by JORDAN GASS-POORÉ
Adjoining the San Marcos River, the Mexican-American burial site called Cementerio del Rio recently received designation as a landmark by the state’s historical commission.
The cemetery, which covers three acres of land off Staples Road in San Marcos, was in relatively poor condition when Ofelia Vasquez-Philo, the Hays County Historical Commission’s Hispanic history chair, became involved with restoration efforts in 1995.
“I believe in preservation and respect for our deceased loved ones,” said Vasquez-Philo, who is credited by the Hays County Historical Commission as maintaining the most active interest in conservation of the site.
She remembered visiting the cemetery when it was covered with brush and debris, even though the county had an agreement with a San Marcos contractor to periodically mow and trim the site. Many of the wooden crosses were rotting and few rusty iron fences remained around the numerous unmarked gravesites.
The great-grandfather of Buda resident Thomas Ivarra Jr., who is thought to have died around 1916, despite a lack of documentation, is buried in an unmarked burial plot somewhere on the cemetery’s grounds.
Ivarra, 66, said he was told his great-grandfather came to Texas from Mexico in 1912 with 14 children.
His first visit to the cemetery was in 1990 at the request of an aunt, who he said found out about the site from a friend that knew the property owner. The site was in “really bad shape,” he recalled.
“They’ve done a lot of tremendous work,” he said, referring to the Hays County Historical Commission’s restoration and preservation efforts.
Vasquez-Philo believes the cemetery’s poor conditions are due to recurring floodwaters that eroded the river bank, possibly taking tombstones, as well as nearby cattle having access to the site.
Jim Cullen, cemetery chairman of the Hays County Historical Commission, said the site had essentially been lost until members of the commission, JoAnn Hearn and Dorothy Kerbow, conducted research in the 1990s.
“Those are the ones I really enjoy – off the radar. These little postage stamp sites,” Cullen said, referring to his experiences conducting background research on cemeteries.
In their report, the duo stated that Cementerio del Rio might have been one of the prettiest cemeteries in Hays County when it was routinely in use in the early 1900s.
The cemetery’s earliest deed dates to 1893 as a one-acre donation from an unknown farm owner, Vasquez-Philo said. She believes as many as 300 people were buried in the cemetery until it was eventually abandoned around 1948 as people started moving closer to the center of San Marcos. She said today, there may be about 50 known grave sites.
Prior to the twentieth century, little was known about the burial grounds of Mexican-Americans in San Marcos. Most records indicate that these burials took place “out on a farm” or “on the farm near San Marcos.”
“Way back then cemeteries were segregated,” Vasquez-Philo said. “They didn’t allow Mexicans or blacks. We were always having to find our own burial places.”
The Hays County Historical Commission and the Hispanic Historical Committee compiled a community history of Mexican-Americans in San Marcos, published in 2000, for the book “Suenos y recuerdos del pasado,” or “Dreams and Memories of the Past.”
According to the book, small burial plots may have been kept on property where Mexican-American families worked but did not own. It is believed that many of these individual cemeteries have been destroyed by the elements.
Cementerio del Rio, sometimes referred to as Camino Real Crossing Cemetery and Westerfeld Crossing Cemetery, was founded through the efforts of Felipe and Fermina Trejo Marines, who came from Brownsville to San Marcos around 1880.
In either 1908 or 1909, Felipe Marines requested a plot of land from a Caucasian woman for a Mexican cemetery. His request was granted. Marines banded together with other Mexican families who arrived in San Marcos around the same time to form “Los Amigos del Pueblo.” The group’s first project was to clear the land to be used as a cemetery.
The cemetery’s state historical landmark dedication marks years worth of work and about eight months of waiting to receive the actual marker, which Vasquez-Philo said cost about $1,800.
“Not only does it tell a story, it raises visibility of a site and its importance,” said Cullen. “It brings life to a site.”
After Vasquez-Philo and other Hays County Historical Commission members erected the solid iron post with the attached marker into the poured cement, they joined descendants of those buried in the cemetery to honor their Mexican-American heritage.
“It’s important to hold onto our once sacred places,” she said.
Ivarra and other members of the Castilleja family line attended the dedication ceremony. Even though the marker denoting the burial site of Ivarra’s ancestor has since been destroyed, the fifth generation Castilleja said that he and other family members will continue to visit the cemetery in hopes of keeping the spirit of their elders alive by placing flowers beside the landmark’s post.
“We can’t forget our elders,” said Ivarra. “It’s good to know where you came from.”
This story was originally published in Hays Free Press. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.