Driving down Montopolis in Austin between Richardson Lane and Ponca Street one could easily pass by an unassuming collection of grave sites that are collectively known as the San Jose Cemetery. A lonely gate and its two pillars are all that remain of a stone wall once facing the county road of Montopolis. The gate is all that is left to identify the lot as “Cementerio San Jose”. The final resting place of many of the founding members of Austin’s Mexican American community, the Cemetery has fallen into disrepair and its lack of continual care over the years is clear in the condition of the gravestones today. Like many unclaimed cemeteries throughout Travis County, San Jose preserves the story and history of the people it is home to while also serving as a stark reminder of the investment needed to keep those memories alive.
San Jose Cemetery was established between 1919 and 1922 as the burial place for a growing Mexican American community in what was then rural Travis County. The Montopolis area was not annexed by the City of Austin until the early 1970s. Early descriptions paint a picture of Montopolis Drive as a small dirt road cutting through fields of cotton, corn, and watermelon. The site of the cemetery among these fields is an important reminder of the significance of the time and place of its establishment. It was around this time that the area saw significant migration and settlement by Mexican sharecroppers, or medieros. The surviving cemetery markers provide a unique record of the early Mexican American urbanization in the surrounding Austin area.
From its beginning the cemetery maintained a policy of free burial for any person of Mexican descent. The founders made a point of providing space, coffin, and religious rites for the burial of any Mexican transient that died in the area, claiming the bodies from the City of Austin to ensure appropriate burial. Due to its free burial policy the original land purchased for the cemetery was quickly filled. By 1949 additional land was sought to expand the cemetery and create much needed space. Like the original plot the new addition continued to fill rapidly. The speed by which burials took place left many of them unmarked and likely led to many new burials taking place over previous unmarked sites. No formal record of the locations of burials or those interred exists for San Jose.
PICA 35902 A small Conjunto band in the Montopolis Neighborhood.
Among the surviving headstones you can discover names long associated with the Mexican American community in Montopolis. A walk through the cemetery today will reveal Camachos, Zapatas, Gonzalezes, Padillas among many others. In the course of the walk you may also notice groupings of trees or plants that were customarily used by families to mark their gravesites. Careful observation will reveal unaccounted spaces between graves and even sunken areas where graves that are no longer marked reside. Broken and weathered headstones are unfortunately not the only signs of neglect to be found. Documentation from the Austin Genealogical Society, Save Austin’s Cemeteries, Austin American Statesman, and other local publications reveal a past state of neglect and disrepair.
Like the dozens, or even hundreds, of unclaimed cemeteries throughout Travis County, San Jose relies on the support of local groups and neighbors. The cemetery was founded and managed by the Union Fraternal Mexicana from 1919 into the late 1930s, and then cared for by the Unin y Beneficencia Committee and the Panteon de San Jose between 1930 and 1950. The cemetery has not received regular maintenance since the 1960s. The Montopolis community has organized periodic cleanup of the site since the late 1970s.
As the resting place of so much heritage and history, cemeteries are a vital resource for preservation and yet are a piece that can often fall through the cracks. Counties and cities will rarely take on the responsibility for such care and maintenance. Efforts by groups like the Austin Genealogical Society and Texas Historical Commission have helped to document information about and found in the cemeteries. But the actual preservation calls for the organization and effort of the communities where these cemeteries can be found. Reaching out to groups like Save Austin’s Cemeteries is a great place to start to learn how you can help.