Sandwiched between non-public properties in southeastern Travis County sits a little-known cemetery off Hoeke Lane, simply west of U.S. Freeway 183. From the surface, there’s nothing that signifies the positioning is the ultimate resting place for various Mexican and Mexican American residents who died a long time in the past.
It’s a wilderness. The headstones, lots of which date again to the Nineteen Forties, are simple to overlook. The weeds are overgrown, and bushes and shrubs cowl a lot of the 4.5-acre plot.
The cemetery has been known as a few completely different names over time – the Montopolis Cemetery and San José II. However no signal will let you know that. In actual fact, there’s scarce info obtainable in regards to the cemetery’s historical past in any respect.
However members of the group and a crew of researchers are attempting to vary that. They need to hint again its historical past and make sure the cemetery, together with its sister web site in close by Montopolis, is preserved.
Diana Hernandez is the lead researcher for (Re)claiming Memories, a analysis group out of UT Austin that seeks to revive and protect lacking histories in communities of coloration. She and her crew have been gathering loss of life certificates and reaching out to descendants of these buried on the cemeteries to assist piece collectively their historical past.
“As soon as we begin to analysis the folks which can be buried right here and begin to discover archival documentation for every particular person, we begin to see the group come to life by way of the cemetery,” she stated.
The Historical past
To grasp San José II, Hernandez says, we’ve to start out about 2 miles north at San José I. This historic Mexican and Mexican American cemetery was constructed round 1919. It sits between two church buildings off Montopolis Drive, although neither of them personal it. The positioning is believed to be unclaimed, or orphaned, which means nobody is accountable for its maintenance in any official capability. However neighbors and group members have taken care of it as greatest they’ll over time, mowing the garden, pulling weeds and cleansing off gravestones.
A metallic archway standing on the entrance reads “San Jose Cementerio.” The cemetery was based by a mutual support society known as the Union Fraternal Mexicana, and it served the migrant sharecropping group. This was throughout segregation.
“Mexicans weren’t essentially allowed to be buried in white cemeteries,” Hernandez stated. “In some instances I’ve seen the place there’s a white cemetery, after which proper subsequent to it’s the Mexican part or the Black part. … On this case, it was only a fully completely different cemetery.”
Land for the cemetery was donated by an African American girl named Lizzie Henry.
“She simply had it in her coronary heart to provide the land to assist set up the Mexican cemetery,” Hernandez stated. “To me, that was very superb as a result of it exhibits the historical past of solidarity between the Black and brown group, which is one thing that isn’t actually highlighted.”
When Cementerio San José began to get full, the second was created in 1949 in Del Valle. Over time, the cemeteries modified fingers. The unique San José hasn’t had a identified proprietor for a number of a long time. San José II has an proprietor, however she’s believed to be ill and unable to keep up it, in keeping with Hernandez. KUT reached out to the proprietor, however didn’t hear again.
Primarily based on their analysis thus far, Hernandez and her crew estimate San José I and II have greater than 350 burials mixed. However understanding what number of burials are at every particular person web site is a problem. That’s partly as a result of on loss of life certificates, the identify Montopolis Cemetery was usually used interchangeably for San José I and II. And never each burial has a headstone.
Many individuals buried on the cemeteries died throughout concurrent epidemics, like influenza, tuberculosis and pneumonia.
“They have been getting so many our bodies that they have been burying folks in layers on prime of one another, they usually stopped documenting who all was getting buried,” she stated. “As a result of there’s no documentation for the variety of layers for the those that have been being buried in these mass graves, we’re simply by no means going to know. There’s going to be layers of those that we’re by no means going to have the ability to determine.”
Hernandez started researching the San José cemeteries on the finish of 2019, simply earlier than the realm was hit with one other outbreak of a plague: Covid-19. And once more, this predominantly Latino neighborhood was hit harder than others.
“These histories repeat themselves,” Hernandez stated. “I believe that’s one of many the explanation why this work is essential, as a result of it sort of sheds mild on these pasts that weren’t acknowledged the best way they need to have been. We will use this information to enhance our current.”
Frank Monreal remembers the times when Montopolis Drive was only a grime highway. He and the opposite neighborhood children, some 50 years in the past, would play on the large oak tree that stands in the midst of Cementerio San José. As an alternative of bicycles, he and his associates had horses.
“All people rode horses again then,” he stated sooner or later whereas at San José I. “We used to come back out right here, they usually have been our garden mowers. They allow them to eat the grass and hold the grass low right here.”
Monreal has kin buried at San José I and II. From an early age, he understood loss of life was a pure a part of life. An altar boy at Dolores Catholic Church, simply down the highway from the cemetery, he usually helped out with funerals. He remembers one burial occurring at Cementerio San José when he was a child. However it’s been a very long time since anybody was buried there, he says. Most gravesites seem to this point again to the Thirties, Nineteen Forties and Nineteen Fifties.
There have been extra gravestones again then, he says, however some have weathered or damaged over time. He used to stroll by way of the cemetery on his approach to college within the Nineteen Sixties and Nineteen Seventies. He’d usually see folks placing flowers on graves, one thing he doesn’t see a lot anymore. Now, many kin have died or left.
“That’s inevitable, you recognize, as a result of generations change,” he stated. “Folks transfer away.”
Preserving the cemetery, although, is essential, he says, particularly as gentrification has altered the panorama of Montopolis over time.
“(The cemetery) is sacred floor to us, from our ancestors,” he stated. “I don’t need to see it gone.”
Micaela Johnson, a 19-year-old artist and activist, can hint lots of her household tree again to Cementerio San José. She’s a part of the Limón household, certainly one of Austin’s founding households whose descendants now number upward of 3,500.
Lots of her members of the family grew up and had companies in Montopolis, just like the Limón Bakery. She stated her grandparents most likely have connections to not less than 1 / 4 of the folks buried at San José.
In her household, passing down tales from technology to technology is a standard custom. She remembers listening to tales about Aurora, her grandfather’s sister, who died in 1940 of pneumonia when she was 11 months outdated. She was buried at Cementerio San José, and her headstone was embellished with marbles. However Johnson hasn’t been capable of find it.
She additionally remembers tales of Concepcion Treviño Garcia, her great-great-grandmother who died in 1939 from tuberculosis and was buried at San José. She left behind her husband and 5 younger daughters.
“She was one of many strongest girls that I’ve ever heard my household discuss,” Johnson stated. “She was very pushed and really loving.”
Treviño Garcia’s grandchildren nonetheless go to the cemetery on Mom’s Day and go away flowers, Johnson stated. Her household’s connection to the cemetery has impressed her to become involved with (Re)claiming Reminiscences and assist make sure the San José cemeteries are nicely stored.
“It’s not only a place the place individuals are buried,” she stated. “It’s the life and the center of lots of our ancestry.”
One of many more moderen headstones at Cementerio San José belongs to Augustina Rosales, who was at one time believed to be Austin’s oldest residing resident. She died in 1994 at age 116. Close to the again of the cemetery, she’s buried subsequent to her husband Marcos, who died in 1951.
Rosales had 13 kids, and raised a number of others who have been kin or orphaned as in the event that they have been her personal. She appreciated to drink brandy, dance to conjunto music and cook dinner for her household, in keeping with an Austin American-Statesman article about her loss of life. Rosa Moncada, Rosales’ great-granddaughter, says “she was superior.”
“I bear in mind when she was able to cook dinner dinner for us. She would exit to the yard, seize one of many chickens, pop its neck and lower the pinnacle off and pluck it, and we have been having rooster that night time,” Moncada stated with fun.
Sustaining the Cemeteries
Moncada has a number of different kin buried at San José, together with grandparents and two older sisters who have been born untimely and died. Rising up in East Austin, Moncada would go together with her mom and siblings to go to the cemetery. However they went much less steadily over time, partially as a result of the grass was usually so excessive they couldn’t simply stroll by way of it.
Once they heard in regards to the work Hernandez and her crew are doing to assist preserve the cemetery, Moncada and her sister Juanita Moncada Bayer began visiting once more. And now they’re making an attempt to maintain it maintained, bringing kin collectively to mow the garden and filter out useless tree branches.
However sustaining the cemetery persistently isn’t a simple process. San José I is 2.5 acres.
“We thought, nicely, let’s do what we will,” Bayer stated. “However sadly, our thoughts tells us we will do it. However our our bodies – like, that’s exhausting work.”
(Re)claiming Reminiscences and members of the group hosted a cleanup for San José earlier this yr and hope to host extra. They’ve been reaching out to metropolis and county leaders, asking them to allocate extra assets to the cemeteries’ upkeep.
The tougher endeavor shall be cleansing up San José II. The positioning is tough to entry, making it exhausting for folks to go to and preserve it.
Monreal remembers going to San José II as a child to go to his grandfather’s grave along with his dad. Again then, San José II had a correct entrance and was simpler to get to.
Now, a locked chain-link fence blocks the primary path that results in the cemetery. A number of sources informed KUT the fence was put up by the property proprietor subsequent door, maybe to maintain folks from trespassing. KUT reached out to the regulation workplace that owns the property and was informed it didn’t have something to do with the gate. Hernandez and the analysis group are attempting to unravel the difficulty and hope to create a correct entrance, so descendants can go to.
The realm has lengthy had issues with folks dumping trash and gravel. A mound of grime and particles now presses towards fencing on one facet of the cemetery.
And warehouses are being constructed on the southeastern facet. This worries Hernandez as a result of the cemetery hasn’t been surveyed; some burials might be outdoors the perimeter and might be disturbed. Neighborhood members have expressed concern that particles from building is impacting the cemetery.
When KUT reached out to the development supervisor for the corporate that’s growing the positioning, he was stunned to study there was a cemetery subsequent door. (“That could be a jungle,” Brent Ramirez stated.) He later went out to go to the positioning and informed KUT he believes the particles impacting the cemetery wasn’t from the development challenge, however stated he was pleased to work with (Re)claiming Reminiscences to assist take away a few of it.
The cemetery itself is zoned for warehouse and restricted workplace use, which some are involved may make it weak to improvement. (Re)claiming Reminiscences is working with Metropolis Council Member Vanessa Fuentes to get the right zoning for it and a historic designation. Fuentes toured the cemetery earlier this yr.
“It’s unhappy to see as a result of it appears as if it’s been uncared for and dismissed, particularly with the event that’s proper subsequent to it,” she stated. “These are households and households’ historical past and legacies and kin which can be buried there. These are tales that should be informed.”
‘This Is About Texas Historical past’
Presently, pink marking flags stick up in varied spots throughout the shrubbery of San José II. That’s the work of Joaquin Rodriguez, an Austin resident who has been going out to the cemetery to take away litter and clear off and mark gravestones which have been coated up over time.
He first discovered in regards to the cemetery late final yr whereas researching his ancestry. Rodriguez, who was adopted, had taken a DNA take a look at and discovered he had kin buried at cemeteries all through Austin, together with San José I and II. After seeing how uncared for San José II was, he determined to take issues into his personal fingers. However his motivation to assist restore the positioning extends past simply his familial hyperlink.
“That entire space is wealthy in pre-Austin historical past,” Rodriguez stated. “I used to be unable to only isolate, ‘OK, that is nearly my household.’ That is about Texas historical past.”
Established in 1830, Montopolis – Greek for “the town on a hill” – predates Austin. Its founder and early settlers advocated for the positioning to be chosen because the capital of the Republic of Texas, although Waterloo (later renamed Austin) received out. Montopolis was finally annexed into Austin within the Nineteen Fifties however lacked many primary providers and was nicknamed Poverty Island.
The (Re)claiming Reminiscences crew needs to finally create a digital map or database the place folks can add details about the folks buried on the cemeteries. Hernandez hopes this crowdsourced on-line useful resource will assist convey the tales of the deceased collectively and make clear the historical past of the Mexican and Mexican American group in Montopolis.
The crew can be placing collectively an exhibit on the cemeteries for the Mexic-Arte Museum in September. Johnson plans to carry out a poem known as “We Are Misplaced Historical past” and promote shirts she designed, the proceeds from which can help the cemeteries’ maintenance.
Johnson stated she acknowledges that Austinites who should not instantly related to the cemeteries could not see a cause to care about them, however she thinks they need to.
“They may simply see it as one other gravesite or one other outdated historic Mexican burial floor, they usually may (suppose) it doesn’t matter as a result of it’s not part of them,” Johnson stated. “However it is part of them. It’s part of the historical past of Austin.”
And as improvement continues to change the look and inhabitants of the Montopolis neighborhood, she says, it’s pressing to maintain conversations in regards to the cemeteries going.
“If we’re not actively making an attempt to be like, hey, this issues,” she stated, “it’ll get washed away.”
This story was produced as a part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
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