Texan reconnects with family and finds home in historic adobe house
Miguel Mendías remembers the first time he walked into the small adobe house on San Antonio St. in Marfa, Texas where his grandmother grew up.
“I have this memory of my childhood, my grandmother walking me through this house and explaining a lot, and I'm really grateful to her that she did,” said Mendías, a Texas native.
On that day in 1999, his grandmother gave him a tour of the over 100-year-old house, explaining the history of the four-room building. The front two rooms made of adobe predate 1906 and the two back rooms were added in 1941. Mendías' family spent a lot of time in the larger home next door, but he never knew that they also owned this house that his family referred to as the “corner house” or “little house.”
“I didn't know (she) still owned a house in Marfa,” said Mendías. “We were always coming to town and we're staying with my great-great aunt Carolina and my grandfather who still lived there. We were staying at the ranch. I stayed with my other cousins.”
Without realizing it at the time, this visit from his childhood would spark Mendías’ journey to reconnect with his deep family history while reclaiming his family home.
Mendías was raised in various parts of Texas due to his dad’s career working for American College Testing. He was born in Houston, lived in Austin and went to high school in El Paso. During his childhood, he would spend his summers in Marfa with his twin brother.
“We were the weird city cousins,” said Mendías. “We would go to the pool, but sometimes our cousins would pretend they didn't know us, 'cause they were with their friends.”
Mendías’ family roots go as far back as 1880. One side of his family started ranching at Carolina Borunda Humphries Ranch in 1880 and the other constructed buildings that currently house The Get Go grocery and defunct Teatro Libertad. His dad would always talk about Marfa with this sense of pride, even before the town became a world-class tourist destination. He’d refer to Donald Judd, the artist who moved to Marfa in 1971 and turned decaying buildings and other properties into studios and living spaces, as “that guy from New York.”
“I learned a lot from living here as an adult and that's been really, really enriching and wonderful for me. I think it's honestly given me a sense of rootedness I'm not sure I had before,” said Mendías.
Over the last few decades, Marfa has transformed into an art destination with the help of Judd. Art institutions such as Chinati Foundation, Judd Foundation and Ballroom Marfa, among other galleries, attract visitors from all over the world.
As an aspiring artist, Mendías wanted his grandparents to bring him to Marfa to see the art. They agreed, and his grandmother said that it would be a good opportunity to visit her house. It was the first time Mendías heard of the home. He has memories of visiting relatives in the bigger house next door, but it was news to him that the smaller house just around the corner also belonged to the family.
His grandmother said the house was a wedding gift to Mendías’ great-grandfather from his first wife. The couple and their two daughters lived in the house and got sick during the Great Influenza in 1918-19. Only Mendias’ great-grandfather and his daughters survived.
“There were a lot of remarriages after that,” said Mendías. “If you look at the old family trees in Marfa, you see those splits very clearly, those divisions. The branch of the family that I come from wouldn't exist without that pandemic.”
“I told my grandparents that it would be amazing if the house still existed in the future, so that I would have a place to visit.” — Miguel Mendías
During that initial visit in 1999, Mendías thought the humble house, standing at 680 square feet, was perfect and wanted to make it his home base when he was in Marfa.
“I told my grandparents that it would be amazing if the house still existed in the future, so that I would have a place to visit,” said Mendías.
The house needed work, though. His grandparents had begun installing a new roof to avoid further water damage, but didn’t have the means to fix much more. So the house was put on the market. As far as Mendías knew, the house had sold.
“It turns out it was a way more complicated story than that,” said Mendías.
Turns out the title for the house was unclear. Mendías said there are two versions of what happened that different family members recall. Either his great-grandmother didn’t write a will or she did write a will, but didn’t file it at the Presidio County Courthouse. That created a problem.
Then in 2017, he stopped in Marfa to see his aunt, who was the last of his grandparents’ generation. There, he learned from his cousin that while the house was still in the family, they needed to pay at least $13,000 worth of delinquent property taxes before they lost it.
“He just explained to me that it was a huge mess,” said Mendías.
His cousin told him that nobody wanted to deal with the house and Miguel needed to go to the courthouse to figure out how to settle the debt. Mendías learned that the house would be added to the auction list soon. That turned his three-day visit to Marfa into a three-month stay.
He only had $700 to get himself across the country for a job, but he instead gave the county $650 to start reclaiming the house and went to work. He changed the property tax bill to his name. He started working for his cousin and staying in Marfa for three months to gather as much money as possible. He eventually made it to California to work, but the entire time, that house in Marfa stayed in his mind.
“I wanted to be in this house,” said Mendías. “I was in Berkeley, trying to make thousands of dollars so I could come back and put some work into this house. But I just couldn't wait to come back and be in the house again and start dealing with it.”
When he returned to Marfa, he primarily worked as a bartender to raise the money to pay off the house’s pending delinquent taxes. He also picked up side jobs that included yard work, clearing AirBnbs, catering and working at festivals.
“Any job that I heard of, I was trying to get,” said Mendías.
But he was physically exhausted. Every night, he would come home and count his money and write down in a binder how much he earned. He then made payments towards his balance.
“I belong to you, you belong to me.” — Miguel Mendías
“I was pretty miserable because it's not healthy to work as much as you can,” said Mendías. “Every day that I made more money, I was getting closer to my goal. I was the most motivated I've ever been in my life.”
While he was working, he was also renovating the house which didn’t have running water or electricity. He used oil kerosene lamps at night and carried a bucket of water he’d grab from his aunt’s house to gravity flush the toilet.
“The thing is I had been making some money and putting a little towards property taxes, but I was also putting it towards the house,” said Mendías.
When he finally paid those delinquent property taxes, Mendías felt a huge sense of relief.
“I just couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe like it's done,” said Mendías.
Mendías never thought he would become a homeowner because of his family circumstances. He thought that he wouldn’t own a home unless something incredibly lucky happened. But the fact that the house didn’t sell and he learned that it was still available when he did feels like a strike of lighting to him.
“This is a once in a lifetime [opportunity]. This will not happen again,” said Mendías. “I literally wanted this house since childhood, and I cannot believe it is still here."
Renovating this house might take nearly every dollar he has, but he’s committed. This small humble abode completely changed his life in the past seven years, and the certain sacrifices he’s had to make to reclaim this home feels familiar to him.
“This is what we have to do,” said Mendías, talking to his home as if it was an old friend “I belong to you, you belong to me.”
This story comes from NPR’s Next Generation Radio project