Van­ish­ing Act

Bruce F. Jor­dan’s Pho­tos of the South­west’s Lost Mex­i­can Ceme­ter­ies

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Bruce F. Jor­dan,

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.”

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