Adobe documentary builds conversation

Sandro Canovas hangs adobe activism posters made by Gran OM around Marfa. (Photo by Maisie Crow)

MARFA – A new documentary called Adobe Houses Are Made of Mud and Straw — and Some Now Cost $1 Million Because of Rising Taxes has returned the spotlight to Marfa’s ongoing adobe issue. A rise in popularity with adobe structures in Marfa has caused the property values to rise, and therefore gentrified the building material made of dirt, water and straw.

The Presidio County Appraisal District (PCAD) recategorized adobe structures in 2017 to accommodate the housing market, which then caused an average value increase of 60 percent or more. As a result, some property owners were priced out of their homes made from the once-affordable material, including families who have lived in Marfa for generations.

Coverage about the adobe taxation has branched outside of West Texas, making national news for PBS NewsHour, Parts Unknown and the New York Times. Annabel Peña, PCAD office manager and bookkeeper, said Marfa’s housing market has continued to grow in general, despite the press coverage.

Director Alan Thompson’s ten minute video gives a brief and informative summary about the situation with interviews from local residents, including David Keller, Center for Big Bend Studies senior project archaeologist; Miguel Mendias, a fifth-generation Marfa resident; Enrique Rede Madrid, an author and anthropologist from Redford; and Sandro Canovas, a local adobero. The mini-doc was produced for NationSwell, a media company that addresses issues in America and the people or organizations who tackle the solution.

Thompson met Canovas at the Marfa Film Festival in 2018 after the screening of his longform documentary, This Land, about pipelines that run across the U.S. — including the Trans-Pecos pipeline that runs through Brewster and Presidio Counties.

Canovas has become the unofficial spokesperson for this particular issue, and brought it up in his initial conversation with Thompson, who found it extremely interesting.

“Just the fact that it’s ironic — part of it all is the idea that it’s prized by the wealthy, and it’s literally made out of earth, water and straw,” said Thompson.

Thompson shared what Canovas told him with NationSwell as a potential story idea, but needed to form it a bit more before he received the greenlight. A few months later, the New York-based director planned a return to Texas to film the Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center in Del Rio. NationSwell suggested Thompson seek out another story while he was in the state, so the adobe story was brought back to the table.

Thompson kept in touch with Canovas, and timing would have it that Canovas was going to teach a workshop on making adobe bricks at the end of March in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico, the border city to Presidio.

“I didn’t realize that we were going to go to the border area to do the workshop, which I think just sorta added a different layer and made it a lot more interesting that way too,” said Thompson.

When he has some funds, Canovas organizes free workshops for people on both sides of the river to show them how to make their own adobe bricks.

“The tradition is lost on this side of the river,” said Canovas. “It has fallen in the hands of contractors.”

Hugo Ramos mentions in Thompson’s documentary how U.S. contractors were buying bricks from him for 25 cents and then selling them for $2.50, but with Canovas’ help, he now makes $1 for every brick.

Sandro Canovas (Photo by Maisie Crow)

Mendias helped Canovas with the workshop in Ojinaga for the film. He has worked on his family home made of adobe for the past year and a half, which was discussed in the film. The house doesn’t have plumbing or wiring and is unlivable, but the property values, and therefore the taxes, continue to rise due to the housing market. Mendias protested his property values by proving the house conditions to the PCAD’s Appraisal Review Board (ARB), and as a result the values were lowered. Every year, property owners receive a preliminary notice of appraised value and are allowed to file a protest to the ARB Board.

Darlene and David Marwitz have visited Marfa since 1991, and one of the first things they noticed in town were the adobe structures. They would take photos of them and noticed some of the deterioration as the years passed. They were sad to hear about the tax increase on adobe properties when they moved here. Both are concerned about gentrification after seeing it happen in Austin.

Their store, The Marfa Line, formally opens on August 17 and offers a line of lavender bath and body products, David’s poetry, and hand-printed bags with Darlene’s block printing designs. One of her prints includes a drawing of an adobe building with the words “protect adobe” written on top.

“This was just a small way that we thought we could create some attention to get people to talk about it and discuss it,” said David.

Darlene served on the State Preservation Board for six years under three Texas governors: Bill Clements, Ann Richards and Rick Perry. Her preservation background inspires her drive to preserve and appreciate adobe. She also loves the building material’s ecological footprint.

“That to me is another reason to honor adobe. It wasn’t all about being political. It was also about just how green the building material is and how well it works,” said Darlene.

There are other protections in place to alleviate some of the financial burden from rising property values. Homeowners can apply for a homestead exemption if the house is their primary residence. There are also exemptions for those that are disabled and/or over 65 years old. The homestead exemption caps the increase of owed taxes or deducts a set discount, depending on the taxing entity. The majority of the taxing entities either offer a homestead exemption or are currently trying to approve a homestead exemption.

Truth-in-taxation also requires taxing entities — Presidio ISD, Marfa ISD, Presidio County, City of Marfa, City of Presidio and the Big Bend Regional Hospital — to reduce their tax rate if the property values increase. So as the property values increase, the tax rate decreases and vice versa. The idea is for the taxing entities to receive the same amount of revenue every year. According to the PCAD’s website, most of the taxing entities have approved slight decreases to the tax rate in the past years.

Thompson’s hope for his film is to bring more awareness to the issue and motivate people to help Canovas. To watch Thompson’s short documentary, visit