- Union Fraternal Mexicana
Spanning two acres within the Montopolis neighborhood in East Austin, the San Jose Cementerio is one of only a few exclusively Mexican-American cemeteries in the United States. Founded in the early 1900s, this site was abandoned and forgotten for decades. But recently, the space has been reclaimed by longtime East Austin residents, and has become a major sociocultural space accommodating the local Dia de Los Muertos celebration.
Identified by two deteriorated cement pillars holding a wrought iron sign that reads “San Jose Cementerio,” this graveyard is difficult to miss when driving down Montopolis Drive. Spanning approximately two acres, this setting is a break in the landscape dominated by the bustling industrial environment of East Austin.
The inside of the cemetery is mesmerizing. The burial ground houses a variety of grave markers with unique styles and colors: wooden crosses; hand-carved concrete tombstones; colorful tiles; decorated stones; and a few manufactured headstones. By far the most prominent feature of the San Jose Cementerio is the beautiful oak tree in the middle of the site. The tree’s canopy covers a radius of approximately 30 feet; walking underneath feels like being embraced by Mother Nature’s arms. Every crackle of the branches in the breeze, tumbling leaf, and underfoot crunch paradoxically makes one aware of the tree’s life amidst a sea of the dead.
Despite San Jose Cementerio’s sacred role as the burial ground for hundreds of East Austin residents, the cemetery is currently without conventional caretakers. Due to segregationist policies that prevented integrated cemeteries for Mexican-Americans, the burial ground was never claimed by the City of Austin, and thus had been abandoned for decades. This placed the cemetery in a noticeable state of despair—no uniformity in grave placement, unmarked graves, uneven ground, overgrown weeds, and even graves stacked on top of the other.
Fortunately, this historic landscape has been reclaimed by longtime residents in the last couple of years as a place to celebrate their cultural heritage. They have made efforts to clean up and preserve the site, and each November, residents convert the humble graveyard into a vibrant landscape enlivened with marigolds, altars, photographs, flowers, and candles to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos. This landscape is a manifestation of the Latino and Mexican history and culture in Austin. – Erasmo Cantu