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“If it were nicer, I think you’d have more burials…”
The place where families of limited means buried their loved ones and where generations of those who helped build Cotulla have been laid to rest is also a place of disorder.
Cristo Rey Cemetery, located southeast of Cotulla on FM 624, was first used 90 years ago and covers several acres, with burial areas divided by loosely graveled paths. Despite being situated in the harsh and unforgiving Brush Country, Cristo Rey is a place of shade and greenery for a great number who lie there.
While many families take pride in the carefully marked plots, the boundary fences and stone walls, the flowerbeds and other markers that denote the places where their ancestors lie, others have been less fortunate and have only a vague idea where the graves may be.
A history of Cristo Rey Cemetery is sprinkled with apparent failures at organization.
In some cases, families paid money for plots that may not have been marked; in others, there may have been unauthorized burials.
In a recent decision by the Cotulla City Council, prompted by an order handed down by District Judge Russell Wilson to settle long-running debates over who should be in charge of the cemetery and where its actual boundaries lie, the city and La Salle County governments will now work together in paying for upkeep and organizing the site.
At the same time, Cotulla is filing an application to have Cristo Rey designated a Texas historic landmark in acknowledgement of its value to the cultural history of the community.
City councilors agreed at a meeting on July 14 to take action on an agreement with the county, sharing the responsibility for the site. The decision has been made in part because La Salle County has used Cristo Rey as its burial ground for the indigent, those who have no means to pay for their interment or those whose bodies are unclaimed and – in rare cases – unidentified.
Once the agreement goes into effect, the city and county will establish a five-member board, determine where graves may be dug and where roads can and cannot be laid, and keep records of all decisions related to the maintenance and further development of the cemetery.
According to City Hall, a full survey of Cristo Rey is a priority.
“If we don’t do it that way, nobody is ever going to do anything,” Cotulla City Attorney Steve Pena told the council in July. “No one is going to know what anyone is doing. It’s going to go back to the mess it’s been for eighty years.”
“We used ground-penetrating radar, and we detected bodies where there are no markers,” City Administrator Larry Dovalina said, “because someone just buried someone there. The majority of the poor people of this community are buried there.”
The city administrator reported that his research has found that the land intended for a cemetery was given in the 1930s and designated “for the Mexican colony of Cotulla.”
It was an era of segregation, not only in culture and heritage but also in affluence or lack thereof.
“You want to give them perpetual care,” Dovalina said.
The first burials at Cristo Rey reportedly took place in 1932.
Councilors learned at their meeting that the cemetery’s boundaries have been in dispute for years, that record keeping was disorganized, and that the city is collecting mineral rights from oil and gas exploration deep below ground at Cristo Rey.
“I don’t know how many of you go out there, but it’s in pretty bad shape,” the city attorney said. “People are putting up posts and ropes, claiming plots as theirs. If it were nicer, I think you’d have more burials.”
“There was no record keeping,” Councilor Tanis Lopez said of the cemetery’s lack of organization in past decades. “It did not exist at all. People were just collecting money here and there.
“I was on a committee,” the councilor added. “We turned over all our records to the county judge. There was no way of telling who had paid money.”
“This is an attempt to bring order to the chaos,” Dovalina said of the interlocal agreement and the establishment of a board. “We need to run it as a cemetery. There are people who don’t have any money. We are trying to help the situation and do it in an orderly way.”
“It’ll be a real nice cemetery,” Mayor Javier Garcia said at the council meeting.
“Cristo Rey is actually attractive,” Attorney Pena said. “It’s very historic looking. Some of the people buried there were very important to this county.”
The city administrator said plans for action between city and county to begin organizing the cemetery include annual expenses of $50,000 from each. Those fees are also expected to cover new roads at the site, he said.
“There’s no reason why there can’t be some lights out there,” Attorney Pena said. “Many of the people who were buried out there, nobody was ever going to help them. They banded together and organized this. People like that are to be admired. They never expected the government to come and bury them. They were a very proud people.”
The city attorney recommended that the cemetery board be solely responsible for marking new burial plots.
“We need to establish a best-practices policy,” Pena added. “You don’t want just anyone going out there and digging a hole.”
The move to begin acting on the interlocal agreement with the county was made by Councilor Lopez, seconded by Councilor Manuel Rodriguez and supported unanimously.