Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, isn’t about morbidity or mourning lost loved ones.
“It’s a celebration of life,” said Carmen Perez, a lifelong resident of Sugar Land.
The celebration, which runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, has deep roots in Sugar Land. It is being recognized through Nov. 3 at the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation Museum and Visitor’s Center, along with the centennial celebration of San Isidro Cemetery.
“It’s not a sad occasion but it brings back memories,” said Chuck Kelly, curator of the museum and a local historian.
A special celebration will be held Nov. 3 at 1 p.m. complete with live music, talks, and other activities for the whole family.
Nearly 40 families have set up family altars, called ofrendas, at the museum. The ofrendas are traditional tributes to the deceased in ones family line.
“This is a 3,000-year-old tradition that came back from as far as the Aztecs and it’s celebrated all over Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America,” Perez said.
She said the tradition is growing in popularity in the United States.
“It used to be All Souls Day; it’s what it used to be called,” she said. “Lately, I’m going to say in the last eight years, it’s transferred into Dia de los Muertos. All the Southwest, like California, New Mexico, Arizona, they have big festivals for Dia de los Muertos – and it’s just starting to come here to the Houston area … Four years ago when we started, instead of calling it All Souls Day we started calling it Dia de los Muertos. It’s more colorful, more festival, because really, All Souls Day pertains to the Catholic Church.”
For John de la Cruz, a relative of Perez’s, it took a Disney movie to help him understand what the festival and tradition are about.
“It’s kind of funny but I didn’t connect the dots until recently when I saw that movie ‘Coco’ … It just clicked that maybe it’s part of the tradition that goes way back to have photos of family members that have passed and to put candles and light the candles throughout the year, not necessarily on one day. I didn’t realize that that’s why I liked that. That was passed on to me. That’s why having photos was so important,” he said.
For Perez and de la Cruz, the tradition goes far back in their families.
“If you look back, my grandmother, she used to build an altar in our home that stayed up all year. I spoke to different people and, ‘oh yeah, my grandmother had an altar as well,’” Perez said.
This tradition of honoring the dead is one she wants to keep alive in her family for generations to come.
“My grandmother taught them to me and I make sure I pass this on to my children and grandchildren. And I think this one of the reasons that I’m doing this because I want the fourth and the fifth generation to see this,” she said.
The ofrendas on display at the museum are very colorful and are decorated with painted skulls and skeletons and each contain photographs, memorabilia of the deceased, candles, samples of favorite foods, and other items. Traditionally, it was believed that the souls of the dead were brought back through the enticements for a visit.
Through the museum exhibit and weekend celebrations, Perez sees this as a time of reuniting with family and friends.
“It’s going to be a reunion of Mayfield Park and Grand Central. That’s what it’s going to be,” she said.
The communities, as part of the Imperial Sugar company town, were very close-knit.
“This community, like the Mayfield Park, and Grand Central, there was a group of people that got together and they worked hard and they tried their greatest to improve the standard and the quality of life,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of money but we were happy.”
“I guess it’s because it was such a small community back then,” de la Cruz said. “People didn’t travel outside the community very much so you generally met someone, you married, you had children … so all the families are connected and related.”
“I always said when I married my husband I adopted a hundred cousins,” Perez said.
Because of the interconnectedness, there was always a concern about unknowingly dating a relative.
“When my parents got married, they thought they might be cousins and that they couldn’t get married because they had a great-uncle and great-aunt that had married each other,” de la Cruz said. “They weren’t related by blood; they always thought of each other as cousins.”
As in life, so it was in death. Because of the segregation of the times 100 years ago, people of different races were buried in different cemeteries. For Hispanics in Sugar Land, the meant the San Isidro Cemetery, located off the banks of Oyster Creek in what is now the Sugar Creek community.
“Cemeteries unite families because you’re related; you bury each other together, so that’s another reason to celebrate the Day of the Dead,” said Kelly of the SLHF Museum.
“San Isidro is the patron saint of laborers,” explained de la Cruz.
The cemetery was a gift from the Kempner family, which ran Imperial Sugar and Sugarland Industries.
“The cemetery was eventually given to the Hispanic community. It was given to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston by Sugarland Industries and it was then given to the community,” de la Cruz said.
“The cemetery was for people who had migrated from Mexico who couldn’t really afford to send their loved ones back to Mexico for burial there. That’s why they were buried here,” Kelly said.
“It’s for employees and laborers of Sugarland Industries and their families,” de la Cruz said.
Perez said there are limits as to who can be interred there.
“It’s a nonprofit cemetery,” she said. “You have to be a descendant of somebody that is buried there to be buried there. The cemetery is all run by donation. We did have a time when the grass was high and nobody was taking care of it and we did have a time when Sugar Creek wanted to move all the people that were buried there to other areas. They were willing to pay us to move all the bodies.”
That never happened. An agreement was reached in which the cemetery was fenced off and public access was granted.
“I have six generations buried in the cemetery,” de la Cruz said.
“The oldest one is the Gomez family and they’re going to have a big altar. One of their relatives was buried there in 1919 and to this day they’re still having family members buried there,” Perez noted.
For a long time, neglect of the cemetery was a problem.
“When my sister died in ’92 it had been neglected, the grass was real high and none of the graves were kept up,” de la Cruz said. “And my mother, for many years her great-grandmother and her great-great-grandmother at the time were buried there and she would take us to visit the graves. And my sister at the time always thought it was so beautiful with the pecan trees, it was always very peaceful right on Oyster Creek, and she always casually mentioned to my mother that when she died she would one day want to be buried there.
“Well, my sister was 15 when she passed in ’92 and so my mom said ‘we’re going to bury my daughter here.’ I remember the day of the funeral, the cars were trying to cross the bridge and we just had to stop in the middle of the bridge because it was going to go into Oyster Creek. So everyone had to walk across the bridge and they had to carry the casket across the bridge to bury my sister. After that people started getting involved and started raising money for it and it is what it is today.”
(Editor’s note: Those Were the Days is an ongoing series about the history of Fort Bend County that runs each month with a fifth Wednesday.)