During Halloween and Día de los Muertos, some San Antonio cemeteries fill with marigolds and ghost tours. But at the San Fernando cemeteries on the West Side, visitors are few and far between, even during these holidays.

But one man has been visiting nearly every week for years, not to lay flowers but to clean gravestones that are decades — sometimes centuries— old, and share the stories of those buried there on his Instagram account, @sanfernando2stories.

“I try to focus on the humanity of the people,” J. Alvarez said. “This is my social justice. Who’s gonna speak [for them]? Who’s going to tell these stories?”

He asked to remain partially anonymous in the interest of keeping attention on the stories of the dead.

“I’m not doing anything special that any other person can’t do,” he said, gesturing towards the graves. “This is for them.”

It can take several months to clean certain gravestones, given their age, and find the stories about the people the markers memorialize, he said. Sometimes the stones are too far degraded to reveal whom they were made for, or there isn’t much information available about who the person was or how they died.

Other times, he finds a treasure trove of photos, death certificates and old newspaper articles.

That includes the gravestone of Beatrice Zepeda, 17, who appears to have taken her own life in 1915 by ingesting strychnine before collapsing on the floor of her sister’s home.

“Despite attempts by a physician to save her life she passed away 30 minutes after taking the poison,” Alvarez wrote. “Had Beatrice lived 2 years longer she would have witnessed her sister Benita give birth to American labor leader Emma Tenayuca. In fact, Emma Tenayuca’s middle name was Beatrice in honor of her deceased tia.”

Alvarez doesn’t have a method for which grave or story he selects.

“I just kind of go with the wind, usually,” he said.

He looked up how to best clean gravestones — apparently, there’s an Association for Gravestone Studies — and the process is relatively simple. He uses water and D2, a non-acidic chemical, to brush away lichen and weathering effects while preserving the stone underneath. After saying a rosary, he gets to work.

Alvarez started this cleaning and researching — with the permission of the Archdiocese of San Antonio — before the coronavirus pandemic, and he had planned to incorporate the activity into his coursework as a history professor at Palo Alto Colleges. COVID-19 disrupted that plan, but he continued the work anyway.

Most of the time he has the entire cemetery to himself.

“There are very few people who go out there because [most of] their relatives are dead,” he said.

There are still unoccupied plots, however, and some markers are relatively current. One gravestone, for example, is marked with a death date in 2015.

J. Alvarez scrubs a headstone with a chemical cleaner at San Fernando Cemetery I on Friday.
J. Alvarez scrubs a headstone with a chemical cleaner at San Fernando Cemetery I on Friday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

His father grew up at the nearby Alazán Courts public housing and he feels a deep sense of connection to the people laid to rest in the cemetery; some of his ancestors, who came here during the Mexican Revolution, were buried there in the 1920s. Alvarez is a fourth-generation San Antonian.

“The West Side [cemetaries are] very beautifully tragic places. There’s a palpable sense of joy and love and tragedy,” he said. “There are a million stories, but these are just some of them.”

Walking through San Fernando Cemetery I on a recent windy afternoon, Alvarez readily recalled the location and stories behind several gravestones: Pvt. Mateo Martínez was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received during WWI; Clemente Apolinar was executed for murder despite obvious mental health issues; Francois Giraud was the architect for the Ursuline Convent and school, now the Southwest School of Art (Club Giraud is named for him); Chas. Merritt was a millionaire — but you wouldn’t know it from his small, humble gravestone.

As a history professor, Alvarez’s curiosity comes naturally, but his Catholic faith and respect for the buried souls are also main drivers for this work.

These people helped shape the society we live in today, he said, noting that they came from all over the world. There are gravestones for immigrants from Spain, Mexico, Lebanon, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Russia and Arabic countries.

Some of the gravestones have ornate sculptures and professional lettering, while others were obviously handmade by family members, some of whom used improper grammar. Alvarez will try to clean them all regardless. He estimated that he’s cleaned about 500 markers of all shapes and sizes — and there are hundreds more.

Alvarez hopes that posting the stories on Instagram will help people reconnect with their ancestors — or at least, with the history of San Antonio.

The San Fernando cemeteries are probably not the best places, however, to connect with spooky ghosts or spirits on Halloween.

“I’ve never really felt anything like that out there,” he said. “Think about it: the amount of holy water and crucifixes there, why would anything bad want to be there?”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org