Who are the stakeholders in the Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery Project?

The articles assigned for this essay written by Agbe-Davies and LaRoche & Blakely discuss the elements of what guided their research and how their hypothetical and theoretical ideas structured and molded their respective projects. It is clear that those two projects displayed similar reasons for embarking on our endeavor that we call the Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery Project (HCPCP) but the discussion here will be focused on the stakeholders and what effects they can have on a project such as ours.

The level of community reaction which sparked contentious relationships throughout both the African American Burial Grounds Project (AABGP) in New York City and the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Girls Project (PWHGP) in Chicago does not quite exist here with the initiation of our project. Even though the AABGP was initiated because of plans for a 34-story office building to be erected above the burial site, what ensued as a result of the discovery of the African American burial ground speaks to what we have been discussing in previous blogs which is how public archaeology almost unavoidably involves multiple aspects of the local community. In these cases, several entities involved themselves in the process; most significant and vocal were the descendants of those in question. Both articles discuss the important role that descendants played in the evolution of these two projects. After four days in the field collecting data and mapping the site at the HCPCP, our experience with any community involvement has been via interaction with relatives of those buried in the cemetery or by those who are at the cemetery for a recent burial who are curious as to what we are doing there.

The stakeholders for the HCPCP are twofold at this time. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley as the parent entity to our Anthropology class led by Assistant Professor and Fulbright Scholar Dr. Sara Rowe together represent one of the stakeholders as the designer and initiator of this project. Hidalgo County officials who have blessed this project during a recent council meeting are the other entity in this equation. Represented by Daniel Flores of the Hidalgo County Maintenance Department, the county has provided additional support in the form of drinking water and bathroom facilities while the UTRGV Anthropology students are working at the cemetery. Indirect stakeholders at this time are the family members who come to visit loved ones in the cemetery. It is our hope to utilize the memories of their loved ones who are buried in the cemetery perhaps by conducting oral history interviews to add to the data that we collect for this project. Perhaps as this project progresses, these descendants can take a more active role in our research and become true community partners?

As the project progresses, we begin to identify what communities and or individuals are included and represented in this cemetery. Low income and indigent communities are evident as this location was available to those who could not afford to pay much for a burial. This also could be a place where unclaimed bodies or those who were deceased without families were buried as well. As we have walked the cemetery, collecting data, we have found that there are several infants and young children who are buried there as well. Some of the students who are conducting the research can be considered to be part of the local community as many of them were born and raised in either Edinburg or in Hidalgo County. The professor and some of the other students, although not originally from the area, are very much vested in their interests anthropologically and historically to the region as a whole.

The point at which we are in our research might not indicate that we are ready to determine whether there is a cultural group or groups specifically represented in this cemetery. However, we can say at this time that several of the gravesites we’ve reviewed have Hispanic surnames. To date, we have only recorded data for less than one third of the total burials at this site. We estimate that there are over 700 burials in this cemetery. As time moves along, we can investigate what Agbe-Davis refers to as the importance of “fellowship with the underprivileged members of our community” as a form of civil and social welfare responsibility (579). We have not yet determined whether we have specific sections or eras within this potters’ field, however, throughout the entire cemetery as a whole, we know that there are three other cemeteries within the grounds known as Hillcrest (mainstream population), Brushwood (historic) and Restlawn (African American). That being said, it is possible that we can determine perhaps some racial or socioeconomic status motivation with regard to zoning decisions within the location of this cemetery property.

It is important to recognize other possible community partners as the project moves along. It is clear, based on our interaction with family members of those buried in this [Paupers’] cemetery, that descendants are aware of our project. As we move forward, we can also engage the assistance of the regional center that helps the indigent population. La Union del Publico Entero (LUPE) located on the border of San Juan and Alamo, Texas, is a potential source of information through which we develop a picture of those who have been buried in the cemetery over the years. Perhaps we will discover affiliation with the migrant farm worker community?

Our work will be compiled into a database of information that will identify the “cultural domains” of this community and will assist with further academic research. One of the interesting aspects that we have discovered with the data collected to date is that communities change over time as do some of the burials within this cemetery. When some of the descendants of the deceased have more money to spend, they have returned to make improvements to the gravesite, such as putting a nicer headstone in front of the original (perhaps wooden) structure. The shared characteristics of those buried in the cemetery could lead toward determination of burial sites of a particular ethnic background which would lead to questions that have to do with social justice and perhaps a need for change. Since this potters’ field was no longer used after the 1990s, perhaps that social change already occurred?

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