Tellez Family Cemetery
Virden, Hidalgo County, New Mexico
© 17 January 2007
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Story by Carmen Duarte
The Arizona Daily Star
 An extract from the Arizona Daily Star:
Used with permission. (Spacing was edited to fit our format.)
Copyright Carmen Duarte and The Arizona Daily Star
From the series, A hard life, a hard land

Chapter 13: Talking to the dead

If headstones could just tell family stories


Fiebre: fever

Bruja: witch

Chubasco: rain shower

Abuelo: grandfather

Bisabuelos: great-grandparents

Día de los Muertos:
Day of the dead,
Nov. 2, All Souls' Day.

Author: Carmen Duarte
Source: The Arizona Daily Star

Fever and childbirth account for at least a third of the graves in the family cemetery, but hard labor also exacted a toll. My relatives were buried in mine cave-ins and struck down in the fields. Mining and farming have long topped the list of dangerous occupations. It seems strangely appropriate that the first man buried in one of Virden's cemeteries was killed by a load of hay.

Tirso Villalba was something of a family scandal. He showed up in San Antonio, N.M., in 1910, an illegitimate child looking for his father. That turned out to be my Mama's grandfather, Tata Florentino.

Nala's grandparents took Tirso in. He lived with them for about a year until an accident caused his death. Tirso was hauling hay bales on a flat wagon when a wheel fell off. He was crushed when the load landed on him.

He became the first of about 300 members of the community, many of them my relatives, buried in the cemetery that sits high on a ridge above Virden, overlooking the fields in the flood plain of the Gila River. More than 100 graves are those of infants who died at birth or were taken byla fiebre. The cemetery had been long neglected when my cousin Petra Rodriguez Mungia undertook its restoration in the 1980s.

Petra's own life was in need of some order at that time, and the cemetery became her place to be alone with her thoughts. As she straightened the mounds of rocks and built pathways between the rows of the dead, her own life seemed to gain order and direction.

``The dead can stretch out now. They don't have to be huddled under the hundreds of rocks that were scattered all around,'' says Petra, who lives in nearby Duncan. This cemetery and a smaller, older one, begun in 1885 adjacent to the church of San Antonio, are where my ancestors, the pioneers of this valley, lie. Headstones mark the graves of war veterans. Other graves are marked with simple wooden crosses, painted white. Some crosses have names but no dates. Others remain blank.

When I walked among these graves for the first time last summer, I so wanted the dead to talk, to share their remarkable and maybe not so remarkable stories. But many of the stories and even some of the names are known only to those buried here.

Some birth dates on the tombstones are wrong. Petra's grandfather Ignacio Rodriguez was born in 1876, not 1776. He died in 1917 because he was a ``lover boy, a womanizer,'' says Petra, smiling. There is a very strange family tale about Ignacio. He was supposedly bewitched by abruja and lured to his death. I'll tell you that story on Sunday.

Petra knows many of the stories of those buried here:
* Isabel* Frank Rodriguez died shortly after completing amanda - a promise to God - by walking 12 miles from Duncan to Virden supporting a 10-foot wooden cross on his shoulder. The cross now marks his grave.
* Contosa Rodriguez died in the early 1900s after falling off the back of a wagon that was returning from a funeral.
* Francisco Vasquez was born in 1928 and built a shrine toLa Virgen de Guadalupe. He died on Dec. 10, 1981, two days before her feast day.

When I visited the cemetery last summer and found the graves of Mama's grandparents, I began to cry. Then I came to the grave of my grandfather, Ambrosio Bejarano, who was killed by lightning two months before Mama was born. The tears would not stop. I felt the tender presence of my family around me.

My timing was right for meeting Tata Ambrosio. It was a cloudy, muggy day during thechubasco season, almost 83 years to the day myabuelo died. A warmth entered my soul and I felt so at home. I thanked God for paving the moment for me. His hand was in this task. ``Thank youbisabuelos for taking care of my Mama, loving her and protecting her as best you could. ``AndTata, how I wish you would have lived. I would have loved to have felt your loving arms around me as a little girl.

``I know Mama's life would have been so much different if you had lived. Her childhood would not have been stolen from her so quickly. ``Your grave needs work. I think the family will have to fix you up aroundDía de los Muertos.

And so we did. A work crew of Duartes, Vegas, Bejaranos and Tellezes descended on Virden with rakes, shovels and paintbrushes. We painted and cleaned and laughed. We ate Petra's fine food. We drank a few beers and told family tales.

Funny thing about this family history business: You get to uncover secrets your own mother doesn't know. Mama wasn't told about her grandfather's illegitimate son until I reunited her with cousin Tita in July.``Nadie me dijo,'' (Nobody told me), she gasped. Then grinned. Both women laughed. Tita, 86, and Mama, 83, have lived through much - the Great Depression, World War II, illnesses and the deaths of husbands, parents, siblings and, for Tita, the deaths of five children. Infidelity may measure high on their scale of immorality.

But what the hell, these two old women have seen it all. As Tita told Mama, ``Somos veteranas''  (We're veterans).

Cemetery photos and listing.
The Tellez Family Cemetery
There are two family cemeteries near Virden. The first was established about 1885. The smaller one sits on a ridge near the Virden Church of San Antonio.
The other cemetery, The Tellez Family Cemetery,  is located on private property. The combined cemeteries have over 100 babies and 200 adult burials.

Some burials in Tellez Family Cemetery:

Ambrosio, Tata

Bejaiano, Ambrosio

Florentino, Tata

Rodriquez, Ignacio 1876-1917

Rodriquez, Isabel Frank

Rodriquez, Contosa ca. 1990s

Vasquez, Francisco 1928-10 Dec 1981

Villalba, Tirso

Copyright C. W. Barnum 2007