For most of her life, Rosanne Hernandez hadn’t thought much about her family’s history. But when she saw an ad for a genealogy website last year, she started researching. She learned about her great-grandparents who immigrated to Texas from Mexico in the 1910s during that country’s bloody revolution.

Records showed her great-grandmother, who died in 1945, was buried in a cemetery in Guadalupe County, an hour’s drive east of San Antonio, near the banks of the San Marcos River. Hernandez figured she’d visit all the small, rural cemeteries she could, focusing on those where Mexican Americans were known to be buried. She’d pay her respects and maybe leave some flowers.

But when she made the drive, she found overgrown, abandoned burial grounds and others that were “hanging on by a thread,” she said. After months of searching, she still hasn’t been able to find her great-grandmother’s grave.

“I had no idea these were the conditions,” said Hernandez, who’s 37 and grew up in Amarillo before moving to her birth city of San Antonio in her 20s. “If you’re looking for a loved one who died … in this area, this is what you go through.”

Far from the manicured rows of headstones and elaborate tombs of a Mission Burial Park or San Antonio’s many Catholic cemeteries are the burial grounds of small rural communities, slowly being built over or lost to time and memory. Thousands of cemeteries across Texas are in a neglected state. In even greater jeopardy are cemeteries where Mexican American and Black people were buried, with the land often changing hands and leaving the families whose ancestors are buried there.

One of Hernandez’s early stops was a burial ground next to Tuttle Cemetery, which lies at the end of a dirt road off Farm-to-Market Road 621 in Guadalupe County. Inside the chain-link fence that neatly marks Tuttle Cemetery’s bounds, a few trees stand among the mowed grass and headstones with surnames such as Scott and St. Clair.

Right next to that lies the Staples Mexican American Cemetery, which has no fence. Trees, vines, and brush mostly obscure the dozens of scattered headstones and metal grave markers. Names were difficult to make out, but one stone read “Juanito Coronado” with a death date of 1937.

“There’s got to be hundreds here,” Hernandez said on a recent visit, pointing to markers extending back into thicker brush and trees.

Daniel Benavides has been renting a house near the access road for around five years, where he lives with a menagerie of rescue dogs and cats that trot out from the shade of his front porch to greet the rare visitor.

Aside from Hernandez and her family, he’s never seen non-white visitors at the cemetery, where the grass and brush often obscures the graves during rainier years.

“I’m not prejudiced,” Benavides said. “But white people go to the cemetery — that’s it.”

Peggy Anderson is a leader with the Staples-Tuttle-Happle Cemetery Association and an amateur historian who documents the area’s history. The work of caring for the three cemeteries in their charge falls to volunteers subsisting on donations.

“It takes interest and it takes money to care for all of them,” she said. “It has to be done over and over and over. It’s not easy, and younger people in this day and time, that’s not their focus right now. Usually, older people become interested in cemeteries.”

Anderson said her association doesn’t maintain the Mexican American cemetery next to the Tuttle Cemetery because it doesn’t own the land. In the 1980s, she and some others worked to find descendants of people buried there, including posting a sign and getting an article in the local paper.

“There was one family who kind of started cleaning one grave,” she said. “But no, we don’t own that land, and that’s not part of our association.”

Efforts to reach the landowner, Daniel Kutscher, who bought the property in 2016, were not successful.

‘Family disputes, challenges, land sales’

Out of an estimated 50,000 burial grounds in Texas, the Texas Historical Commission knows the location of only 16,000, said Jenny McWilliams, an archaeologist who’s one of two staffers at the commission’s Cemetery Preservation Program.

Every day, the calls come in from people seeking answers about how to care for the dead, she said.

“Some of my calls are really therapy,” McWilliams said. “Family disputes, challenges, land sales. … ‘I gave the land to my son, and it has a cemetery on it. And now he’s selling it. I don’t know what to do.’”

The pattern Hernandez found in Guadalupe County — where white cemeteries are preserved while others are lost — is partly the result of segregation and changing economic conditions. Many Latinos left their small towns in search of opportunities, while “maybe the white people had the ability to stay a little longer,” McWilliams said. Millions of Black families also flooded out of Texas to northern cities during the Great Migration, seeking freedom from the segregation of the Jim Crow South.

“It is actually pretty common for us to get calls from out of state where their ancestors were here or they’re inheriting land that they haven’t been to because they grew up elsewhere,” McWilliams said.

Cemeteries are protected under Texas law, which defines them as burial grounds containing at least one gravesite or a plot of land that people at one point dedicated for use as a cemetery.

Landowners who own these sites are required to avoid removing the graves and building over the cemetery and to allow access to descendants who want to visit the graves. The law doesn’t require them to mow grass, cut back brush, or do any other sort of maintenance.

A vine tangles a headstone in an abandoned cemetery in Guadalupe County on Sunday.
A vine tangles a headstone in an abandoned cemetery in Guadalupe County on Sunday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

There’s also a lack of enforcement, McWilliams said. The historical commission can’t enforce cemetery law; the legal responsibility falls to local authorities. McWilliams said when she hears from people who find an abandoned cemetery, she advises them to file a notice of the existence of a cemetery with their local county clerk.

People who want a little more documentation can apply for the historical commission to designate it as an official “historic cemetery.” Cemeteries that clear that hurdle are added to an atlas used by the Texas Department of Transportation and other entities when they survey land before development, McWilliams said.

Of the more than 50,000 estimated cemeteries, only 2,259 have been added to that list, she said.

McWilliams has gotten good at telling callers that that the burden of caring for a cemetery will likely fall to them.

“You’re calling to complain about someone else, but you are that person,” McWilliams will say. “It’s everyone else’s fault, but you’re the person who’s willing to pick up the phone and call me. So I’m going to give you the strength to communicate with your cousins and nieces and nephew to, you know, get this thing together.”

‘It’s my responsibility to take care of it’

Hernandez wants to find ways to help prevent other burial grounds from being forgotten and paved over. Her research led her to San Pablo Cemetery, just north of the town of Lockhart in Caldwell County.

On a recent visit this month, Erneto Gonzales stood by the grave of his wife, whose remains lie beneath a shiny, black stone inscribed with a love poem. Gonzales, 71, is the de facto caretaker for this cemetery, where generations of Texans of Mexican descent have buried their dead.

For 18 years, Gonzales has been keeping up the field of headstones, some of which date back to the 1800s. Many of the earliest records were lost in a fire, he said, and a few graves were destroyed when crews built the neighboring State Highway 183.

Erneto Gonzales leans against his pickup truck after working at San Pablo cemetery outside of Lockhart on Sunday.
Erneto Gonzales leans against his pickup truck after working at San Pablo Cemetery outside of Lockhart on Sunday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Gonzales’ grandparents were from Mexico, and he grew up in the Lockhart area. Aside from his wife, his grandparents, parents, uncles, and sister are among the people buried at San Pablo. The fees he charges per burial haven’t always covered expenses, so he recently came out of retirement as a truck driver to earn more money to help with upkeep.

“It’s my responsibility to take care of it,” Gonzales said. “I can’t depend on people to help me out. You might ask and they’ll tell you, ‘Yeah,’ for right now, but they won’t come.”

Gonzales isn’t sure what will happen to San Pablo when he’s gone. He’d like to turn over the cemetery’s records to a woman who lives nearby, a notary public who can “put everything in a computer.” He wishes the younger generations would pitch in more, but “they don’t think they’re gonna die.”

“We’re all gonna die, we just don’t know when,” Gonzales said.

McWilliams, with the historical commission’s cemetery program, hears similar stories every day. Cultural shifts — including urbanization, migration away from hometowns, a rise in cremation as opposed to burial — are contributing to the loss of cemeteries.

“The people who call me are usually in their 80s, and their descendants are not picking up the torch,” McWilliams said.

McWilliams would like to see more mandatory enforcement for landowners to abide by existing cemetery laws and more coordination and documentation from local appraisal districts.

“The appraisal districts are where we go to find out who owns land,” McWilliams said. “Two-thirds of those cemeteries have no owner, so there’s nowhere to go to find a contact.”

Hernandez, for her part, intends to keep pushing to raise awareness about these places. She’s considering founding an organization to push for better preservation of these sites on a larger scale.

And she doesn’t plan to give up looking for her great-grandmother’s gravesite. “I will keep searching in that area until I find her,” Hernandez said.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.