Texas cemeteries contain hidden history
By BROOKE LEWIS
SUGAR LAND, Texas (AP) — It's been a year since Marie T. Hernandez's father died but she can still feel his presence at the Sugar Land cemetery.
She used to visit the Cementerio San Isidro with him regularly as a child, and was entranced by its beauty and the memories it holds.
"In a sense, he's here," she said during a recent trip. "He was always, always here."
Hernandez's father, Jose, was a funeral director who directed services at San Isidro, the final resting place for Hispanic laborers who worked for the Imperial Sugar Co., the epicenter of the Fort Bend County town for more than a century.
Today, hundreds of gravestones dating to the early 1900s now sit amid others from more recent years — a hidden history of Sugar Land's Latino roots that is now gaining new admiration, the Houston Chronicle reported.
For Marie Hernandez, a professor at the University of Houston, it's more personal. She has written a book about the cemetery, paying tribute to her father but also exploring the history she never knew as a little girl.
"I think it's all part of learning who we really are," she said, about digging into Sugar Land's history. "I think we treat people better when we realize that everything is really complex. It's not just a bunch of nice houses and pretty restaurants."
Interest in Fort Bend County cemeteries has grown since the school district recently found 94 graves at a construction site near a historic gated cemetery, which contains 31 marked graves for prisoners and guards on land that once was part of the Imperial State Prison Farm.
Reginald Moore, a community activist who has warned school officials not to encroach on the plots, has speculated that the newly discovered graves at the construction site could be slaves or African-American prisoners who were used as part of a convict leasing system dating back to the 1800s.
The graves are a few miles from the San Isidro cemetery, which sits inside the Sugar Creek subdivision. They are among about 50,000 cemeteries in Texas, including about 1,700 with historic designations, according to the Texas Historical Commission.
When Marie's father set out for Fort Bend with his wife in April 1950 to help out at a funeral home in Rosenberg, it was a far cry from growing up in Laredo. He was amazed at the discrimination facing Hispanics and horrified by the division between minorities and whites.
"He said that if he had known all the things that were happening here, he would've never come," said Marie. "He had never experienced the kind of racism that people had to face here."
But Hernandez soon made a name for himself in Rosenberg and across Fort Bend County as the go-to person for Hispanic funerals. He became an advocate in the community, often venturing to the police station at night to intervene in altercations between police and Hispanics. He also was instrumental in organizing trips for community members to see the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Marie and her family lived on the second floor of her father's funeral home.
"The presence of the dead was a central aspect of my life," she writes in her book, Cemeteries of Ambivalent Desire. "I heard the crying at wakes, attended funeral masses, and accompanied my father to different cemeteries."
While studying for her doctorate in cultural anthropology at Rice University, she thought about San Isidro when a professor asked students to write about a place.
She eventually uncovered the history of the cemetery and how San Isidro was originally given to the Hispanic laborers. The company took in some area Hispanic workers and other Mexican laborers who were coming to Texas after the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Some people who worked for what was then known as Sugarland Industries are also buried at the cemetery.
It was part of the original land grant of Stephen F. Austin, and eventually became open fields owned by Imperial Sugar. Today, the cemetery is surrounded by opulent homes in the Sugar Creek subdivision dating back to the late 1960s.
Imperial Sugar began in 1843 as Oakland Plantation with a raw sugar mill. It eventually grew into a booming business and was re-named Imperial Sugar Company, after the Imperial Hotel in New York City, when I.H. Kempner and William T. Eldridge took over ownership.
As years passed, the company began to face financial problems and filed for bankruptcy in 2001, with the refinery closing just two years later. Imperial Sugar was eventually acquired by Louis Dreyfus Commodities for $78 million and still produces sugar at refinery operations in Savannah, Georgia and Gramercy, Louisiana.
San Isidro cemetery is named after Saint Isidore the Laborer, a Spanish farmer who was known for his compassion toward the poor and animals.
Marie brought his statue back from Nuevo León, Mexico in 1999, and it sits on a brick pillar inside a white gazebo at the cemetery.
Carmen Flores Perez and Terri Rodriguez remember being afraid to enter the old cemetery as young girls, even though it held many of their family members.
"To me this is my only proof that the Hispanic community had a lot to do with the development of Sugar Land," said Perez, 68, who has more than 25 family members buried at San Isidro.
The two women's families are also connected because Perez' grandfather, Matias Flores, and Rodriguez' grandmother, Juanita Garcia, both moved to Sugar Land at the same time around 1917.
Perez's husband, Gilbert Perez, also has family members buried at the cemetery. His family members were sharecroppers for Sugarland Industries. Gilbert recalls picking cotton with his family as a child in the 1950s and 1960s in the area where First Colony Mall now sits. He would sometimes miss the first few weeks of school because the cotton season was extremely busy.
"He said that they used to hate see the sun rise because they knew it was time for them to go work," Perez said.
Perez' father, Eleno Flores, who is also buried at San Isidro, was a well-known mechanic, working on the tractors of farmers across the region and for a motor company owned by Sugarland Industries.
The deep family history entrenched at the cemetery is what makes the two women fierce advocates of San Isidro. They remember when cemetery visitors would have to walk or drive their cars across an old wooden bridge over Oyster Creek to get there.
The Army Corps of Engineers eventually condemned the bridge in 1993, forcing the San Isidro Cemetery Association to decide whether to demolish it or try to rebuild at a cost or more than $125,000. Cemetery members decided to rebuild. Marie wrote in her book that some Sugar Creek residents did not like the idea of a funeral procession traveling through their neighborhood.
The cemetery association's legal fight to build a gate setup a dispute with the Sugar Creek Homeowners Association, a dispute that still brings tears to Rodriguez's eyes more than two decades later.
A mediator helped bring a resolution to the case in 1994, with the cemetery association gaining the right to build a gate along Sugar Creek Boulevard in 1995.
"It's something that (we) still want to maintain and keep as long as we can," said Rodriguez, whose grandfather worked for Imperial Sugar and is buried at San Isidro. "That's why it's important to let people know that we do exist here."
Cemetery association members are now wrestling with whether to apply for a historical marker. Some worry it could bring unwanted attention to the site, but others say it would help residents understand local history.
"I love it because it's like walking my neighborhood," said Perez. "Over there is my father's best friend that worked with him. I'll walk over there and there's two guys I went to high school with."
Marie's father eventually suffered from dementia and strokes, and was too weak to continue running the funeral home.
She flew home early from her honeymoon last May to stay by his side during his final days. She sang songs to him in Spanish and remembers feeling his heart stop as she finished one of the songs. He's not buried at San Isidro, however, because he never worked for Imperial Sugar.
His name is inscribed in the book dedication to ensure his legacy lives on.
"In a way," she said, "every gravestone is a concrete reminder of the story, unlike so many other places where the history has been erased."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com