History detective: Palo Alto chief recognized by NPS

Rolando Garza’s passion, innovation and hard work, in a job he can’t believe he’s lucky enough to have, continue to earn him accolades from high places.

The archeologist and chief of resource management for the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park has been awarded the prestigious John L. Cotter Award for Excellence in National Park Service Archeology, presented to those who “demonstrate innovation in archeological practice, resources stewardship and public outreach among other criteria,” according to NPS.

The official announcement says Garza was tapped because his body of work at Palo Alto “exemplifies the impact one person can have on a national park unit.” Among his accomplishments are numerous geophysical surveys toward further understanding of the park, and partnerships with federal, state and municipal governments as well as private parties to “investigate and protect sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley,” according to NPS.

Garza makes it his mission to share his knowledge and passion for historic resources with the public at large, whether it’s through the annual Rio Grande Delta Archeology Fair he organizes, leading a Texas Master Naturalist class, or even dressing as a circa-1846 Mexican soldier as part of a living history program he developed, NPS said.

Cotter, who died in 1999, was best known for his work at Jamestown, Va., and his contributions to the development of historical archeology. The award was created to honor his distinguished career by recognizing professional achievements and exceptional projects, according to NPS. Award nominations are peer submitted and voted on by a committee of NPS archeologists.

Garza, who in 2018 won an NPS conservation award for natural resource management, said he could not have done what he has without mentors and partners. His first NPS mentor was Aaron Mahr, formerly chief of resources management at Palo Alto, he said. In 1996, after six years as a contract archeologist working in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Garza returned to his home town of Brownsville to court the woman who would become his wife. That spring he took an internship with the Student Conservation Association AmeriCorps under Mahr’s supervision, and was assigned the task of initiating an archeological overview and assessment of Palo Alto.

Mahr decided Garza’s internship would be enriched by spending a week each with the three top NPS battlefield archeologists: John Cornelison of the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee, Fla., Charles Haecker with the Heritage Partnership Program in Santa Fe, N.M., and Douglas Scott of the Midwest Archeological Center in Lincoln, Neb., considered the father of American battlefield archeology, his methodology for investigating Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in the 1980s still in use today in battlefield archeological investigations.

Garza said the experience transformed his career, introduced him to a network of contacts and landed him his first real NPS job, through Cornelison, at the SAC in Tallahassee.

“Through that I was able to work on American Revolutionary War battlefields, War of 1812 battlefields and Civil War battlefields — and some of the big ones, like Shiloh, Stone River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga,” he said.

Garza said he’d love to be able to impact a young intern’s career the way Scott, Haecker and Cornelison impacted his. Another of the long list of mentors who helped him in his career is Russell Skowronek, professor of anthropology and history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who came to the Valley from the SAC in 2009. Garza said he hit it off with Skowronek right away and called the professor a source of inspiration.

“I know the community down here does not have a full appreciation for all he has done for promoting the understanding, appreciation and preservation of our local cultural heritage through his Community Historical Archeology Project with Schools program,” Garza said.

As for Palo Alto, he said, it’s a historical gem right under our noses. Along with Resaca de la Palma Battlefield, also part of the Palo Alto unit, it’s what makes Brownsville’s history unique compared to anywhere else, which is why it’s worth paying attention to, Garza said.

“What started on these battlefields here in the spring of 1846 would lead to events that would forever change the face of the North American continent, with Mexico ceding over half of its national territory to the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. And it would forge the relationship between these two young republics which we’re still dealing with today. That’s why people should want to know about Palo Alto.

“We study history for many reasons. But one of the things is it makes us who we are as a society, what went on in the past. It’s like a person. You’re shaped by all the events that you’ve been through in your life. … All that makes you who you are today. Same thing with societies.”

Garza credits his father for sparking his interest in history, archeology and resource preservation, recalling that when he was a kid and people came to visit, his dad would take them on tours of downtown and to see the ruins of the old Fort Brown earthworks.

“I grew up with my dad talking about the history and all that,” Garza said.

He serves on the board of the Brownsville Historical Association, just as his father did, and also the city’s Historic Preservation Design and Review Board.

Asked if he’s ever contemplated an NPS job elsewhere, Garza admitted it’s something he sometimes struggles with.

“I love the city of Brownsville,” he said. “I feel so connected to the community. I think I’m doing good in the community here. This is where I’m from. This is my home. This is where my wife’s from. That’s what’s holding me here. Of course I would like to expand my career at some point, but I’ve still got a lot of challenges here at Palo Alto.”

Restoring the park’s cultural landscape to 1856 conditions, for example, is a never-ending chore because of the fact that the environmental conditions have changed — specifically, the area’s hydrology was altered in the 19th century, which means it no longer floods. Garza said he doesn’t mind the job security.

“You’ve got to have challenges in work, right? I love the park service. I don’t know where I’d want to go,” he said. “My and my wife definitely don’t want to experience real winters.”

The trails at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park have reopened but the visitors center remains closed. For more information call (956) 541-2785 ext. 333.