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.
Ramon’s medal wins the day In 1940, several hundred Mexican-American men reported for duty at Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas, home of the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division or “Texas Division.” Legends were born that day. Particularly in Company E, which was comprised of Hispanics only.
“It’s a story that should have been told many, many years ago,” said Dave Gutierrez, author of the book, ‘Patriots From The Barrio.’ “This is a story that…I’ve always felt should have been written 60 years ago.”
In his non-fiction work, Dave Gutierrez chronicles the accounts and highlights the patriotic heroics of his cousin Ramon Gutierrez and several other Mexican-American soldiers who served in Company E.
“I wanted to show Mexican-American contributions to this nation. Real, significant Mexican-American contributions,” he said. “These men were part of our greatest generation and they should not be forgotten. That’s why I wrote the book.”
The Rapido River crossing serves as the climax to the book where the 36th Division lost 2,000 men in a span of 48 hours in one of the colossal U.S. Army blunders during World War II. Though “Patriots From The Barrio” spotlights a number of soldiers, Ramon Gutierrez’ story is what really drives this narrative.
Arguably, the most interesting individual account in the book is how Ramon Gutierrez was awarded the Order of Patriotic War 2nd Degree from the Soviet Union.
“He became one of only a few Americans to be decorated for valor on the battlefield by the Soviet Union during World War II,” Dave Gutierrez said.
The Soviets had sent an observer to watch the 36th Division landing at Salerno. He overheard what Ramon Gutierrez had done at the landing and was impressed.
When Ramon Gutierrez’ Company E unit disembarked waist deep in water at Salerno his squad was immediately pinned down by German tanks and machine gun fire. After witnessing the demise of two of his comrades, Ramon Gutierrez, with uncontrollable rage and fury, initiated a charge of the machine gun nest. While rapidly approaching the nest he was struck in the arm and subsequently lost his Browning automatic rifle. Despite losing his rifle, he continued the charge and used a hand grenade to dispose of the nest.
“And then he jumped into the foxhole, killed the last German soldier in hand-to-hand combat,” Dave Gutierrez commented. That action earned him the Silver Star and the Soviet medal. On his return from Italy, Ramon received the Order of Patriotic War 2nd Degree degree in Washington D.C. The medal had been given to the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, by the Soviet ambassador, Andrei Gromyko.
The intriguing stories from “Patriots From The Barrio” have not gone unnoticed by Hollywood. Actor Wilmer Valderrama’s production company has purchased the film rights and is planning to create a six to eight-episode series based on it. Valderrama is known for TV-series, “That ‘70s Show” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” plus films, “Fast Food Nation” and “Larry Crowne.”
But at the end of any story it’s the depth and essence of character that matter.
When Dave Gutierrez heard the call to write this book he knew it was to curate and catalog important stories about the accomplishments and sacrifices of Mexican-Americans.
“I think Latinos in general, we need to look in the mirror and figure out how we can record and document our own history because that is the key that I feel that we need to improve on as Latinos.” (The Casa de la Cultura will be hosting a Dave Gutierrez lecture and book signing (the just-released 2nd edition that includes new stories) May 25.
For more information, please visit authordavegutierrez.com or http://www.lacasadelacultura.org.)