Wed August 1, 2012
The Ghostly Grandeur Of A Desert Graveyard
Originally published on Thu August 2, 2012 7:31 am
It's a raggedy moonscape; no lush green grass or tranquil arbors here. Concordia Cemetery in El Paso, Texas, just a few blocks from the Mexican border, is stark and dusty. It's overrun with crumbling concrete markers and old wooden crosses gone askew. And it goes on ... and on ... and on.
"It's 52 acres," says Bernie Sargent, chair of the El Paso County Historical Commission. "Sixty thousand people buried here. And they're all dead."
The Grave Of A Wild West Legend
Most notorious among the dead is Wild West gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, interred here after he was shot at an El Paso saloon in 1895.
"He died of lead poisoning," Sargent says, deadpan.
Every year, Sargent and other El Paso history buffs re-enact Harding's killing. It doesn't take very long for him to slip into character.
"I killed over 40 men, but they deserved it," he announces. And as for his own demise? "One shot in the back of the head and two more shots — one in the stomach and one in the arm. And I laid there dead for hours, while women dipped their dresses in my blood."
Today's Hardin fans are more likely to leave trinkets as tributes at his grave. Patricia Kiddney, who runs the Concordia Heritage Association, points out a shot glass, coins and cartridge shells scattered over a plaque commemorating the man who was a "a friend to the poor," as Bob Dylan sang about him. From other points of view, the gunfighter might be remembered as a murderous jerk.
Diversity In 'The Middle Of Nowhere'
There is much more to Concordia Cemetery than just Hardin, says Melissa Sargent. She's Bernie's wife, a Concordia board member and host of an El Paso history radio show. She notes it's a surprisingly cosmopolitan graveyard.
"Because we are in the middle of nowhere," she acknowledges, for a city of about 650,000 people. "The very far west corner of Mexico, New Mexico and Texas."
It surprises many to learn that Concordia Cemetery is home to a large Chinese population, many of whom were born in the 1800s. They're the men who built the intercontinental railroad. Their families are here, too.
When the Chinese Exclusion Act made it difficult for more immigrants to come to this country in the 1870s, many Chinese and Japanese men ended up marrying Mexican women. So you'll see plenty of gravestones here with names like Manuel Cheng, who was born in the late 1800s. A popular restaurant in the area, run by descendants of another such family, has the name Paco Wong's.
Concordia also has a Jewish section, a Mormon section, a Masonic section and a section for African-American veterans of the Civil War — the Buffalo Soldiers. El Paso has had an on-and-off military presence since the days of the Spanish conquistadors. Now it's home to Fort Bliss, one of the largest Army installations in the United States.
"We've got that really wild mixture of people you wouldn't think, here in the middle of the desert," Melissa Sargent says proudly.
A Graveyard's Spooky Side
The cemetery also has what seem to be vast, empty spaces. But they're not: Nobody is sure how many people were buried under cheap wood or sandstone markers that dissolved after years of dust storms and droughts. In a section set aside for children, one grave is marked with a spooky iron crib. But most of the markers are humble and look homemade.
Henry Flores, of the Paso Del Norte Paranormal Society, claims the children's section is haunted. He leads ghost tours of the cemetery at night.
"What some ladies experience is, if they have a C-section, they always tell us they feel something weird on their scar," he says.
Completely true, affirms Flores' wife, Veronica.
"It happened to me, and I've had two C-sections!" she says.
The Floreses lead me to an area they call "the Vortex," said to exert a mysterious force. Since most of Concordia feels so spooky, it's easy to get deliciously creeped out by their stories about finding evidence of brujeria, or Mexican witchcraft, in the cemetery, and tales of hauntings and alleged ghost sightings captured on film.
The Day Of The Dead
Like many El Pasoans, Henry Flores has numerous family members buried here, including his great-grandmother, who was Mexican and Cherokee. She's buried beneath a tangle of faded artificial roses. One of the best times to visit her, he says, is during Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday observed by many El Pasoans.
A local musician, Cliff Seaman, has dedicated a song to the Concordia Cemetery's desert grandeur. It sounds like the soundtrack to an old Clint Eastwood movie:
She lies there in the heart of the city of the sun...The place where I'll lay when my days are done...by the banks of the river, that old Rio Grande... And Concordia they'll bury me in old El Paso sand...
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If your summer has been quiet or even a little dead, MORNING EDITION has the answer for you.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All this summer, we've been visiting the dead, dropping by distinctive American graveyards in a series we call Dead Stop.
INSKEEP: And today we come to a dead stop in El Paso, Texas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: The enormous Concordia Cemetery is just blocks from the Mexican border. It is a burial ground and a cultural crossroads, as NPR's Neda Ulaby discovered.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: No lush green grass or tranquil arbors here. Concordia Cemetery is a raggedy moonscape, overrun with old wooden crosses and crumbling concrete markers.
My God, how big is it?
BERNIE SARGENT: Fifty-two acres.
ULABY: Fifty-two acres, says Bernie Sargent, who chairs the cemetery's board.
SARGENT: Sixty thousand people buried here. And they're all dead.
ULABY: Every year, Sargent joins other El Paso history buffs to reenact the murder of the cemetery's most infamous resident. Here he is, in character...
SARGENT: (as John Wesley Hardin) I killed over 40 men, but they all deserved it.
ULABY: That would be John Wesley Hardin, Wild West gunslinger and hero to Bob Dylan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHN WESLEY HARDING")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor.
ULABY: Or he was a murderous jerk, depending on your point of view. Right now, Bernie Sargent's standing by the ornate iron gates surrounding Hardin's grave and gives a taste of how he died at an El Paso saloon in 1895.
SARGENT: (as John Wesley Hardin) One shot in the back of the head, and then two more shots - one in the stomach and one in the arm. And I laid there dead for hours, while women dipped their dresses in my blood.
ULABY: Today's fans are more likely to leave tributes at Hardin's grave. Patricia Kiddney runs the Concordia Heritage Association.
PATRICIA KIDDNEY: As you can see, we have a shot glass someone left here. We have coins here, cartridge shells. We've had folks come and dump their loved ones' ashes here.
ULABY: There's so much more, though, to Concordia Cemetery than Hardin. It's surprisingly cosmopolitan, says Melissa Sargent. She's a volunteer for the cemetery.
MELISSA SARGENT: Because we are in the middle of nowhere in a lot of sense - very far West Texas corner of Mexico, New Mexico and Texas.
ULABY: But people find their way and sometimes never leave. El Paso's had an on-and-off military presence since the days of the Spaniards. Now it's home to one of the largest Army installations in the U.S. The cemetery's got a sizable Chinese population. They're the men who built the intercontinental railroad - and their children. When the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1870s made it difficult for more immigrants to come to this country...
SARGENT: Many Chinese and Japanese married Mexican women.
ULABY: So plenty of gravestones here have names like Manuel Cheng. Then there's a Jewish section, a Mormon section, and a section for African-American veterans of the Civil War - the so-called Buffalo Soldiers.
SARGENT: We've got that really wild mixture of people that you wouldn't think here in the middle of the desert.
ULABY: Concordia's filled with what seems to be vast, empty spaces, but they're not empty. Nobody knows how many people were buried under cheap wood or sandstone markers that dissolved after years of dust storms and droughts. In a section just for children, one grave's marked with a spooky iron crib. But mostly, the markers are humble and homemade.
They look like little cradles.
SARGENT: Yeah, they do. They do. This child might have died from the influenza breakout in 1917.
ULABY: Concordia has a problem with graffiti, and the cemetery's trying to raise money for more security with ghost tours at night. They're led by Henry Flores of the Paso Del Norte Paranormal Society. He claims the children's section is haunted.
HENRY FLORES: What some ladies experience is, if they've had a C-section, they always tell us they feel something weird on their scar.
ULABY: Think he's making that up? It's true, says Flores' wife, Veronica.
VERONICA FLORES: It happened to me, and I've had two C-sections.
ULABY: The Floreses lead me to an area they call the Vortex, said to exert a mysterious force.
H. FLORES: People start to get hungry. They start to get thirsty. They feel like somebody's watching them. Batteries start to drain. Flashlights start to fade away.
ULABY: What about audio equipment?
H. FLORES: Audio equipment, so...
ULABY: Ha, ha. Flores, like a lot of El Pasoans, has a lot of family members buried here, including his great-grandmother who is Mexican and Cherokee. She's buried beneath a tangle of faded artificial roses and a headstone in Spanish.
H. FLORES: (Spanish spoken)
ULABY: Henry Flores says one of the best times to visit his great-grandmother is during Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday observed by many El Pasoans.
H. FLORES: We come dressed up in tuxedos and white skull faces and marigolds all over the place and lit candles. And some families come over and have a picnic with their loved one.
ULABY: El Paso, the pass, lies right between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madres. Concordia Cemetery lies almost in the middle - a pass bridging cultures and the living and the dead. Local musician Cliff Seaman dedicated a song to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CLIFF SEAMAN: (Singing) She lies there in the heart of the city of the sun, the place where I'll lay when my days are done, by the banks of the river, that old Rio Grande. In Concordia, they'll bury me in old El Paso sand.
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SEAMAN: (Singing) Concordia, Concordia, Concordia.
INSKEEP: Find some other places to make a dead stop at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.