The wisdom-marinated anger of Mario Vazquez pours through the backdrop of decay and lack of pride like oil through a faulty filter as he again steps into San Felipe Cemetery to chronicle hundreds of unmarked and uncataloged gravesites there.
“I asked, ‘Who’s buried here?’ ‘Well, really we don’t know.’ I said, why?”
Vazquez is not shy to ask the questions, “why not” or “how come.”
“In one place they have five rusted crosses,” he lamented. “Who’s there? Who knows?”
Vazquez is on a quest to identify several hundred gravesites in the cemetery. Years of abysmal record-keeping and the pace of technology have kept the dead hidden. But for the past several months he has been bringing them back to life.
Interestingly, the cemetery, which claims to possess the grave of the famed La Adelita from the Mexican Revolution (and indeed it does), has the unknown interspersed with the known. But finding the unknown has led Vasquez to a rugged paper trail.
“Nobody has computerized records and the person in charge doesn’t have a computer,” he said.
And the 90-year old son of an ice salesman seems to be the right person for the undertaking. Vazquez is a man accustomed to full activation. Back in the day ̶ the Civil Rights era ̶ Vazquez got after it as a bonafide activist. During the early years, he crossed paths with labor leader Cesar Chavez and was elected secretary of the Southwest Council of La Raza.
“You have to make waves. But people here are afraid. I’ll stand up and talk to anybody…they’re no better than I am…I’m not afraid to tell anyone the truth,” he said.
He estimates that he has matched 500 names to their respective gravesites.
After identifying them, he creates a grid in order to map out the cemetery giving it some semblance of organization. He has just completed his first section; “Section 0.”
He is also making an alphabetical database to provide a digital guide for the cemetery. The earliest grave is from 1862.
Vazquez, who was born in San Felipe and grew up in a house on Chapoy Street, sees the cemetery project as one way to revitalize and reinvigorate San Felipe, a community he feels has lost its way.
“There are a lot of things in San Felipe that I’d like to revive…
I want to see the barrio flourish,” he commented. “People will start taking a little bit more pride in San Felipe.”
His affinity for San Felipe shines through his paternal-like concern. He even wrote a book, “Mario From The Barrio,” which recounts his time growing up there.
“I’m doing a service to the community…I have free time…don’t sit around and wait for death to catch up with you,” he remarked.
Ultimately, Vazquez would like to hand the project off to others and educate them in the system he has devised.
“We’ll get it done if we get enough people who are interested in doing it,” he said.
In the meantime, the quest continues as he plots the grids and chases the dead.