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Borderlands: Rómulo Escobar Zerman: Juárez Agronomist and Teacher 26 (2007-2008)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Rómulo Escobar Zerman: Juárez Agronomist and Teacher

Article first published in Vol. 26 (2007-2008)

By Belinda Alvarez

Faculty Editor's Note:  Student author Belinda Alvarez is the great granddaughter of Rómulo Escobar Zerman  and researched his contributions to Mexico with great enthusiasm.

A visionary. An engineer. A teacher. Rómulo Escobar Zerman dreamed of a Mexico rich from its own resources. He left to his students and family a legacy of agricultural instruction and a lifelong love of the land. He traveled throughout the Mexican Republic planting his seeds of wisdom, always leaving a trace behind him, giving life to his favorite poem, “Sembrando” (“Sowing”), by the Spanish writer Manuel R. Blanco Belmonte. Below are lines from “Sembrando” translated into English:

We must fight for all those who do not!
We must ask for all those who do not!
We must make those who do not listen hear!
We must weep for those who cannot weep!

We must live to sow! Always to sow!

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Image caption: The Escobar brothers, Rómulo (left) and Numa Pompilio, were well known for agricultural advances established by the agricultural school they founded in Juárez.  Photo courtesy of Dario Hernandez Navarro, Presidente de la Asociación Nacional de Egresados de la ESAHE-AC.

Rómulo Escobar Zerman was born in Paso del Norte (Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico), on February 17, 1872. At 12, he traveled to Mexico City to study at the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura (National School of Agriculture), present day Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo in San Jacinto. He received a degree in agricultural engineering in 1891. From that moment, Escobar became an indefatigable laborer for the benefit of Mexico.

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In 1894, Escobar presented a project to the governor of Chihuahua, Miguel Ahumada, to establish an agronomy station in Juárez, but Ahumada rejected the plan. Never taking “no” for an answer, Escobar patiently waited for the right moment. In 1905, Enrique Creel, who was now governor, approved of Escobar’s plan to establish the station and agricultural school.

With Creel’s backing, Escobar traveled to Mexico City in hopes of receiving support, but all he found was governmental bureaucracy and red tape. He wrote a letter addressing this issue directly to the president of Mexico, General Porfirio Díaz. The president questioned Escobar’s reasoning behind opening a school in such an arid region, pointing out that the school would only be able to plant and teach about a few of the local crops, according to Abelardo Escobar, Rómulo’s grandson, and Hector Olave, authors of the book Una Ventana al Pasado (A Window to the Past).

Escobar explained that if students could learn how to make infertile land productive, they would turn out to be excellent agricultural engineers. President Díaz responded, “Governor Creel must have understood immediately the importance of your project.” Escobar had been given the “yes” he had sought for so long. With the aid of his brother Numa Pompilio Escobar, Rómulo established the Escuela Particular de Agricultura (Private Agricultural School) or EPA in Juárez, Chihuahua, in 1906.

Rómulo Escobar Zerman’s ideals came from his parents, who passed on a strong work ethic to all of their children. In a speech during a Mexican Independence celebration, Rómulo told his students, “My sons, do not remember only me, but think of the present moment you are living in and see what you can do for the nation.” His patriotism was instilled in him by his father Don Jesús Escobar y Armendariz, born in Chihuahua City in 1836.

Don Jesús studied at the Colegio Mexicano and later became principal. At age 23, he came to the United States and enrolled in the Jesuit College of today’s Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., graduating with a degree in education in 1860. In 1861, Don Jesús became an attaché with the Legation of Mexico and attended congressional sessions in Washington.

In 1863, on behalf of the Mexican government and liberal presidential hopeful, Benito Juárez, Don Jesús traveled to Europe where he lived for a year. In 1864, his search for support against the French invasion of Mexico took him to Turin, Italy, where he met his future wife, Adelina Zerman. Don Jesús returned to Chihuahua in 1865, where he was arrested for his anti-French activities. Abelardo Escobar, current Secretary of Agrarian Reform in Mexico and great grandson of Don Jesús, wrote that the punishment for defying General Brincourt, who represented Maximilian I, consisted of sweeping the streets of Chihuahua for one month.

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A beloved citizen of Chihuahua, Don Jesús willingly swept the city streets as residents threw flowers at his feet. General Brincourt witnessed this act and transferred the activist to Mexico City. Don Jesús made the trip by foot and earned the respect of the general. Back in Italy, Adelina waited for her fiancé to return.

Adelina was born in Florence, Italy, on December 8, 1848, and was formally educated in Richmond, England. She and Don Jesús were married on July 2, 1868, in Chester County, England. The trip back to Mexico took a month, and Adelina’s life changed forever.

In Italy, Adelina Zerman had grown up surrounded by beautiful, strong marble walls. When she arrived in Mexico, she was alarmed by the adobe buildings that were the predominant architecture of Chihuahua. There is an anecdote about Adelina pushing on the adobe walls of her house. She feared that the walls could not support the ceiling. Alberto Bonifúz wrote in the book celebrating the 50th anniversary of EPA, Jubileo de Oro (Golden Jubilee), “Time went by, and Adelina Zerman de Escobar gave birth to Mexican sons. Then she understood that the adobes made of Mexican soil and straw could raise walls as firm and as strong as those blocks made of the hardest Italian marble.”

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Image caption: Adelina Zerman de Escobar was a source of inspiration and support to students and alumni.  Photo courtesy of Dario Hernandez Navarro, Presidente de la Asociación Nacional de Egresados de la ESAHE-AC.

Adelina Zerman was the example of love and devotion for her children and the students at the school. After the  EPA was established, Mamá Nina, as she was known, would reassure students who were not from Juárez. She said to each pupil, “I am here to help you. … When you need something, I stand for all the mothers of the boys who are here.” Professor Moisés Rincón Rangel, a first generation EPA graduate, commended Mamá Nina: “It is impossible to describe Mamá Nina because all the good things that could be said about her would truly be insignificant compared to all the goodness that she holds within her – intelligence and beauty, energy, kindness and an excessive, boundless love.”

In September 1896, before the doors of EPA opened, Rómulo Escobar began publishing El Agricultor Mexicano (The Mexican Agriculturist), a monthly agricultural magazine. In addition to practical advice on farming, Escobar expounded on current events and politics in Mexico. The magazine would continue for the next 49 years, reaching Central America and the southern United States.

In one section of the magazine called “Eslabonazos”,  Escobar discussed agricultural, economic and political issues with a satiric touch, using the pseudonym Proteo or Proteus, referring to the Greek God known for changing forms. His articles carried a strong message of Mexican patriotism, always ending with a moral lesson.

According to Juárez historian Rebeca Gudiño, one of Proteo’s “Eslabonazos” was the apple of discord between Escobar and Justo Sierra, Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts. Proteo criticized the establishment of a Fine Arts Ministry instead of a Ministry of Agriculture. Proteo asked, “How can we convince gentlemen of Mexico that we need schools of agriculture and jobs, practical instruction, nixtamal mills, and things like this, not very artistic, instead of poems and songs?” Escobar excoriated the officials who made decisions behind desks in Mexico City without really knowing the problems in the provinces.

Rómulo Escobar authored many other publications. He wrote one of the most complete agricultural encyclopedias, Enciclopedia Agricola y de Conocimientos Afines (Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Related Subjects). The encyclopedia is a set of three volumes with 3,220 pages and 1,559 illustrations. So thorough was the set that Mexican President General Avila Camacho requested 30 encyclopedias to be given to the leaders of all South and North American countries including U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President H. A. Wallace, who pronounced it “monumental.”

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Rómulo participated in several international fairs that brought the attention of the world to Mexico. He was an agricultural delegate with the Mexican commission at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. This fair exhibited emerging technology such as the first elevated electric railway, a moveable sidewalk, the Ferris wheel, invented just for this occasion, and the Thomas Edison kinetograph, a precursor to the movie projector. In his Web site on this fair, Bruce Schulman adds that the exhibits of foreign and domestic agricultural products and the booths of experimental stations were deemed as the more notable exhibits.

Escobar also participated in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., where he submitted his “Elemental Treatise on Agriculture.” In 1904, he contributed “Rainfall in Mexico,” for the Universal Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. When Theodore Roosevelt invited Mexico and Canada to the White House in 1909 for a Conference of Natural Resources Conservation, Escobar headed the Mexican delegation.

Escobar was an adherent of the dry-farming technique in Mexico. In a 2006 University of Barcelona journal article, Pere Sunyer Martin reviews Escobar’s belief in this technique which was based on deep knowledge of the soil. It was necessary to adequately prepare soil in order to store and conserve the greatest amount possible of moisture coming from scarce rainfall. This technique would be very useful in the desert where rainfall is almost nonexistent. Escobar wrote in his texts, “We will conquer the desert.”

The School of Agriculture in Juárez was the most significant contribution of the Escobar brothers to Mexico and to agriculture. Rómulo Escobar once asserted, “We do not pretend to educate office workers but agronomists, field laborers. Granting the necessary preparation to perform these duties is our school’s goal.” The EPA was the first school of higher learning in northern Mexico. Courses began February 22, 1906, with 17 students and 12 teachers, including agronomy professors Rómulo and Numa Escobar. While Numa was the kind, quiet one, Rómulo was strict and believed in proposing problems for his students to solve. By 1908, the EPA had more than 100 students.
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Image caption: The original Escuela de Agricultura Hermanos Escobar was built in the early 1900s.   Photo courtesy of Dario Hernandez Navarro, Presidente de la Asociación Nacional de Egresados de la ESAHE-AC.

Although the school was private, there were times the school received subsidy from the federal government. While taking courses, students also learned and experimented at the college’s agricultural stations, using the latest French agrobiology and actual livestock. By the 1940s, the predominant teaching techniques were taken from U.S. agronomy.

In 1909, the first students who enrolled in 1906 packed 6,000 trees they had grown at the college and distributed them throughout the state of Chihuahua. It was the first time Juárez had exported instead of imported trees. By 1910, the school had 150 students and graduated its first agronomists. Rómulo said, “My beloved school has come to fruition. Let it be for the good of my nation and for the good of these boys.”

The EPA encountered difficult times with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. In 1913, the school suspended activities when General Francisco Villa took the buildings and used them as a hospital and military headquarters. In 1914, the EPA was temporarily relocated to the Military Institute of El Paso, Texas, located on Fort Bliss, returning to Juárez in 1917 with only nine students.

By 1940, EPA had reestablished itself to its former status and in that same year the Escobar brothers were recognized with the Medal Ignacio Altamirano, the highest distinction Mexican professors could receive. By 1955, 817 students attended classes and in 1963, the school changed its name to Escuela Superior de Agricultura Hermanos Escobar (The Escobar Brothers Agricultural College) or ESAHE. The college participated in various projects such as a study of the effects of air pollution on the environment in 1982 with the University of Texas at El Paso and three other universities.

However, in the 1980s, the maquiladora industry overran great agricultural areas of Juárez, playing a part in the demise of agricultural studies and the ESAHE. Although the school had been plagued with a series of strikes since the 1950s by students petitioning for subsidization of tuition fees, the school lost its foothold when Juárez was declared an industrial zone in the 1980s. The ESAHE closed its doors on May 13, 1993.

Gudiño wrote that Hermanos Escobar is not only the name of a street in Juárez that runs east to west. The Escobar brothers, Rómulo and Numa Pompilio, should be remembered as two distinguished Juarenses who with their smallest deed acted on behalf of their city. The agricultural school no longer exists, but the seeds the brothers planted are still producing fruit for the Escobar family and for Mexico. Shops now occupy the classroom and laboratory buildings. However, the Asociación de Egresados  has plans to establish a museum of agricultural history and the story of the Escobar brothers of Juárez at the former college.

Don Jesús y Armendariz, Adelina Zerman, Numa and Rómulo Escobar Zerman all rest in the Tepeyac Cemetery in Juárez. Rómulo’s marble headstone has the inscription: ¡Hay que vivir sembrando! ¡Siempre sembrando!

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Tags: biography

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