Texture Presidio – Antonio Serrano

Photo by Hannah Gentiles.

Texture Presidio uses the art of photography and storytelling to explore and highlight the textures and tales that make Presidio County and the surrounding desert landscape both beautifully ordinary and unique.

For Carmen Elguezabel, Presidio librarian, the arrival of Antonio Serrano in October 2021 was nothing short of a blessing. “In a time of dire need, God heard my prayers, and Serrano showed up,” she tells me. 

Elguezabal, a seasoned librarian, opened Presido’s first public library in 1983. 

The library had been given a grant covering two part-time positions for senior citizens, aimed at helping with the heavy load she often carried alone. Her position has its ups and downs,  and is rarely given enough funding to accomplish what the community truly needs — but Elguezabal is a magic worker. 

When Serrano showed up at the library inquiring about work, Elguezabal signed him up immediately; he miraculously fit all of the guidelines provided by the AARP Foundation grant. Designed to supplement existing Social Security benefits, it offered a qualifying individual an opportunity to work part time for extra income while simultaneously providing the City of Presidio with an additional employer. Small towns depend on such grants to function.

Serrano instantly put his vast set of skills to work, becoming a gardener and general helper for the library and occasionally helping with tasks within the library itself. 

He and I met at the library on a Wednesday morning while the temperatures were still bearable outside. He had just come from the Presidio Activity Center next door, casting his votes in the local elections. He greeted me with a smile that filled his entire face, apologizing for “only knowing a little English,” to which I quickly replied with the truth: that his English is endlessly better than my Spanish (as is often the case here along the border).

Part of the grant requires that Serrano practice speaking English and build computer and technology skills while on the job. However, Serrano tells me he learned much of the English he knows from decades of work on ranches across the region, beginning when he was a boy in the early ‘50s, working everywhere from the Chinati Mountains to Nebraska. He shares that working on ranches has taught him a wide range of skills that have served him in a multitude of ways over the years.

Becoming a gardener at the library has felt to him like a natural fit.

We make our way outside so that he can give me a proper tour of the garden — a true honor that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

While it all began with librarian Elguezabal’s initial vision to surround the library in transcendent landscaping, the addition of gardener Serrano in 2021 has been integral in bringing that vision to life.

Beginning part time, Serrano now dedicates 40 hours a week to ensuring the landscaping is the welcoming entrance the library deserves. In addition to the necessary maintenance, he has added his unique touch, taking a personal interest and pride in his work. 

Serrano points out the propagated plants he has cleverly recycled to expand the garden that now wraps around the building. Whether he’s putting cut nopales paddles directly into the soil, using seeds from existing plants or using trimmings from the alamo (also known as cottonwood) trees at his own home to provide a shaded area for folks to read outside, he puts a lot of thought and care into his efforts. Lacking a plant budget, Serrano and Elguezabal have gotten creative in a way that feels familiar to this region, using their own personal and surrounding resources and donations to create a truly magical scene —  no easy task in such an arid climate. 

Currently, the garden is blooming and brimming with growth. It’s likely your favorite desert flora is accounted for. Visiting, you will see colorful patches of wildflowers sowed from donated bird seeds, vibrant roses, and a variety of flowering oleander scattered around. Serrano points out his recently planted watermelon seeds, expecting them to sprout in only a few days, adding that last year’s crop produced a tremendous amount of fruit. He has created a small fenced-in section using ocotillo branches dedicated solely to cilantro. He adds that he loves using it in his cooking. One of the older “chiquito palmas,” as Serrano calls them, had begun drooping, and he found a perfectly crutch-shaped tree branch to prop it up. Pointing out where pitayas will soon be fruit, he insists I return to try them. I readily agree. 

There are seas of agave and aloe vera and various other cacti. A century plant has begun sprouting its stalk and will soon bloom its Seussical yellow flowers. You’ll find piru, bisnaga, palo verde and mulberry trees, among a myriad of other dreamy flora. You must see it for yourself. 

Undoubtedly, both the grounds and library alike are better places because Serrano has joined the team. His ability to give it the special attention it needs catalyzed such a prolific garden. 

I’m struck by the notion that he spent his whole life laboring for the cultivation and preservation of other people’s lands. Here he uses those same skills, and even donates plants from his own property, to help bring beauty to the library in his community. That deserves much praise. 

Elguezabal shares her gratitude and satisfaction with Serrano’s contributions. “Serrano had become a huge asset to the library,” she says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better person — truly the best I could’ve asked for.”

Take a trip to see the magical gardens at The Presidio Public Library. Check out a book from Elguezabal inside, sit at the green picnic table dedicated to her late parents under the shade of a tree and admire the desert landscape around you while consuming poetry, doing homework, or taking a journey into the pages of a new fictional adventure.

Hannah Gentiles is a photographer and trained social worker who has lived in Presidio County since 2015. She currently runs “Texture Presidio,” a photo essay-based storytelling project, and lives in Presidio. To find out more about Texture Presidio and her photography, visit www.hannahgentiles.com/texturepresidio or ig:texturepresidio