Working on this project has opened my eyes to many differences in culture here in the Valley, the cemeteries here are so much more a part of the community than the cemeteries where I grew up in Indiana. Up north, cemeteries are quiet, tranquil parks with rows of similar yet simple headstones, nothing is ever handmade or decorated. Here in Edinburg, this cemetery is almost alive with decorations, every time we visit we find that family members have come and freshened up some graves, or added new decorations. I find it very comforting to know that even tho the community has lived through difficult times, they never forgot their loved ones. It was striking to me that some headstones seemed much newer than the dates of death, indicating that many families had saved up for years until they could afford a headstone. Other families never could afford commercially made headstones, but they took the time to build unique and individual graves that spoke to who the deceased was in life. One of the headstones was a stainless steel television! These personal touches are something that I never saw up north, and to me they make our local cemeteries so much more meaningful.
I watched the movie Coco during this semester, and I really found the movie valuable in explaining the significance of a lot of the symbols and beliefs in the local culture. As a person who isn’t from this area, movies like Coco help me understand why cemeteries are so important to the community. In my community, cemeteries aren’t a part of the living world, you only go there for funerals. In this area, though, cemeteries are regularly visited and interacted with. When Dia de los Muertes comes this fall, I want to see how the local community celebrates it, and how they interact with the cemetery. I think this is something that is unique to this area, and we should not only record and research it but encourage and participate in it! This is part of the beauty of public archaeology, telling the story of how a local community personalizes a well known celebration and sharing that with the world.
I’ve also come to appreciate how much superstition is still alive in our region, voodoo dolls and other evidence of superstitious activity abound in the cemetery. Meanwhile, a majority of the headstones contain religious imagery of some sort, mostly Catholic. This blend of beliefs is fascinating to me, and I am very curious about what these voodoo symbols mean to those who participate in it, and how they reconcile their beliefs with Catholicism. I hope that next semester someone researches this. If we could interview the people who are placing these items in the cemetery that would be fantastic! I think this belief system is very powerful, and it would be enlightening to know just what these beliefs are.
Over this semester, we were able to record a large number of graves, we identified a few graves missing headstones, and we were able to publicize our project in two local news stories as well as at the UTRGV Engaged Scholar Symposium. I feel like we have accomplished alot, but it has been mostly data collection. In the coming semesters other classes will begin to put our data into context, and I am so excited to see what they can find! There are so many stories just waiting to be told, and in my opinion that is the main point of why we are doing this project: to tell the stories that would otherwise have been lost. I think the plans for next semester are going to go along way to making this happen. Shifting focus from data collection to application and research is going to reveal new directions we haven’t thought of. Statistics may show us commonalities we hadn’t considered, and maybe highlight times of social unrest that haven’t been well publicized. Next semester, with a focus on interacting more with the community and producing work from the data we have gathered so far, we will really see the project come alive. So far, we are just scratching the surface of what we can do!
But the most important part of what we do is for the community, how can our project benefit the families of those interred at the cemetery we are researching? I think the best benefit we can provide is a permanent record of their loved one’s grave, because the reality is the cemetery is not permanent. The headstones made of temporary materials, or that are falling apart due to age, or that are broken by storm damage; we have taken photographs of, recorded the official details, and thus we have created a virtual record of that grave. The virtual record can be edited, added to, and shared. One day in the future, these virtual records will be all that is left of some of these graves. So publicizing our research is the most important thing we can do, simply recording this data is more than has been done in the past. Telling the stories is nice, but the family can tell the stories too. Its a side benefit, the icing on the cake. They can’t, however, make a digital record of their loved one’s grave in a way that makes it meaningful. That is where we come in, by providing a digital forum and gathering place for information that is otherwise not available. In time, family members can start to add stories to our data, in addition to the stories that we learn in the course of our research. We can provide a way for the family members to bring context to our project online, which can make our project so much more rich and valuable.
I am very happy that I got to be involved in this project, and I hope that I can continue to be involved in it! I am curious about the information we will learn, but more importantly I am proud to be a part of a project that is permanently recording a part of this community’s heritage.