Restoring the Tecate train station is Maria Castillo Curry's obsession. As a member of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a think tank located off the Ensenada toll road, Curry is devoted to saving historical buildings on both sides of the border. "My Ph.D. dissertation is on railroad stations. When I started work, the railroads were undergoing privatization, and the Mexican government didn't know how many railroad stations were in the country. So I traveled around the country and have 1500 photos of railroad stations in Mexico. There are 2611 stations there, and I've seen all of them. I know that there is no other railroad station like this in Mexico. I'm so busy that I don't sleep at night anymore!"
Curry has worked as a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History and is also on the board of the San Diego Railroad Museum. "When they started building the wall behind the Tecate brewery two years ago, a lot of people asked me to come and help them, and that's how I ended up in the museum, trying to save this building. The depot and the older buildings next to it all came in stages. Every few years, there was a new building, and it revolved around the depot. It's the oldest part of the town, and that's the town's history, but the wall divided all of that. And when you arrive by train, the wall reflects the noise of the train back at you."
Describing the restoration as a "grassroots effort" — something unusual for Mexico — Curry recalls the outcry when the brewery first built the wall. "There were protests. It was in violation of the preservation law of Baja California. After two years, the state government responded. People want to protect their history in Mexico, but in a different way. The preservation of our monuments was under the jurisdiction of the federal government for some buildings. But Baja California is a different region and has its own state law. We've moved from a centralized system to a decentralized system, and it's been very, very hard. Preservation is more grassroots in the U.S. and more centralized in Mexico, but now they want to do it at the state level. And the focus has always been on ancient structures — colonial and pre-Hispanic. That's our national history, but the depot is in the north of Mexico, and most of the country wouldn't think it was important. They look at it as something made by foreigners, which doesn't help. However, the people say it is important to them. I come from Mexico City, and I didn't think anyone would care, but to my surprise, I found there are people who care for these buildings. They remember from when they were kids. It's an emerging movement."
One look at the station reveals it as an American project. Built by the San Diego Arizona Railroad, the design is American and the materials found on the site come from San Diego. Curry holds up a brick with the letters "UBCo" embossed on it. "This came from San Diego. It was a brick from one of the chimneys. I think it stands for Union Brick Company or United Brick Company."
No one seems to know exactly when the station was built or who exactly built it, but Castillo believes it had to have been between 1914 and 1919. "We have photos of a previous building there, and this is the second one. I lead historical tours from Carrizo Gorge to the depot. I tell people that when it was built, Tecate had just one street and the depot. There were only about 400 people in Tecate back then. It was a ranch, but they put in this terminal like it was a big city. I don't know if they saw potential or thought something was going to happen. But it's one of the best railroad buildings in Mexico."
While working as a Smithsonian fellow, Curry met Mexico's director of railroads. "I told him, 'You are privatizing the railroads, and you don't know what you have!' " After lobbying the government of Baja California as well as the Great American Station Foundation in Las Vegas to designate the depot as the Most Endangered Station of 2001, Curry managed to get the station listed and persuaded the state government of Baja to pay for the restoration.
Restoration poses a number of difficulties. The biggest obstacle is the state government, which mistrusts grassroots organizations, Curry claims, and tends to take credit for historical preservations. "I have tried to convince them that this will not threaten them but make them look good."
Further, the company contracted for the restoration was supposed to be finished by December — a timetable too tight for historical restoration. To the local contractors, "restoration" means building anew, without any respect for the architectural integrity of the original design. "We don't have courses or schools that teach preservation [here]," Curry says. "We have to have standards." For instance, even though the building has three bathrooms, the construction chief wanted to build an additional modern bathroom and attach it to the back of the building until Curry stopped him. There are no original blueprints to consult, and Curry has relied on the volunteer efforts of San Diego's Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) and San Diego architects to advise the Tecate architects. "We are doing cross-border cooperation. I have a master's in historical preservation, and the experts in San Diego help me, and I go to Tecate to advise the architects there. I go every day."
There are many reasons why Curry believes the station is worth saving. "It reflects the history of the region, the history of Mexico and the U.S. at a very important moment. This was built during the Mexican Revolution. When it was built, the U.S. had stopped work on all other railroads, but not this one. It was also during World War I, and this location was very strategic. It's also important in the history of the border." She pulls out a map of the San Diego Arizona Railroad. "This railroad goes from San Diego through Tijuana-Tecate. It happens to go through Mexico because of the topography. It's less mountainous and more smooth, which made it less expensive to build the railroad that way."