History In Stone
The Gonzales cemetery--older than the town itself--mirrors the community's past.
Thursday, February 10, 2000
No one knows who started the Gonzales cemetery or when, but neither can anyone remember a time without it.
I visited the cemetery while following a lead on gang violence, looking for gravestones of children whose lives had been stolen midswing. Caretaker Gabe Tarango could locate only two graves of youth lost to the wave of shoot-''em-up madness: "Frank Estrella Carasco, 2/23/75-3/14/94, In Loving Memory," and "Juan Carlos Dimas, 6/26/81-9/7/97, Forever in our Hearts."
The cemetery had other stories to tell. Gabe led me around the grassy resting place, pointing out the oldest section, the unmarked graves, those of Army colonels, and children stricken early by disease. The town had lost their young in many ways.
I asked Gabe how the cemetery was started and how many lay buried beneath the ground. "Holy Mackerel, I don''t know! There''s a lot of people out there." I realized the graveyard was a history book that I had to piece together for myself.
Positioned in the windy corridor between busy Highway 101 and Alta Street on the south end of town, the Gonzales cemetery dates almost as far back as the town itself. Scant records exist of the cemetery before its official founding in 1939. Holding the only keys to its beginnings are the town''s remaining old-timers.
Ninety-year-old Gonzales native Art Juri believes that a farmer and rancher by the name of Wells Parsons opened the cemetery in 1901. "Parsons laid out the land for the cemetery and moved his three babies who had been buried out on his ranch by Johnson Canyon Road. His kids'' are the oldest stones in there."
Many young victims of scourges fill the oldest section in the center of the cemetery, including one plot dedicated to four Parsons children lost to diphtheria between 1876-78.
Equality in Death
These graves were laid just as the South Pacific Railroad made Gonzales a stop on its valley route. Originally a Mexican land grant issued to Teodoro Gonzalez in 1836, the ranchland shouldered by the Gabilan and Santa Lucia ranges and crisscrossed by the Salinas River was delegated by Gonzalez''s sons to lay out 50 city blocks in 1874. Soon after, schools, churches and small businesses opened. Most likely, at some point during the 1880s, the Gonzalez family donated land to open a cemetery.
Gravestones bearing names such as Rianda, Rowe and Corda, and inscribed with "Native of Switzerland" or prayers in Spanish, speak to the varied influences that formed Gonzales. Ranching, grain farming and, later, dairy fueled Gonzales in those years, and though a small town, it was home to Mexican ranchers, Swiss dairymen and disaffected gold-seekers of all nationalities.
The official history of the cemetery began only in 1939, when Gonzales formed a Cemetery District, managed by a small Gonzales-based board of directors. The board''s responsibilities range from ground maintenance to fundraising.
As for what went down before 1939, current board member Eunice Piffero explains that no one knows, due to a fire that destroyed records, leaving parts of the old section unrecorded. "We still have to probe before we conduct burials, and sometimes we do find people with no names. It''s sad."
It was that big old highway that messed up records, says board member Art Brusa, who has attended Memorial Day functions at the cemetery since the 1930s. Brusa blames the unmarked graves on a highway expansion project in 1935, which he claims relocated bodies without record.
It wasn''t all smooth sailing after the cemetery''s incorporation either. As Gonzales matured and moved into vegetable farming and now wine production, the Cemetery District faced hard times. "In past years, the cemetery was a community effort run by volunteers," explains county Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who represents Gonzales. "But the government imposed a tax system, and the cemeteries got shortchanged in the process."
Keeping History Alive
Today, the Gonzales cemetery is well-groomed, with bright flowers brought by visitors and a Christmas tree adorning the grounds. According to Calcagno and current board members, the board and community have worked together in recent years to raise crucial funds, increasing bank reserves from $16,000 to $53,000 by improving management and organizing fundraising.
"This was a big, strong community effort," board Chair Roger Baez explains. "We have a small community and everyone cares about the cemetery. There is a real spirit of giving and pride."
The board held a benefit barbecue at the American Legion Hall, sent out appeal letters, and hired Gabe to oversee daily maintenance. The results are a new well, a wrought-iron fence, and a refreshed sense of community investment.
"Even when people move away," Gabe says, "they send them back to Gonzales when they die. This cemetery is part of the town."
Indeed, distant family members lie side by side in death, reconvening from throughout California and beyond.
Here lie eight headstones of men felled in combat, sent home to Gonzales to be buried in family plots. One stone reads, "Gabriel M. Lopez, 6/27/22-2/7/45. PFC 417 Inf. 76 Div. WWII." Reminiscent of a time when young people died violent, though proud, deaths.