On a gravel road in the tiny Texas town of Voss, about an hour’s drive from San Angelo, Cynthia Gurrola spotted the warning sign too late.
She and Kristen Perez, another student at St. Edward’s University, were on their way to interview and photograph rancher Jane Padgitt for a school project that will become part of a museum exhibit on Saturday — but on that day in November last year, lost and stranded in the deserted countryside, they could barely fathom shaking her hand.
As they zipped down the road, Gurrola saw the note "Flat tires possible!" written on the hand-drawn map they’d received in the mail from Padgitt, warning them about the rough terrain. No sooner had she read the warning aloud, the tire pressure signal for Perez’s car flashed. They were nine miles from the ranch. They had no cellphone signal. And they could see no one around. Gurrola, dealing with lingering back and head pain from a car accident at the start of the fall semester, had to jump on a tire iron to get the bolts off the flat tire and swap it with a spare.
But they finally made it to Padgitt’s ranch, where she regaled them with stories about living on that land since she was a child and the challenges of keeping it going as an adult.
Although the experiences of the 19 other students involved in the "Enduring Women" project for the Bullock Texas State History museum weren’t quite as harrowing as Gurrola and Perez’s at the outset, Gurrola said it helped to put her temporarily in the right mindset. "Here we were, about to interview an ‘enduring woman,’ and we were having to be enduring women ourselves," she said.
"Enduring Women," a collaboration between St. Edward’s University and the Bullock museum, started as a class last fall that taught 21 students from the history and photocommunications programs to engage in undergraduate creative research from an interdisciplinary viewpoint, said Charles Porter, a history professor who co-taught the class.
In other words, he said, the history majors learned research and interviewing techniques, and the photocommunication majors received pointers on taking artistic photographs. They combined these skills when they talked to and took pictures of their subjects — 12 women from across the state who have fought to preserve their land, despite economic and environmental challenges, and often with no one else by their sides.
That’s the intent of the exhibit, Porter said. The students, who produced audio clips and photographs to chronicle the women’s stories, aimed to showcase the iron will of Texas women beyond the ones who have already been in the spotlight, such as Barbara Jordan or Clara Driscoll.
Each of the women Porter selected to be featured met with two students, one tasked to be the historian, the other in charge of taking photos.
The project was collaborative, said Chris Evans, a photographer assigned to Minerva Margo, who lives in the Rio Grande Valley and leases her land for cattle to graze. He and his historian partner took on much of the interview and transcribing process together. What he noticed is that they barely captured a fraction of who Margo is.
"You talk on the phone with them and spend a day with them, so you’re really just scratching the surface of them as a person," Evans, a senior, said. He added that he became interested in documentary work after noticing that it’s not as objective as it might seem. It’s "a balance of subjectivity" and a matter of deciding exactly what to show.
For Victor Vergara, a historian, it was important to show Evie Patton in just the right light. Patton lives in Austin but holds onto her family’s ranch outside of San Antonio despite the high taxes to keep it. The land has been in her family since the days her ancestors, Texas colonizers, signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and warned nearby San Antonio of Santa Anna’s arrival. Although no one lives on it now, Patton wants to preserve the land as a historical site for students and anyone else interested in studying its architecture and history.
"This is her vision," Vergara said. "This is why she made sure to get it landmarked. A person can walk into the ranch and see not much more than broken buildings and cactus. But if they look closer, they can see things like traces of hands in the clay that made the buildings. Things like that. It’s Evie’s past, and she can’t let it go."
Using the Herrera-Ruiz Ranch as an education in Texas history has become as much Vergara’s wish as Patton’s. He said that the "Enduring Women" project became about more than just getting his name in a museum. He said he hopes that it helps raise awareness of the plight of the ranch, which needs some serious care to be viewable to the public.
Gurrola similarly doesn’t care much that her work is going to be in a museum. She is proud of it, of course, but what she likes most is that it’ll be archived — available in 50 years for whoever wants to know about women in the ranching business.
"Being a woman in an industry that’s male-dominated deserves to be recognized," she said.