. It’s hard to live in a place where there’s no place to live. 
The real estate climb in Marfa over the past couple of decades resulted in a lopsided scenario, where the prices that buyers were paying outpaced the tax valuations set by the appraisal district. Valuations feed school funding, regulated by the state. When the state comptroller’s office leaned on the appraisal district eight years ago to close the gap between market values and appraised values, the district complied, and appraised values have subsequently risen 361 percent. That buyers particularly prized adobe homes didn’t go unnoticed, and in 2017 the district began valuing adobe homes higher than similarly sized, similarly appointed homes of frame, concrete block, or masonry. That year, 85 percent of adobe-home owners protested their valuations, with varying degrees of success. In essence, in Marfa, if you own a house made of adobe, the humblest of building materials, you’re going to owe more taxes. 
The district’s decision to assign a higher value to adobe homes incensed Sandro Canovas, a Mexico-born adobero and activist who now lives in Marfa. All over town he slapped up the posters that read “Adobe Is Political” and “Defend the Adobes.” “I come from a family of brickmakers,” he says. “I have it in my blood.” He maintains that the appraisal hike is innately unfair, since those who have traditionally built and lived in these homes are hit hardest. “It’s outrageous what the appraisal district has done,” he says. “They took something that was available to everybody and gave it to the very wealthy. People with no historic or cultural connection to adobe or people who would never mingle culturally now possess this architecture—because it’s cool to have an adobe home.”
Though officials with the appraisal district understand the dismay, they said they did what they had to do, as the implications could be worse, and out of local control, if the state descended and set the valuations. “They’d really, really increase the values all at one time,” says Cynthia Ramirez, the chief appraiser for Presidio County. “People think sometimes that we’re just throwing out numbers. But we have sales to prove exactly why homes are being valued where they’re at.”
Camacho, whose project has cost $5 a brick from raw dirt to finished walls, argues that the material itself is not expensive. “It’s people with money who will buy a run-down adobe house that makes adobe expensive,” he says. 
Of course, once people do renovate or build, a sticky problem arises. “The ‘adobe tax’ has been so detrimental to earthen and vernacular architecture because it doesn’t allow anyone who already owns an adobe to work on it,” says Canovas. “The moment you try to do something with adobe in Presidio County, it’s immediately going to be taxed higher.”
More and more houses stand empty except when tourists are renting them. The town’s population has declined nearly a quarter since the 2000 census, to just 1,621 people. Fewer Marfans inhabit Marfa. That’s a problem, says Canovas.
“We get affected by all these pushes of gentrification,” he says. “People get pushed out of their homes—that’s what gentrification does. Even though the appraisal district doesn’t want to call it a tax, we’re dealing with taxation on a building material. Who the heck is going to be able to pay that where the per capita income is $24,000 a year? Nobody.”
In a house sited among the creosote and spiny ocotillo of south Presidio County, Simone Swan eases into a folding chair and laces her hands across the terrier in her lap. Now 93, Swan is petite, and her eyes are bright as dimes. A crowd has gathered in her honor on this April evening, in the home she named Swan House. As an art world sophisticate in the seventies and eighties, Swan was a friend and protégé of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, whose life’s work and book Architecture for the Poor advocated building all-earthen construction to house people with few financial resources. Following a stint with him in Cairo, Swan lived in New York City, and in the early nineties, she joined a friend on a Big Bend trip. 
While driving near Presidio, Swan and her friend stopped at Fort Leaton State Historic Site, where fort personnel were immersed in an adobe preservation project. Something settled inside Swan. “When I got home to New York, I called Fort Leaton and said I want to come and work and learn,” she says. Within three weeks, she’d moved, apprenticing with the Texas Parks and Wildlife crew. “We made adobes and put them to dry facing east and west. It was so exciting.”
Fathy’s approach to building required no wood, no concrete—just bricks made on-site from earth. Swan was convinced that Fathy’s adobe vaults and domes would be a superior, cheaper way to build low-income housing. At a Presidio County adobe demonstration she gave, she noted one woman paying particularly close attention. It was Jesusita Jimenez. “We worked together over twenty years,” Swan told the Swan House gathering. Jimenez, seated next to her, nodded along. “I was the designer, and Jesusita was the builder.”
Over the years, Jimenez’s skill with the material and her management of crews have earned her the adobero’s term of highest respect—maestra. While she had adobe experience when she began with Swan, these Egyptian designs were thrilling and new. “Building vaults and domes I didn’t know, but adobe, yes,” she says in Spanish. “I learned with a book in English by Hassan Fathy. I just looked at the drawings, how the vault would be and how the adobes were started, because I had never seen this before.”
In 1995, determined to prove adobe’s cost-effectiveness and potential, Swan and Jimenez built a $5,000 prototype home in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, just across the Rio Grande from Presidio. Workers dug the dirt for bricks and plaster on-site, and adobe furniture was integrated into the form of the house itself. As part of the project, the homeowner learned adobemaking and went on to sell his bricks for a living. Swan’s ambition, she says, was “to have an alternate architecture in the West that is healthy, comfortable, and structurally sound,” and she pitched the idea of affordable adobe construction to various political and municipal figures in Texas and Mexico. The idea, however, never caught on. Government wonks didn’t follow up. Banks at the time weren’t keen on new-build construction loans for adobe homes, she says. Although adobe architecture is Indigenous, a public housing venture may have struck her audience as too weird to try, too hard to finance. 
Undaunted, Swan pursued a more personal project. An acquaintance took her to see property near Fort Leaton. “When I saw the view, what can you do?” she says. “You have to buy it.” There, on a high plain overlooking the unfolding canyons below, she built Swan House, a serene, almost churchlike H-shaped structure with Fathy’s soaring Nubian vaults and domes. Concurrent with its construction, she created a nonprofit, Adobe Alliance, and for years she, Jimenez, and a string of interns and volunteers held hands-on adobe workshops using the house as their test site. Their rallying cry: adobe is political. 
“Adobe will be increasingly more of a political issue,” Swan prognosticated in an essay from the early aughts. “As building materials rise even higher in cost than in this first decade of the twenty-first century; as industrial materials’ toxicity is perceived, as their cost of transportation increases with the price of fuels; as the climatic comfort and salubriousness of adobe walls are discovered, more budget-conscious dwellers will be drawn to the material.”
Swan House has stood empty for a long while, after health issues required Swan to move to Tucson. In her absence, some of the vaults failed and fell. Rats and dust took over. Her return to the house in April, however, came with great optimism. 
At the gathering in her honor, David Keller steps forward, dressed in a desert-tan, all-denim ensemble. Keller is a Big Bend archaeologist whose avid dedication to natural building techniques includes participating in Swan House workshops back in the day, as well as adobe projects within Big Bend National Park, a Ruidosa church, and Fort Davis National Historic Site. He and five other adobe-minded folks pooled resources to buy Swan House. They’ve pledged to restart the workshops, teaching adobe skills to all-new participants, using the house as a lab to return it to its former glory. Swan will join too, as she is able. 
“Swan House was a big deal in the adobe world and architectural circles and to people of the region,” Keller says to the twenty or so people who have assembled. “It’s a cultural asset.” He aims to create the ideal recipe to remake and replaster the house’s vaults and domes. No one is certain how to solve all of Swan House’s issues—the fallen vaults, for instance. That’s okay. “If you take this property, you take its problems and you take its challenges, dealing with domes and vaults that are exposed adobe in the desert,” Keller says. “Can it be done? That’s the challenge. Are we up to it? I’m willing to try.”
Canovas, the activist, spent eleven years working with Swan and the Adobe Alliance. He is among those who see great promise in adobe, a way forward. It’s the region’s cultural inheritance, he says, our vernacular architecture. “When people talk about adobe, it’s as though it’s something from the past,” he says. “It’s something from the present—an earth building technique that sheltered us and will continue to shelter us. Adobe or earth building is going to help us resolve housing problems we’re going to have in the future. Adobe gives the option to people to build their own houses.”
To make adobe bricks, take screened earth and shovel it into a wheelbarrow. Add water and mix into a satisfying sludge. Add horse manure, straw, or macerated cactus as strengtheners. Set a clean form on level ground and pour the mixture into the form, forcing mud into the corners and scraping the extra off the top. When it’s well packed, lift the form. Leave these bricks to dry for three or four days, then turn them on their ends to dry another couple of weeks. After that, build something. 
For generations, adobe houses were made of mud bricks with mud mortar, covered by mud plaster, lime plaster, or whitewash. A house built in such a way, where the bricks, mortar, and plaster are a single breathing unit, requires maintenance every couple of years—a weekend or a few days in which the homeowner must touch up or address cracks so they don’t expand and create bigger problems. Concrete was introduced into adobe construction throughout the Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century. It was thought to improve the building system, making it maintenance-free, and indeed, nearly all adobe buildings in the Big Bend involve some addition of concrete in the bricks, mortar, or plaster, if not all three. Concrete, however, can create moisture problems, as evidenced by the long gash at our house. Adobe’s enemy is moisture. “They could not be more different, concrete versus adobe,” says Miguel Mendías, a multidisciplinary artist with a strong interest in earthen construction methods. “Concrete is rigid. Once it cures, it will never reverse. Adobe is malleable. You can work and rework it. Like bonds to like, dirt bonds to dirt.”
It’s learned by doing, by hands-on knowledge that’s passed along by those who can feel the mud within their fists and know that it’s right.
Mendías’s family goes back five generations in Marfa, and his regular childhood visits were infused with an appreciation for those roots. “I’ve always been aware of adobe,” he says. “I have ancestors who made and built with adobe, and I grew up with those historical buildings in Marfa.” A few years ago, on his way to a job in California, he stopped to see family and discovered that a circa-1900 property he thought long sold was in fact languishing on the delinquent tax roll. It was in rough shape, nearly unlivable, with two adjoining original rooms and a rudimentary bedroom, bath, and kitchen that came sometime later. “I have photos of my grandmother as a teenager posing in the backyard,” he says. His great-grandfather inherited the house after his first wife’s death from flu, in 1918. When he married again, his new wife longed for a different house, so this one transitioned into a store that sold candy, trinkets, and even live horny toads. 
Mendías is buoyed by these stories. It took him a year and a half to cobble together the money, ditch the job in California, pay off the taxes, and move. His work to preserve and renovate the house is a long process, governed by the variables of available money, materials, labor, and time. No matter. There’s much more at stake here than simply a finished product, a cute house. He’s keenly aware that his hands touch the adobe bricks made, stacked, mortared, and plastered by his long-ago relatives. He’s likewise thinking about the dichotomy between adobe’s current voguish status and its origin as a material of necessity. “The younger generation of Chicanos is very interested in adobe and reclaiming it as a material process and a means of resisting cultural erasure,” he says.
Uncovered in the renovation were long marks drawn near the top of an interior wall, the indentations meant to give purchase to the finish coat of plaster by some unknown relative one hundred years ago. “I love the sense of peace it gives me to be connected to my ancestors and carry on not only the life lessons they taught me but also a culture I grew up with,” Mendías says. “This region is eighty-five percent people of Indigenous descent. This is Indigenous technology.”
Adobe is deceptively simple, for it is, after all, just dirt, straw, water, and sun. Yet its nuances are complex enough that the most experienced adoberos, like Jimenez, are called maestros, evoking both the mastery of the craft and an element of teaching. It’s learned by doing, by hands-on knowledge that’s passed along by those who can feel the mud within their fists and know that it’s the right stickiness and consistency to pour into forms or slather onto walls. People meet one another at workshops or work sites, at volunteer opportunities or brickmaking parties, through an adobe art project or a friend of a friend getting help with a fixer-upper. In the spirit of building with adobe, experienced people work alongside greener compatriots, with the same goal of getting a job done. “It’s a community-driven process,” says Joey Benton, owner of Silla, a Marfa design/build company that has, in recent years, focused on adobe work. “You can feel it. It’s a nice way to go to bed at night. We made some bricks, I worked with people I like, we laughed, had a nice meal. It feels good.”
On a cloudy spring afternoon, Benton strode quickly through dozens of adobe bricks categorized into groups across a large concrete pad. Benton, who moved to Marfa in 1994, was among the leaders of a six-week adobe apprenticeship program aimed at women and underwritten by a grant secured by the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum in town. Four women apprentices and several auditors, along with various workers and teachers, were in action all around him, mixing mud in wheelbarrows, taking notes, or exploring the damage within the 1900-era house on-site. 
The bricks were tests, Benton explains. Excessive clay can crack a brick. Fibrous sotol can be hard to incorporate. Too much sand makes a brick crumbly. “At the end of the day we had a conversation about what’s working,” he says. “We’re developing field tests we can use as standards for future projects. We’re going to come up with tests that we can do to each brick, catalog them all, and see what’s behaving better and find our best brick.” Among the questions they will address: What advantages does horse manure present over sotol fiber? How do bricks perform when water is applied? How much pressure will make one break? “There are ten thousand years of recipes,” Benton says, beaming. “There are lots of ways to make that cookie.”
Many if not most of Marfa’s adobe homes were built before 1931, often by the family who would occupy the house. Working in this way still resonates, with a broader, more inclusive view of what family means. “All the work on my exterior walls was done by many friends. I had several work parties,” says Mendías. “When I was removing the concrete, it was mostly women and female-assigned people who helped me. Many were nonbinary queer people of mixed Indigenous descent, like me. That healed my heart in some way. That is my community. When I look at my walls, that’s what I think about.” 
In Jesusita Jimenez’s time, women in adobe were rare, though this is changing. “It’s very hard and very heavy work,” she says, “to mix in the mud, mix in the wheelbarrow, to empty it, to lift the adobes. But I was young!”
There is room in adobe for all, according to Benton. “If you can take the knowledge and disseminate it, and then they disseminate that, it has an effect on how we take care of the community,” he says. “The goal is not to hold on to information but to let the information be free, like a library.” The apprenticeship, the Swan House workshops on the horizon, a burgeoning new constructive arts school in Brewster County, and a smattering of adobe-minded architects and designers in the area point to a collective desire to teach, learn, and build with earth. Plus, there’s work to be done, money to be made. “You put together a little crew of three or four people, you’d have work forever,” says Benton. “There are lots of things to fix and take care of.”
On the last day of the Chinati Foundation program, the scrapes of the four apprentices’ trowels were nearly drowned out by the ranchera music blasting from a boom box in downtown Marfa. The four women packed mud into the wall around a Chinati building and talked with the ease of people who’d spent a great deal of time together.
Perhaps there’s a weedy, unloved lot, or a corner of a friend’s place, where a shed or house can come from labor and mud.
“One of the first places they took us had a similar wall to this, showing us what we were going to end up doing,” says Jackie Zazueta, an artist. “We had passed it so many times and never noticed it.”
“And now we notice every adobe building everywhere,” says Tina Rivera, a filmmaker. “Six weeks later, I feel good and confident about making a house or a shelter if I had to.” 
For people of modest means who’ve committed to this region and to the eccentricities, exasperations, and comforts of these small towns, the next step is to take housing into their own hands. “As soon as this is over, I would like to start building a small adobe house,” says apprentice Elizabeth Davis. “That way I know, from beginning to end, what the life cycle of new construction will be like, having learned how to make it a living, breathing organism.” Caroline Crawley, a schoolteacher, adds, “To keep the dream alive that I’d be able to have my own house—adobe is one of the very few ways that’s possible.”
Adobe allows a self-reliance that’s outside what’s normal or typical. Adobe says maybe there is a different way. Perhaps there’s a weedy, unloved lot, or a corner of a friend’s place, or some other unconventional spot where a shed or house can come from labor and mud. Slowness and friendship are on your side. As Camacho says, “You can only lay three courses of adobes in a day. Three courses a day is a good day with five people and a couple of mixers going. You build thirteen inches in a day. It still gets you up there.”
Michael and I were not true adoberos. We never tinkered with recipes or structure-tested bricks or plastered with lime. We merely used abandoned bricks and relied on plaster knowledge from two Mexican men, strangers, who appeared under our pear tree one morning asking for work. But I’m acquainted with the sweetness of adobe. The work we did on the gash in our wall took most of a summer. That wall hasn’t cracked or moved again, at least not yet. Our friend who gifted us those adobe bricks  is gone now, and we no longer own that house, but it’s gratifying to know that it contains the joy of that sweaty, simple daily work, when Michael and I slept hard every night and woke early every morning and our single greatest worry concerned filling a hole.
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