Bruce F. Jordan’s Photos of the Southwest’s Lost Mexican Cemeteries
En Recuerdo De: The Dying Art of Mexican
Cemeteries by Bruce F. Jordan
IN 2003, a utility crew digging just north of Paseo de Peralta encountered several human remains below ground. A team of anthropologists would later determine that the bodies were part of a Mexican cemetery dating back to the 1830s that remained in active use until at least 1936. The community forgot about its existence, as an entire residential neighborhood was constructed over its grounds during the 1940s.
For the Southwest, the discovery wasn’t that unusual. Hidden out of view and mostly forgotten over time, hundreds of abandoned Mexican cemeteries are spread across much of New Mexico and Texas. These burial sites — some dating back to the early 19th century — are themselves being buried, overgrown by vegetation, their handmade headstones sinking back into the earth. Often, they are located on roads that no longer appear on maps. As photographer Bruce F. Jordan likes to say, “Their crosses look like ghosts.”
In his recently released photographic essay book, En Recuerdo De: The Dying Art of Mexican Cemeteries in the Southwest , Jordan documents the region’s largely vanished culture of Mexican funerary — stunning and sweet with its devotional culture of hand-crafted monuments — where a mixture of poverty and ingenuity led many of the grieving to forge funeral decorations from castoff construction materials.
En recuerdo de means “In memory of.” The graveyards depicted in Jordan’s book brim with crosses and headstones built by hand, bearing names painstakingly carved or bent, letter-by-letter, using baling wire. In one affecting example of this lost family art, the outline of an old truck carburetor, rendered in concrete, serves as the form for a headstone. Beyond the geographic isolation of the Southwest, the cultural uniqueness of these grave sites also comes from the racial and ethnic segregation that persisted in American burial practices well into the 1960s.
“In Austin, a Mexican-American friend of mine led me to my first Mexican cemetery, a few blocks down the road from her house” Jordan told Pasatiempo . “The graveyard just spoke to me. As an artist, I work with my hands, I fix and maintain my own cars and I come from a farming background. To me, it was amazing what people had done with their hand-built monuments. I just started shooting. After two minutes, I was hooked. I got obsessed and wanted to see more and more.”
Over the past several years, Jordan traveled to sites outside of Austin, various Texas border towns, and southern Colorado, as well as to graveyards near Taos, Albuquerque, and Artesia, New Mexico, to make his photographs. He combed through the highly detailed maps of gazetteers, noting the location of isolated cross icons, and relied on suggestions from extended circles of friends familiar with his project. “In some cases, to find the place, I would have to go back deep into the bush and literally crawl through the brush to find these cemeteries, which were overgrown with vegetation and trees,” Jordan said.
Shooting entirely on vintage film cameras, including his mother’s Crown Graphic, a Holga, and a Yashica 635, his blackand-white images make use of soft focus and the dramatic light of Southwestern afternoon storms. Jordan’s aim was to convey the otherworldly feel of these graveyards lost to time, as well as the intense familial devotion embodied in their homespun monuments.
“In my photos, I will look at what people do on a daily basis that makes them unique, what makes their communities distinct,” Jordan said. The son of Texas farmers, he has devoted much of his photography career to the disappearing structures of small-town Texas in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Other books he has collaborated on as photographer include Texas Trilogy: Life in a
Small Texas Town — a study, with Jordan’s visual documentation, of
surviving early Texas schools in Bosque County that served as an accompanying illustration of the lyrics to Steven Fromholz’s classic country-song epic “Texas Trilogy.” Looking at the images Jordan has compiled for En Recuerdo De , one learns that the most respectful act of grieving may lie in commemorating the dead by handiwork, by labor, and by the time involved in such activities. In one affecting example, a concrete headstone has the deceased’s name spelled out in wire — each letter perfectly formed — that has been bent and pressed into concrete with a unity of shape and design seen only in calligraphy. “When I saw that headstone, I was stunned by how much persistence and precision it would take to do that,” Jordan said.
Likewise, the cemetery crosses are singular, essentially personal portraits of the deceased and the grieving families they left behind. Some are made from cut wood reinforced by tin; some are concrete slabs with inlaid glass and nichos carved in the center to accommodate images and icons that range from the Virgin of Guadalupe to a painting of an owner’s beloved dog. In one photo, a carpenter’s file was run perpendicularly through a length of concrete to form a cross: a fitting send-off for someone who may have spent their life
working with tools as a carpenter or a mechanic. “To give up a file, to use it as a rebar, is a sacrifice,” Jordan wrote in a caption. “What deep respect for the deceased and the responsibility the maker must have felt for this creation.”
As Tony Mares, a New Mexico poet, essayist, and translator, writes in an accompanying essay, “No two crosses in a Mexican cemetery are alike.” The book also features an essay by Martina Will de Chaparro, a Latin American historian who wrote the 2007 book Death and Dying in New Mexico .
Weighing in on the obscurity that hovers over many vanishing Mexican cemeteries to this day, the historian surmises that Spanish colonial practices encouraged families to downplay the location of burial sites. Until the early 19th century, most Hispano families buried their dead within the floors of parish churches, fearing desecrations by enemies or vandals. “Evidence from across the Southwest indicates that many historic cemeteries today lie buried beneath asphalt parking lots and roads, government buildings, and other urban architecture,” Will de Chaparro writes. “Though innumerable cemeteries date to this time, only new burials (and new grave markers) kept them from all but disappearing from the landscape and from popular memory.”
The photographic record En Recuerdo De attempts to preserve is that of a lost community and its forgotten way of treasuring and preserving individual lives through wood, stone, and concrete. This handcrafted practice of funeral commemoration is almost completely gone, but Jordan says it is still occasionally practiced. “Outside of Taos, we saw some fresh gravestone pieces that were welded out of stainless steel, as well as others handcrafted out of wood,” he said.
“We have lost this culture, and it is not being passed on through generations: It is totally fading,” Jordan added. “Instead, we have a cemetery association that says monuments can’t be handmade, else they will fall apart, and that grave markers need to be flat so the grass can be mowed. I’m hoping this book inspires people to get out and look at some of these forgotten cemeteries — and appreciate the differences of culture that allowed people to pay respect and express appreciation for the dead.”
“En Recuerdo De: The Dying Art of Mexican Cemeteries in the Southwest,” by Bruce F. Jordan, was published in October 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press.
“The chair sits in the middle of the large, widely spread cemetery. Not a bench, which is expected, but a folding chair. What is it doing there? It isn’t next to a grave, where someone might sit when visiting. It isn’t under a tree, where someone might sit in the cool shade and take time to reflect. It sits out in the open, out in the middle of all of that space, like another tombstone, slowly fading and rusting away.” Caption text and photographs from En Recuerdo De by permission of the University of Nebraska Press; © 2014 Bruce F. Jordan
“Seeing the small shoes, not just small figurines or toys, changed things. The imagination can see the child in the shoes, walking through the house, playing in the yard, running herky-jerky as a child does when learning about how legs work. I imagine putting the shoes on my son’s small feet and teaching him to tie them. Then things changed again.”