The Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project lead by Dr. Sarah Rowe in order to restore dignity, awareness and identify countless unmarked graves whose records have been lost/abandoned at the Public Cemetery in Edinburg, TX formally known as Pauper Cemetery on Schunior Street, east of Expressway 83. This project began in the Fall of 2017 as a field-based Public Archaeology course where Dr. Rowe and 17 students identified and recorded hundreds of unmarked graves with the help of a forensic K9 unit from California. The project continues in the Spring of 2018 and I am fortunate enough to have been able to join in this amazing project. I missed out on the start of the project because of conflicting class times, but I was not going to miss out this opportunity again. I got to experience actual field experience right here in the city that I was born and raised in.
On my first on-site class day I was shocked to find out that the Pauper Cemetery was a less than 5-minute drive from my house. I have actually passed by this cemetery countless times on my way to school and never thought twice about it. I never knew about the public sector of the cemetery because it was on the outskirts of the property. Dr. Rowe was very enthusiastic about the projected and it was contagious because this is exciting work, discovering and identifying the lost identities of the loved ones of the people who live in this area. The work itself is thrilling on its own, and knowing that we are helping others reconnect with grandparents, great-great grandparents, etc. At about 11 A.M. Dr. Rowe instructed us on the data collecting and provided us with charts and measuring tape/rulers to help us correctly identify and measure the various types of gravestones throughout the cemetery, and sharpies to mark the recorded graves in order to avoid double recording. My first day was just grave recording but it was still a very fun because I was getting into the groove of what we were going to be doing for the rest of the semester.
The following week at the cemetery the Total Station Theodolite (an electronic/optical instrument that shoots a laser at a prism placed over the surrounding points of a grave in order to survey individual graves) was brought out and I was intrigued because this was the first time that I got to use an actual archaeological tool. Watching how the Total Station was set up and calibrated and actually recording measurements was something that I enjoyed doing because I was learning a skill that could help me in the future if I’m lucky enough to be a part of another project. Another benefit of working the Total Station was practicing teamwork and communication because for most days at the cemetery there were 2-4 students working the TS actively giving grave numbers and point locations, and letting the prism team know when it was okay to move. Admittingly there were times where there was miscommunication that resulted in redoing grave measurements, but we got better as the semester went on.
The Total Station is important but going grave to grave collecting the data is this semester focus point and it allows you to explore and get to know the area. Something that we saw a lot of while data collecting was Brujeria or witchcraft spread out throughout the cemetery. Tied up Voodoo dolls with pins in them were found near or on the grave and we were advised not to touch them for safety reasons and no one really wanted to because they’re Voodoo dolls and those are generally nasty business. The dolls would be in a variety of colors and sizes, form what I saw there were red, blue, green, and black. Whether the color of the doll meant anything is unknown to me but something I would look into. One specific run in with Brujeria that was curious to me and a few classmates was a small olive jar wrapped in a black cloth that was filled with soil, garlic cloves, Chile seeds, possibly other herbs, and two photos tied together with paper clip chains. We could all agree that this was both interesting and frightening but our curiosity was too strong but we stayed away from anything else for the remainder of the semester. Another unsettling thing were the infant graves, and there were quite a few of them, but given that some of these graves do go back to the late 19th century, medicine unfortunately was not as advanced as it is today.
Each grave is special and important to someone somewhere so identifying them and knowing their story is crucial. Most of the graves are as I said before 100 years old and very worn out/damage to a point that we barely get a name and date of birth/death. Although there was one large grave that a fellow classmate recorded that I assisted with because it was so large. It was nearly destroyed and littered. We thought that there was no marker left to tell us who the deceased was until we turned over a slab and noticed faint inscriptions that were unreadable until we filled in the engraving with dirt, then it was crystal clear. This one was interesting because it told an actual story of the deceased, his name, when and where he was born, and when/how he died. When we read and recorded the findings we were ecstatic like when you finally solve a riddle/mystery. At the end of this semester we recorded over a thousand graves, nearly all of them. On our last class of the semester Dr. Rowe went over next semesters curriculum that involves using more of tech like Ground Penetrating Radar, 3D Modeling, drones, etc. but in the Fall the class will be splitting the work load of data cleaning/mining and cemetery work. I am looking forward to doing diving back into the work because this is valuable experience and personally fulfilling to learn about the people form my area and giving the that information back to the public.