Semester reflection Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project

As a student in Dr. Sarah M. Rowe’s Fall 2017 Anthropology 6385 class, I have had the opportunity to be involved in some very interesting community engagement fieldwork with the Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project. The focus of our study is the public cemetery found within the confines of the property that also holds the Hillcrest (private), Brushwood (historic) and Restlawn (African American) cemeteries at the corner of Schunior Road and Expressway 281 in Edinburg. Maintained by Hidalgo County, this portion of the cemetery grounds is marked by several white posts and contain roughly ¼ of the total acreage at this location.

The function of this cemetery since its inception in 1913 has been to bury the indigent and transient population. Dr. Rowe has explained to the class that there are several other cemeteries in the US that are characterized as “potters fields” or “paupers’ cemeteries” but that many of them had fallen into disuse by the time this particular one was initiated. Most burials have ceased in this field back in the 1990s but there is plenty of activity here as loving family members continue to visit their deceased relatives. As our class has progressed throughout the semester with data collection, mapping and other fieldwork, we have encountered several family members which caused the project to become more personal to us. In an effort to show respect to those buried there, the decision was made to no longer refer to this cemetery as place for the unfortunate, so we move forward with more positive connotations and refer to it as a “public” cemetery.

One of the characteristics of this cemetery is the vast array of headstones that can be found marking the graves. It has been explained to us that when the county buried someone in these grounds, the funeral home would provide a simple name plate; small and made of metal with a paper nametag attached. As you can imagine, many of the nameplates still exist but the paper nametags have since disappeared. Although there are some that are legible, the reason that we can read many of the names on the gravesites is because there have been improvements to many of the grave markers. These improvements include a traditional granite, engraved headstone; most likely erected after several years once the family could afford to buy one. However, there are many makeshift headstones, made by hand, that adorn several sites. Some are crosses made of painted wood. Some are made of metal or rod iron; also in the shape of a crucifix. Others are cement headstones; either carved or painted with the name and birth/death dates of the deceased. Many times the information has been painted or stenciled onto the headstone but after years of exposure, the paint has worn away and the names and dates are unreadable. Many of the creative headstones are ones that represent children. One of the most touching creations was in the shape of a baby’s crib. There is another grave where a toy truck is encased in glass with several other smaller toy cars scattered around. Offerings such a plastic flowers are very common along with other interesting items such as ‘pez’ dispensers, key rings with turtles or dolphins on them and scattered sea shells. Some graves appear to be visited often and others completely abandoned.

Aside from the hands-on fieldwork that we experienced, we had a few class periods with presentations from outside professionals with related experience. One of Professor Rowe’s colleagues from California is working on a similar cemetery project; although much further along than ours at this moment. All special lectures for the class pertained to various aspects of Public Archaeology and were very relevant to the work we did in class. Some of us had found offerings at some of the graves where small balls of twine were hung from a nearby tree with some wax or rag figures as well. Dr. Severando Hinojosa, one of Dr. Rowe’s Anthropology colleagues spoke to our class to help give us a better idea of what these types of offerings could represent. Also relevant to the work at hand, the reading assignments introduced us to the multiple ways to engage local communities by conducting public archaeology projects such as ours. I felt that the assigned articles were very interesting as they tied to the writing assignments with specific relevance to our project.

I believe that we are on a good, solid path with this Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project. Dr. Rowe has followed the proper protocol since she sparked this idea. She has gone through the appropriate university channels in order to start the project and has worked with all the relevant city and county offices in order to initiate community support. One of the things that we did accomplish during the semester was to place a numbered flag at each grave. We discovered that there are more grave sites in this cemetery than initially estimated. Approximately 1,020 graves sites have been flagged and it is my understanding that we’ve recorded data for 300 of them. The program that Dr. Rowe set up to compile the data that we all are inputting is very simple to use. We all can access it on our cell phones and can record all pertinent data right there at the graveside.

Another special event that benefitted our class was the arrival of canine forensic dogs for a visit to our class in November. Adele Morris and Lynne Engelbert who are Historical Human Remains Detection Specialists in Santa Clara, California brought their service dogs Jasper and Piper to the cemetery to search for unmarked graves. The dogs identified over fifteen possible gravesites. They had given a lecture the previous day about their jobs at the Institute for Canine Forensics and spent the next morning with us in the field.

The hands-on opportunities experienced by the students in our class were abounding. It was clear that Dr. Rowe had spent quite a lot of time in preparation to launch this class and was ready to give us quite an education. We learned how to use the total survey station and have mapped the perimeter of the cemetery as well as several of the gravesites within. The Kobo Toolbox App that was initiated for our project was so easy to use and enabled us to gather data and upload photos immediately on site. The dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Walter Diaz had visited with us in the field and was very impressed by what we were accomplishing. He was inspired by potential further social science research using the data we were collecting. As mentioned in previous blogs, perhaps we can add to our knowledge by conducting oral history interviews of family members to learn a bit more about the deceased. Perhaps we can investigate death records and try to determine the causes of death; especially for the infants and small children. Census data might also prove useful. There are plenty of possibilities and the students will be able to create some hypotheses once all of the visible gravesites have been recorded. Clearly there is more work to do and Dr. Diaz gave the green-light for this class to continue into the next semester. Enrollment filled up quickly as word spread about this great opportunity to earn credit in a community engagement, experiential learning environment.

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