Cross-Cultural Work History and Heritage Museums Non-Profits Research

Bill Sheets, El Centro Hispano de San Marcos

In the summer of 2013 my internship and attention were concentrated on Dr. Ana Juarez’s ongoing research concerning Mexican-American religious communities in San Marcos, Texas. I first became involved with the research project as part of Dr. Juarez’s ethnographic research methods course in spring 2013. My internship and Dr. Juarez’s research was to culminate into a museum exhibit of the findings at El Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos as well as into publications.My internship direction was to research the histories of cemeteries and churches of the Mexican-American community in San Marcos, document the community’s religious beliefs that might form their attitudes and practices concerning funerals and death, and to present the results in the museum exhibit.

Case Study in Archival Research

The local histories of minority groups are often not well documented. One reason for this is the fact that devices that record history, such as newspapers, are owned by and marketed to the majority group in the region and the majority group’s devices are more likely to be preserved over time. As is the case with Mexican-Americans, language also restricts the minority history from being included. Segregation and exclusion from the ruling class’ everyday community means segregation and exclusion from the historical device. This means that the historical device often relied upon to document a minority group’s history is oral tradition. Oral traditions are stories and recollections from the descendants of the people in the minority group. Oral traditions, however, are fragile, often inaccurate, and require investigative research by oral historians and anthropologists.
An example of this disconnect is the Guadalupe Catholic Cemetery on Post Road in between the San Marcos River and the Blanco River. From ethnographic interviews, there were conflicting explanations as to how it came to be owned by the Catholic Church. I knew that it belonged to the Catholic Church because recently there was a D.B.A. (Doing Business As) filed with the county.

A parishioner at St. John’s Catholic Church, speaking of the 1920s and 1930s, believed that a prominent Mexican-American family in San Marcos who was known for their involvement and dedication to their religion and community had bought the property to serve as a private family cemetery. There was a high demand for inexpensive burial plots for Mexican-Americans because at that time the cemeteries were segregated and the Mexican-American population was surging. The interviewee stated that, because the family was regularly asked to allow the burials of Catholic Mexican-Americans, they finally decided to open the cemetery for others.

However, a local Mexican-American historian, who was interviewed, mentioned that the church purchased the land earlier than the 1920s and 1930s but did not know whom the church bought the property from. She knew that the church officials who were directed to buy the land and represent the church were Claretian priests who were charged with the task of cultivating the Mexican-American population into local churches all over southern and central Texas.

Land ownership by Mexican-Americans in the 19th and early 20th century was rare indeed. Often the Anglos who did sell or give land to a Mexican-American or to the Mexican-American community were thought of as sympathizers and often were shunned by the rest of the Anglo community. Most sympathizers were likely to have been abolitionists before the civil war and in Texas an abolitionist was equivalent to a Yankee and a risky position to hold. Prior to the civil war, Texas often exiled abolitionists.

If I could find out who sold the land to the Claretian order of priests representing the local Mexican-American Catholic Church, it would allow for further research to help explain why a presumed Anglo landowner would defy the norm of Mexican-Americans not being able to own land.

By tracing property deed lineages from the current owner back through time, I hoped to be able to solve the mystery. It took some practice to understand that typically a much larger parcel of land was divided up into many lots where the owner kept some of them and the rest sold over time. This can become quite complex to trace back because stemming from the deed where the owner bought the land as a whole, there was a deed for each individual lot transaction after each lot was sold.

I found a deed from 1976 that showed land described in the area of the cemetery and that Clara Booth et al sold a little under an acre to the church. However, this contradicted both of the accounts of the interviewees, and I also knew that the cemetery was larger than an acre. I traced this parcel of land to find out the origins and if there was any Mexican-American ownership prior to the Booth family. I started with the current deed from 1976, which referenced the prior deed to give a traceable lineage of ownership and found no ownership by a Mexican-American person. I went all the way back to 1905, when it was part of a large agricultural endeavor called Riverhead Farm that was owned by William Green.

Because the 1976 deed was only an acre, I suspected that this was not the whole story. Quite possibly there was an older deed that sold the land to the church around the time of Riverhead Farm. With help from a map curator at the local appraisal office, I was able to obtain the deed information for the 4 acres that were not a part of the 1976 deed lineage. I went back to the Hays County Government Center to search the deed records with this new lead. The deed showed that the church had in fact bought the 4 acres on April 11th, 1908, not from the prominent family of San Marcos, but from Florencio Escobar and his wife Ysidra Escobar. The Escobars had purchased the land from J.H. Gary who was the proprietor of the San Marcos Mercantile Company located on the downtown square on March 25th, 1907. The Escobars bought 5.51 acres, kept 1.51 acres, and sold the 4 acres of the front part of the Guadalupe Cemetery to the church a little over a year later. Grave markers in the cemetery indicate that people were interred there prior to the 1907 purchase date, thus the Escobars knew they were buying a cemetery.

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The Internship Coordinator

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