Latin American Cemetery applies for nonprofit status
RUNNELS COUNTY - On Runnels County Road 120, just about a mile off of Highway 67 toward Coleman, a pearl of Runnels County history lies quietly in the landscape of West Central Texas. A group of determined individuals are working to maintain the legacy of the Latin American Cemetery, and to ensure that it has a future.
The Latin American Cemetery Association president Daniel Cavazos wants to share the history of the cemetery with everyone, "In addition to the marked graves, there are 294 unmarked graves here. The cemetery turned 111 years old on July 15th."
While the name "Latin American Cemetery" might indicate the burial is reserved for those of Latino descent, Cavazos says that is not the case, "Anyone of any race or ethnicity can be buried here. If you live in this area, you can be buried here. If you grew up here and left, you can come back and be buried here. This is no charge at all, for anyone. The cemetery association doesn't charge, or make any money off of burials."
Cavazos introduces Alex Aguilera, whose heritage lies beneath the hallowed ground we look over, "Most of the early burials were sharecroppers and migrant workers from South Texas. They would come up here and camp on the courthouse lawn. When they finished the work for that year, they'd go back home." Aguilera remembers times back to the 1960s when workers showed up to harvest crops, "I picked cotton out here in this area when I was a kid."
According to Aguilera, the cemetery sprung up from necessity, "When our ancestors came out here, they couldn't be buried in the other cemeteries. They had to come up with a solution."
It would be easy to label the creation of the cemetery as simply "necessity." Perhaps, there aren't enough adjectives to describe what it took to make the cemetery a reality: resolve; determination; effort; ingenuity; leadership; love; respect; work. Yes, a significant amount of work went into the establishment of the cemetery, work that continues to maintain this postage stamp of history.
The annals of the cemetery's history might have dissolved, erased by time like the names on the older headstones, but for the effort of a Ballinger school teacher. The teacher, Mrs. Ruble, gave her class an assignment regarding documenting information around the city and county. Now referred to as "The Ruble Papers," the research included information on local cemeteries.
Cavazos said that the cemetery association found The Ruble Papers in the Carnegie Library, "It was an incredible blessing to find that information. The cemetery land, 1.5 acres, was purchased for $75.00 on July 15, 1910. It was purchased from Gus and Amelia Johnson. That original cemetery association consisted of seven men."
There are graves located in the cemetery from people who were born in the mid 1800s. Bisente Lopes was born on February 27, 1829 and passed away on July 24, 1919, but it's unknown if he was the earliest born person buried in the cemetery. As mentioned above, there are 294 unidentified graves. There could be dozens more unmarked graves.
According to Cavazos, in 1933 local businessman Alberto Alvarez started overseeing cemetery operations. Alvarez owned Alvarez Grocery, which was located around Strong Avenue and Highway 83 in Ballinger.
In 1968, Joe Perez, working on the assignment from Mrs. Ruble, interviewed Mr. Alvarez. According to Cavazos, the papers tell that "the cemetery is open to anyone, regardless of race, religion, or financial status." When work in the cemetery needed to be carried out, church leaders stepped in to help out.
Alvarez continued to oversee the cemetery work until his death in 1985. Alvarez's daughter, Linda Guevarra, then took over responsibility for the cemetery after Alvarez's death. The current cemetery association was formed in 2019 to oversee operations and burials.
Cavazos says that an additional acre was purchased in 1953 from Harold and Margie Routh for $300. The funds "were obtained from the Spanish population," according to Cavazos. The cemetery currently sits at 2.5 acres.
The cemetery is a trip through that nation's conflicts, with veterans from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf war buried throughout the 2.5 acres. Mapping of the graves in the cemetery was done by students in Ballinger as part of a school project in 1976.
Once again, additional room is being sought for the cemetery, "We're running out of room. We need to purchase land. To do that, we need to collect donations. We'd also like to build a gazebo to hold mass 3 or 4 times a year."
Currently, the volunteer work is mainly carried out on the last Saturday of the month.
As a testament to the determination and resolve of families, a child's grave was dug by hand "because we couldn't get a backhoe."
The efforts of the cemetery association currently include filing for 501c3 nonprofit status. They recently held a hamburger benefit that raised $3,300. The cemetery is looking to hold more benefits. They'd also like to add a few cosmetic touches, such as lights to shine on the entrance gate.
The cemetery has a Facebook page: Latin American Cemetery. If you'd like more information, you can contact Cavazos at (325) 977-1604. The association's vice president is John Escobar. The secretary is Veronica Gonzalez and the treasurer is Marta Arteaga. Overall, the association has 13 members.