It’s hard for new Museum of South Texas History CEO Francisco Guajardo to walk down a hallway in the museum without stopping for a conversation along the way. In a hundred-yard stroll down a corridor, Guajardo can be expected to stop for three or four unplanned chats with visitors, talking animatedly about the museum or just visiting with old friends.
In part, Guajardo is so garrulous because he’s a master networker: he’s constantly cultivating business relationships and making new contacts. But the real reason Guajardo talks as much as he does is because he loves a good story. He’s genuinely interested in knowing as much as he can about any individual he meets, where they come from and where they want to go, and he’s just as passionate about sharing the story of the Rio Grande Valley with them.
Guajardo spent most of his life as an academic, serving as a teacher and professor. He’s managed multimillion-dollar grants, and authored books and scores of academic papers. He says he got his love of history and storytelling from his parents, his father in particular.
“My father, a very rural Mexican from Nuevo Leon, grew up taking care of goats and sheep,” Guajardo said. “He did the fourth grade twice because there was no fifth grade in his rural school. He so loved school, he kept all his books afterward.”
His father’s love of learning rubbed off on him. Guajardo studied English at the University of Texas, and as a lover of literature, was particularly pleased when he had the opportunity to study in England.
“I got this fellowship to study at Oxford, to study Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters and Dickens,” he said. “I wanted to walk the streets like Dickensian characters did in London, I wanted to go to the moors in Howarth to see the Bronte Parsonage, I wanted to go to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Shakespeare theater, and I got to do all that.”
Eventually, the son of a Nuevo Leon goatherd realized that the plays he was watching and literature he was discussing weren’t the stories he needed to be studying.
“I had this moment of clarity in my dorm room,” he recalled. “I realized it’s not Shakespeare, it’s the tales of my father. It’s not Shakespeare, it’s the tales of my mother. It’s not Shakespeare, it’s the tales of my parents.”
The day he got back to the states, Guajardo called his father and convinced him to write about his life.
“He documented the family story. He documented the story of a Mexicano swimming across the river at the age of 16, before the damming of the river, when it was the Rio Bravo,” Guajardo said. “He had been a laborer all his life, but his last job, the great job that he finally got, was as a janitor at Edcouch Elementary School. My father was a bit of a scavenger, so he’d scavenge through the trash cans at the end of the day, and the next morning he would talk to the principal and he would ask the principal what he could keep, so he kept a bunch of stuff, including these scrolls the teachers threw out. On those scrolls he wrote his autobiography.”
Those scrolls would become an heirloom in Guajardo’s family, something that helped him understand himself and where he came from. Guajardo believes the museum and the stories it tells do the same thing for the people of the Rio Grande Valley.
“A museum is a facilitator of that. If you come to a museum, you have a greater shot at becoming more self-actualized, individually, but also as a member of history,” he said. “A museum is a mirror, that’s what a museum is. It’s a mirror so we can look at each other as historical beings. Most of us who walk around life with a clear sense of who we are, have reflected on who we are, not only from a personal standpoint, but also from a historical standpoint.”
Guajardo says the museum is poised to help people understand their history, especially because of its staff.
“What I’ve found is a nice combination of young, curious, inspired people, working with a staff that’s a little more mature, a little more seasoned, that carries a memory, which is exciting,” he said. “I don’t think that what I need to do is come in and reinvent everything, I don’t think we’re there, this is not an institution bereft of talent or inspiration.”
Guajardo says the museum and its exhibits tell a story, and as CEO his goal will be to help bring that story to life.
“I’d love to have a theatre here where performances are happening all the time. I’d love to have a theatre here where performances are happening by professional dancers, professional musicians, professional actors, local and not local,” he said. “I want to bring in a message that speaks to kids, speaks to elders, where people are not only observing but can also interact.”
On Saturday, Guajardo was formally introduced to the community as the museum’s new CEO. Quite a bit of the community showed up to greet him: the museum handed out 1,200 stickers to guests before they ran out a few hours before the event was over.
“At the end of the day, I’m just guessing, but we had easily 1,500 people here, maybe 2,000 people here for an open house at a museum,” Guajardo said.
One guest stood out to Guajardo in particular.
“He was this 82-year-old man who’s taken a beating in life. He’s hunched, because he’s done some labor in his life, but he has this excitement about his countenance, you could tell,” he said. “He told me how happy he was to be telling somebody about who he was and his story. One thing that gives me personal joy is when I can help people be self-reflective. I don’t know how meaningful that is in the bigger scheme of things, but on the most micro level, I know how important that is to people, when they can tell you who they are. That old man was so proud of his life, of his kids, and he wanted to tell me those stories. In 30 minutes of storytelling, we shared joy, we shared laughter, and that gives me purpose.”
Guajardo says as long as stories like that are being told in the museum, it’ll be doing its job.