Texture Presidio – Benny Benavidez

Benny Benavidez grew up between Marfa and a family ranch in Ruidosa, where he remains involved in efforts to restore the Ruidosa Church. Photo by Hannah Gentiles.

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

I met Benny Benavidez on a mission to help the Friends of The Ruidosa Church nonprofit organization, which aims to help restore the historic sacred church in far west Presidio County in the small town of Ruidosa. Benavidez, now 62, was present when the left bell tower of the old church collapsed. My aim was to capture a snapshot of Benavidez, to aid in his powerful storytelling and memorializing of such a crucial bit of history for the organization and the region at large.

Feeling at ease while in Benavidez’s company doesn’t take long. To begin, he talks me through the progression of improvements he’s gradually made to his beloved adobe home — starting with the initial task of well-fitting windows put in decades ago. He notes his wife’s constant frustrations with desert creatures dancing their way into their space in the early days. 

Benavidez’s openness is heartfelt and contagious. What was meant to be a few snapshots turned into a several-hour chat with both of us sharing life tales, complete with tears and much laughter. While Benavidez might take a bit longer to get from place to place due to physical ailments — a series of small strokes, a near-fatal massive heart attack and a severe bout with COVID that has left his kidneys in bad shape — his memory is blade-sharp. 

It’s fair to say the Benavidez family members have found themselves in more than their fair share of near-death experiences, including Benavidez’s trip to the ER for eight mini strokes. Benavidez’s son, Benny Jr., was en route to the hospital after hearing about the series of strokes; he entered the emergency room in Alpine to see his father collapsed on the ground from a heart attack that had happened on the way to the hospital.

He had already been pronounced dead. 

It was only at the traumatic and confused urging of his son that Benny Sr. was miraculously brought back to life, a thought that brings him to tears. 

***

Benavidez, born in Fort Davis in the early ’60s, spent all of his schooling in Marfa ISD. Though he lived in Sal Si Puedes during the week with his mom and siblings, they’d spend weekends and summers with their dad on their family ranch just outside of Ruidosa with Benavidez’s paternal grandparents. Later on, as an adult with a family, he spent several years working for a natural gas company, frequently traveling all over the country. When his daughter reached school age, he opted out of the transient nature of that industry and was lucky enough to find work back home in the region. He first worked in Marfa for TXDOT, transferring after only a year back “home” to Presidio, where he spent the remainder of his career, retiring in 2017 after 30 years.

I ask Benavidez how he’s been spending his days since his retirement from TXDOT in 2017. He answers, “Well, I’ve got this old race car — I like racing.” He pauses, contemplating how much to say, then looks at me and begins standing. He sweetly calls me “mija” with a gesture for me to follow him. We follow a narrow walkway around the side of his terracotta-colored adobe house and down the steps to a carport –– he using a cane, both of us careful with our footing. 

Upon opening the gate to the carport, we are met with a myriad of cars in varying states of repair. The orange beauty with an exposed front end was the gem Benavidez wanted to show me the most. Once a gift from his good friend Edward Martin, he and his son restored this classic from junkyard chic to a truly sleek beast. With Benavidez’s help, Martin can be credited with creating the original drag racing track in Presidio. He mentions that sand drag racing predates track racing in Presidio, held at a flattened arroyo just outside of town in the 1970s. Benavidez recalls seeing photos with what looked like hundreds of people in attendance. We both express disappointment that we didn’t get to witness that firsthand. 

A genuine passion project, Edward Martin and Benavidez would eventually pass the racing torch on to Alex Jimenez and Robert Romero, who remain at the forefront of the Presidio International Drag Racing Club. Benavidez says that while it was hard to let go of the reins, they both felt relieved to both put focus back on their personal lives while ensuring that the track would continue to be taken care of, and jokes that the transition likely saved both of their marriages. 

Now, Benavidez works on cars with his son, who shares his affinity. With Benavidez’s eyesight limited, it’s up to Benny Jr. to continue the track racing tradition. They are both often found at the club’s local races. 

While the love for both his children is deeply apparent, it’s in the retelling of the birth of his son that it is made most evident. 

At 1 a.m., while living in Ruidosa, over two hours from the closest hospital, his wife’s water broke. Their plan to wait out the birth in Marfa, an hour and a half closer to the region’s hospital, had yet to be put into motion. With things progressing fast, Benavidez had to spring into action, using the skills he’d learned working with animals on the farm. At the grand entrance of Benny Jr. into the world, Benavidez found himself waking up his mother next door in a way only he could — exclaiming, “Hey, man. We’ve got a baby!” Donning her nightgown, his mother calmly rose out of bed and proceeded to walk the new father through how to cut the umbilical cord — using four fingers to measure the distance of where to make the cut, and then, “She put a knot in it, did the sign of the cross, took sterile scissors and phewww, cut [the umbilical cord], then slapped him on the ass to make him cry!” The rest of the house began to wake up as the grandmother proceeded to count the fingers and toes, examining his overall health, ensuring her new grandbaby was gonna make it. A trip to the doctor following the home birth would confirm that the Benavidez family miraculously did exactly what they were supposed to, but the doctor added: “And don’t ever do that again.”

Days later, Benavidez fell into a brief depression. With the adrenaline finally wearing off, he was left with a combination of deep heaviness and relief as he considered all the ways the birth could have gone awry.

I ask if delivering Benny Jr. fostered a unique closeness. Benavidez tears up as he answers. “It does, it really does. You know I love that kid to the moon and back because I’ll never forget that moment. It was really cool, man.”

I inquire if Benavidez shared the same bond with his father that he described having with Benny Jr. His response was a drawn-out, “Nooo,” that conveyed his answer clearly. He explains that his father had been loving in his own way, but very stern due to his difficult life, spending all his days working hard on the Ruidosa ranch.

However, his eyes light up when he begins sharing about his grandfather, Juan. 

Benavidez confidently says that he was Juan’s favorite grandkid — having a real-time revelation, he questions aloud why he didn’t name his son “Juan” instead of Benny Jr. 

Juan was a determined man who worked hard to become his own boss. He started his career by shearing mohair from deceased goats and sheep that he found while trekking along creek beds as a young boy in Sanderson, Texas. Eventually, he secured a job on a ranch where he used his skills to clip animals. He purchased his shearing equipment and started his own business with his earnings. Over time, he saved enough money to buy property in Presidio County and finally purchased the ranch where Benny Jr. was born. Juan continued to work hard and eventually saved enough money to purchase his own sheep and goats (among other ranch animals) to look after on his own land.

“And I think my grandad may be the only person that I know of who lived his dream … till the day he died. Going from a boy sheering dead sheep to owning his own land,”  Benavidez exclaims.

Juan was 82 when he passed away. Tending to the ranch till the day he died, he’d unknowingly spend his last day riding the farm, tending to sick cows. Feeling ill, he sent a cowboy riding with him away to get help, knowing it would be hours before he could return. Returning with Benavidez’s dad, Ben — and with the aid of a dog who helped locate Juan with a wag of his tail — they found Benavidez’s grandpa peacefully passed away, having crawled into the shade of his horse. 

“He was out there riding his ranch till his last days. So, It’s kind of neat the way his life went, but you know he fenced that entire ranch. He wasn’t a drunk, he didn’t spend his money foolishly — he just wanted to pay his ranch off. And he did! He would puff on a cigar in the afternoon, listen to silence and, eventually falling asleep, wake up in the morning and anoint his bridle and reins with oil.” 

Hannah Gentiles is a photographer with a background in social work 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