Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on the impact of Trump’s border wall on a small south Texas cemetery. The first part is here.)
By Christopher Adams
Head to the Rio Grande Valley and you will find no shortage of opinions regarding the need for President Donald Trump’s board wall and its impact on the area’s historic cemeteries. The issue is heating up as Trump rushes to try to get more of the wall built before the November election.
“In Cameron County, as it stands, there are no intrusions of what you call a right-of-way,” Eugene Fernandez, a historian and chairman of the Cameron County Historical Commission cemeteries committee, told Reform Austin.
He said the border right-of-way has been in effect since the early 1950s, and there has never been a breach of any sacred burial place there.
“I know where every one of the cemeteries are in Cameron County,” Fernandez said. “I’m well familiar with where all of the cemeteries are. They’re marked. They’re delineated on a map. And so there’s no intrusion, there’s no future prospect of any kind of intrusion.”
The only concerns of intrusion that he is aware of are the ones regarding the Jackson Ranch Church and Eli Jackson Cemeteries, respectively, in Hidalgo County. Both are registered with the Texas Historical Commission. But he has doubts about the legitimacy of the intrusion claims there, saying the families protesting the government’s presence near the land where their ancestors are buried like the attention.
“I’ve seen them pipe up because they love air time,” Fernandez said. “There’s not a year that goes by that they’re not on the news with the same blooming regurgitated story.”
To his knowledge, there aren’t going to be wall construction issues at the Eli Jackson Cemetery, further stating that reliable sources at U.S. Customs and Border Protection told him the wall wouldn’t encroach on cemetery property.
That may be true, but a state district judge recently signed a temporary injunction — until a scheduled hearing set for Tuesday — against Southwest Valley Constructors Co., which is building the wall near the cemeteries, The Monitor reported.
According to the petition, filed on Sept. 15 on behalf of the Singleterry family, descendants of the deceased interred at the Eli Jackson Cemetery seek to enjoin the contractor from excavating, digging, operating heavy machinery and scraping or leveling within 100 feet of the cemetery, claiming those activities have caused burial plots to sink “as the border wall is currently being constructed in violation of plaintiffs’ property rights and without due compensation.”
Additionally, the Singleterry family stated in the petition the actions of Southwest Valley Constructors have led to “mental anguish and emotional distress.”
Like the Singleterry family, Rio Grande Valley Congressional leaders are concerned about the sanctity of the historic cemeteries.
“Prohibiting the construction of the border wall on historical burial sites secures the integrity of these sacred grounds that are rich with culture and history, and though we have heard from the Department of Homeland Security that no wall will be constructed within the historic Eli Jackson Cemetery, that is of no real consolation because we should not be building any border wall whatsoever,” wrote U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Harlingen) in a statement sent to Reform Austin.
Vela, along with Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), vice-chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Corpus Christi), have spearheaded efforts to block border-wall construction in historically sensitive areas such as cemeteries.
Many of the cemeteries in the levee-river area are small, private lots, where farmhands are buried, according to Fernandez. “Every farm out there buries its own workers right there in a little plot,” he said.
The cemeteries are south of a levee that doesn’t actually run along the Rio Grande due to topographical challenges requiring it to run slightly inland. Fernandez, who grew up in Cameron County and whose family has lived there for generations, said there are thousands of acres of commercial farmland between the river and the levee in the Rio Grande Valley.
“That whole range, from the levee to the river is replete with farmland,” he said. “That’s cash crops … that’s active land down there.”
Historically, there has always been a low level of traffic and habitation below the levee because of its prohibitive proximity to cities in the Rio Grande Valley, Fernandez added, also saying that area farmers are proponents of the wall.
“They are pro-wall. The farmers, the major portion of them, are out there saying, ‘All we want to do is we want to carry on with our livelihood and our living and all this’ … You’re talking about people who have had this land forever.”
One block from the Eli Jackson Cemetery sits the Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery. The Ramirez family has also been battling the federal government over wall construction, according to The Monitor. The family filed a lawsuit that remains pending.
Sylvia Ramirez, the great, great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Jackson and Matilda Jackson, who was a slave — Eli Jackson was their son and is buried at the cemetery bearing his namesake — has been waging a fight against the government trying to protect both cemeteries.
“We started about two years ago fighting the border wall, and it’s all the way ‘til today,” said Ramirez in a mini-documentary produced by Northern Monday Films. “Up and down, thinking we’d won and now seeing devastation off to the east … we’re working with our attorneys and Congressmen Vela and Cuellar and trying to get the word out in the media that we’re not going to stop. We’re not going to stop trying to stop them.”