By Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros
When driving into small towns like Smiley, Texas, the “Mexican American Only” cemeteries exist along crooked, unpaved roads overgrown with weeds and dirt so thick it clogs your throat. Families, like my husband’s family, drive out in a caravan to clean up the plots where loved ones rest because the town doesn’t maintain the upkeep. Small children and adults walk through stickers, as we call them in Texas, which cling to their shoes but by default prick the skin so hard they’re left with tiny bruises.
These are thorny reminders that while today we are free to bury our dead where we’d like, our grandparents’ bodies are left to our care in segregation.
Not too long ago, our bodies couldn’t be buried next to the bodies of white people or in the same vicinity. Although segregation of cemeteries was abolished in 1948, even up until 2016 some cemeteries still practiced segregation in South Texas.
In Normanna, Texas, one-and-a-half hours from San Antonio, the town received much turmoil from lawmakers for upholding a “Whites Only” policy. The wife of a Mexican American man, who herself was white, was refused burial of her husband in the San Domingo Cemetery. Mrs. Dorothy Barrera brought her case before MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), as she found herself battling a modern-day segregation battle.
It took a lawsuit and an outpouring of support from the Latino community to fight for Mrs. Barrera wanting to bury her husband, Pedro, in the town cemetery. On July 23, 2016, the Normanna Cemetery Association admitted defeat, and Mr. Barrera was buried in the San Domingo Cemetery. This is a right many take for granted, while we still fight for our right to be buried with dignity.
The Whole Earth
Mrs. Barrera’s fight reminds me of Paul’s commitment and determination to spread the message of God. Mrs. Barrera’s determination to not be silenced was heard, and she won as Paul won the hearts of the prominent people of Athens.
The cemetery operator in Normanna felt that there was treason against the state with its refusal. But it went beyond the law. Not only is it illegal to refuse a Mexican American from being buried in the town cemetery, it is also taking our God out of context. In the fight to keep cemeteries “pure” as it were, the town of Normanna missed the entire message of the gospel.
From one man, God made all the nations that they should inhabit the whole earth. The whole earth. Not the right side of the earth or the small piece of flatland outside of a major city. No. God made from a man entire nations that they should be visible and live on the entire earth. In God we have our whole lives. In him we move and live.
Our God is greater. God doesn’t live in temples or manmade structures here on earth. We recognize that God is not in the cemetery—neither is he an ornament on a tombstone. We understand our loved ones’ souls do not live in these segregated cemeteries. God has championed us to a higher place where we live eternally in peace and freedom.
Yet when a body of people are marginalized in death, it reflects their otherness while they were still alive. It’s a cross their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are left to carry for decades after the body is laid to rest.
It’s a piece of the earth separated for upkeep year after year.
In light of these incidents, may we consider our own communities and our own hearts. Does some inner desire to uphold prejudices place us in a similar situation as these Texas towns? Or are we offering dignity in all aspects of life—for all people?
Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros is a mother, wife, poet, and writer in San Antonio, Texas.