APICPAC, Mexico – The waters in the Malpaso reservoir in the southeastern Mexican town of Apicpac have fallen to record levels, revealing the ruins of the ancient Convent of St. James the Apostle, a baroque structure from the 16th century that has been submerged since 1966.
What local residents can see best is the facade of the building, which has survived beneath the waters of the reservoir.
Antonio Gonzalez Hernandez recalls that 59 years ago the world turned upside down for residents of the village of Quechula with the news that one of the country’s largest hydroelectric dams would be built there, the Nezahualcoyotl center, better known ad Presa Malpaso, with construction being completed in 1966.
The local residents were forced to leave the lands their ancestors had farmed and relocate above the reservoir’s water level.
And Quechula disappeared completely.
The only thing reminding the locals of the existence of the village was the convent, a historic monument to the colonial epoch that has not collapsed despite the strong water currents and the earthquakes that are often felt in southeastern Mexico.
In the Sept. 7, 2017 quake, three of its walls – some 50 centimeters (20 inches) thick did tumble down, however, and others cracked and crumbled.
Today, these are simply sad memories for local residents.
One of them, Saul Perez, is a rich landowner who resisted leaving the site saying “I’m not leaving.” But when the water rose to his doorway, he was forced to abandon his ranch and leave his wealth behind – which he claims included three large tubs filled with gold that is still buried under tons of sand on the banks of the reservoir.
Gonzalez Hernandez told EFE that the old convent, known as “the ruin,” can only be seen when the water in the reservoir is low, from February to May, and it is hidden again during the rainy season from June to December.
He said that the artificial lake is drying up behind the dam because they are cleaning the turbines in the Malpaso center, and the water level has fallen by 60 meters (almost 200 feet).
He placed his hands on his head and said that among the people who are feeling the effects of the drought are big landowners with hundreds of hectares (acres) of cacao and coffee plantations, those lands being the most productive in the area because they are near the Grijalva River, with the dam having been built in its bed.
“Today, they’re not doing that work. They’re doing aquaculture, 60 percent of the people living on the banks of the water and the other ranchers and cattlemen,” he said.
Quechula developed into a big town and was a bastion of Spain’s colonial era religious conversion effort vis-a-vis the Zoque Indians along the Grijalva River in the 16th century.
The Malpaso project, however, brought sadness and desolation for the local communities, with many local farmers taking up fishing while others abandoned the area altogether.
But the drought has affected the fishing industry here in recent years.
“The water level has fallen a lot ... It’s also hurting us because the cattle are taking water from the reservoir and there are cattle who are getting mired because the land is deceptive” in terms of looking firm when really beneath the surface it is sticky mud, according to Osiel Alvarez Hernandez.
He added that every time the water level drops, many people come from near and far to see the ruins. “Pieces are falling off of it. Five years ago (the structure) was whole; the belltower was still in good condition,” he said.