This article is from the February 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Hacienda de San Diego, Chihuahua

by Lynne Doyle                                                         

Somewhere under the relentless sun of the Chihuahua Desert, between the city of Casas Grandes and the villiage of Mata Ortiz, in the north central part of the state of Chihuahua lie the ruins of the Hacienda de San Diego, once the property of one Luis Terrazaz.  

In the 1860’s, during the French occupation of Mexico by Maximillian, Luis Terrazaz

was the governor of the state of Chihuahua. When Benito Juarez was ousted as president, Terrazaz supported him during the two-year period that he hid out in the state’s capital city. Once Juarez regained the presidency, he rewarded Terrazaz by giving him thousands of acres of “dead land” confiscated from the Catholic church. This land had always had cattle on it, but most were wild without any brand, so along with the land, Terrazaz received the cattle as well, at one count numbering in excess of 750,000 head.  

Before the Revolution, the haciendas of northern Mexico were constantly attacked by Apaches, some from the United States, who wantonly stole the cattle. Laws were established and a special force was born (commonly believed in Mexico to be the origin of the Texas Rangers) for the sole purpose of hunting and killing Apaches. Military settlements were built near the largest haciendas and owners shared the land in exchange for protection. By 1903, due to the ferocity of these forces, the Apache problem was pretty much resolved and hacienda owners, among them Luis Terrazaz, having no further need of their protection, tried to oust the soldiers still living on their lands. These soldiers eventually became Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries and began their service in the Revolution with a built-in grievance and seeking revenge against the haciendados of Chihuahua.  

In 1910, at the beginning of the Revolution, Luis Terrazaz owned twenty-nine haciendas throughout the state of Chihuahua, fully half of the state’s territory, and was considered the wealthiest man in Mexico. At one point, he declared to the American press that “Chihuahua is mine!!” Within the year, he had been exiled to the United States by Pancho Villa, who confiscated all of his land and used his cattle as food for his troops and also to barter with the US for weapons. In 1923, at the age of 101, Terrazaz returned to the City of Chihuahua from El Paso, but he had lost 80% of his wealth, and he was never able to return to his lands or his magnificent haciendas, which along with most of the property of the wealthy classes of Mexico, became ejido land to be distributed to the country’s peasants.  

Today, this most elaborate of Terrazaz’s properties is a crumbling ruin inhabited by the descendants of the campesinos who were living on it at the end of the Revolution. Unable to maintain the ornate main building, the current residents reside in one corner of it and earn their living raising cattle and horses, farming and charging tourists to roam throughout the property, imagining the luxury and romance of times past.  

Perhaps because I lived in a restored urban hacienda of sorts as a child in Cuernavaca (although it was nothing like the size of San Diego), or maybe because I have seen and been enchanted by the huge henequen plantations of the Yucatan that have been restored and turned into luxury homes and B& B’s by brave and enterprising Americans, I was instantly sucked bigtime into the nostalgia that permeates these wrecks of structures at San Diego. Built in the grandiose style of architecture known as Porfirioto, these buildings loom huge and silent in the center of waving fields of desert grass with the foothills of the Sierra Madres blue and purple in the distance, and an occasional child passing by riding bareback on a magnificent Arabian horse. It is beyond simple to lean against a massive stone arch, close your eyes and hear the swishing skirts, gentle laughter and soft music that once was so integral to these shaded porticoes.  

As we wandered from one destroyed room to another, we could see clearly through the dust and cobwebs the vestiges of that long-ago life style. In one space, most likely a dining room, we could see the remains of an immense crystal chandelier; in another – possibly a kitchen – we found a vast stone hearth and an intricately tiled floor bordered by a mosaic in the Greek key pattern. In a far corner room, there was an arced opening in the wall that suggested to us the space might once have contained a chapel or prayer room, so integral to remote country living in the Mexico of yesteryear. In the center courtyard are the vestiges of a large stone fountain as well as a few untended flowering trees and plants. Most of the original hand-carved doors are gone, burned for fuel during an excessively cold winter the daughter of the house told us, but some thick intricately-carved window shutters remain, and in the entranceway, hung proudly on the wall over a new log bench, is an enormous wrought iron cross said to be original to the structure.  

I cannot fully explain the appeal of this remote and desiccated place, a decaying symbol of a lifestyle with which I generally have no sympathy, but there is no way to deny that appeal there is. I’d love to say it lies in the remains of the once-splendid architecture, or even in the beauty of the horses wandering over the grounds, or possibly in the grace of the high stone arches, but I truly cannot pin it down to any of these things. I can only say that it was an unforgettable experience to stand in the center of this living monument to a way of life that actually did exist in Mexico, instead of just reading about it, and – letting my imagination completely gallop away from me – to feel the ghosts of that long-ago time whispering around me. Hopeless romantic? Sure, I would never deny that, especially where Mexico is concerned. But even so, for the price of a buck or two, if you happen to be in the area, this mysterious and lovely place is not just something to see, but rather is to be experienced. No kidding.