Respecting the Death of Strangers

The Texas Story Project.

I grew up playing baseball at Apollo Park in Edinburg during the 1970s. It was a small, single high school town back then. The park was located two blocks north of Sacred Heart Church and along the route to the town cemetery. It was while playing that I learned to respect the death of strangers.

When the church bells rang outside of morning, noon, or afternoon prayers, we knew that a funeral Mass had likely just occurred. As the hearse and procession began to pass alongside the park, the older kids stopped playing, took off their caps, and stood still until the last car passed out of sight. I quickly learned this form of respect.

Today, as one of five scholars for the Refusing to Forget project, I continue to practice respecting the dead. The project is devoted to remembering and recovering the history of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who were killed by Texas Rangers and others during the 1910s, and the Civil Rights movement that followed. I should note that my great-grandfather, Paulino Serda, and his father were killed during the matanza of 1915 when los rinchesvigilantes, and soldiers likely killed approximately 300 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Growing up hearing about the killing of my great-grandfather and now working to bring his story and other victims’ stories to a wider audience is a way of paying respect to them and their descendants.

With scholarly guidance from the Refusing to Forget project, the Bullock Museum's Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920 exhibition tells the story of these atrocities and the community’s response. The history of resilience by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is an important part of our community’s past, and this exhibition pays respect to the victims and honors that resiliency.

Following the reign of terror along the Texas-Mexico border, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans sought to redress the wrongs committed against them. José Tomás Canales of Brownsville, the lone Mexican-American state representative, forced a 1919 joint legislative hearing concerning Texas Ranger misconduct. While the outcome of the investigation failed to lead to the arrests of any rangers or to the state apologizing for the indiscriminate killings by law enforcement, it was the first step toward Canales working with other civil rights leaders to form the League of United Latin American Citizens. Today, LULAC continues to be the oldest Mexican- American civil rights organization in America.

During the time when we buried my relatives at the Laguna Seca Ranch cemetery, north of Edinburg, the men would go out the day before the funeral and dig the hole for the grave. After the body was laid to rest, relatives and friends shoveled the dirt back over the casket. We no longer bury relatives at the ranch cemetery as that generation has died out. However, my family continues the tradition of covering the grave ourselves in saying our last farewell, even though cemetery workers are on hand to do that work. As our last labor of love for the departed, we take turns, two at a time, and shovel the dirt until the hole is filled. It is during this time that we remember and celebrate the lives of our lost ones.

I still remember my youthful days in Apollo Park and standing silently as the funeral processions passed. As a historian now, I celebrate our community’s resilience. Being respectful and resilient are values I learned from growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. That is why this history needs to be told— because remembering shapes our present and our future.

 

Trinidad Gonzales is assistant chair for the Department of History and Philosophy at South Texas College and a member of the American Historical Association Teaching Division Council. Dr. Gonzales is one of the five scholars of the "Refusing to Forget" project.

 

 

 

 

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