Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Firebaugh Cemetery... then and now

After a really fun visit with my newly found cousins in Firebaugh (and one quirky trip to the cemetery at midnight with cousin Tootie Borboa!) … and learning that so many other cousins lived right there in town…
I just HAD to make another trip, or a few, to Firebaugh!

However... it was the summer of 1998 and I had recently become a Grandma, something that took up quite a bit more of my a very good way! Tiny new grandson was somewhat, no, make that VERY, demanding but, of course, what Grandma can resist?? I spent the first couple of weeks of his new little life helping as often as I could by allowing my daughter to take some much needed long naps while tiny new grandson and I spent many of our afternoons napping together. Nothing better than a newborn baby sleeping across your chest, right? Soft skin, soft breath, wonderful smelling tiny baby. Perfect for kissing the top of his gorgeous little head.
Yeah, yeah, OK, I know, I’m like every other new grandmother. MY grandchild is gorgeous.
Really... he was! … he still is. (so are his two brothers!)

As I looked at this little miracle I knew I had to continue my search to find our Juana Bojorques. This small child is our 9th generation to be born in California.
Juana is his Great, Great, Great, Great-grandmother.
For my tiny new grandson I knew I had to continue ... for him, and for his future siblings!

Now, let's get back to my visits to Firebaugh! There were so many new cousins to meet and "interview” so I found it was always best to call ahead, to schedule a time. This also worked well because some of my newly found cousins didn't often see eye to eye with one another. I made sure I let each one know I was meeting with the others... just to be sure they ALL knew I was there only to learn about the history of our families ...not the family feuds!
I did NOT want to get into any family politics.

Um, yeah ... that didn't work so well.
Good ol' Tootie... of the cemetery at midnight trip... he just seemed to attract a lot of negative stuff.
To this day I still don't know why he was always in such hot water, but boy, talk about causing drama! Just the mention of his name could light the fires!

Another trip to Firebaugh a couple of weeks after my exciting adventure to the cemetery at midnight found me back at Tootie's house. Tootie had tons of details and he loved having a brand new audience ... someone so interested in all the details of the town and the families. Tootie didn't care that I had my little tape recorder going all the time... he said what he thought, ... what he passionately felt. He told me he'd say the same stuff to anyone...
Oh  kaaayy... and it was becoming easy to understand why and how he caused all the drama!

As we sat in his living room going through a box of photos and documents Tootie showed me some news clippings from the Fresno Bee. These were from during the time he was running for City Council in Firebaugh years earlier. Seems Tootie wasn't all that happy about the City's proposed park on the property where the cemetery was located.

There was a tomato processing plant coming to town and it meant many new jobs would be available, but it also meant the cemetery was about to become just a park
... next to the parking lot.
Tootie was livid!
Tootie contacted the newspaper and the local radio and TV crews... the whole thing became a really hot topic in Firebaugh... really HOT!
Needless to say, Tootie didn't win the election for a seat on the City Council.    Drama.

So Tootie asked me if I'd like to see what had happened to all the headstones that were in the cemetery.
YES! ... of course I wanted to know what happened... Heck yeah! … let's go see the headstones!!!

But this road trip to the cemetery would turn out to be a very sad road trip.

I drove the two of us to the area behind the water treatment plant just outside Firebaugh as Tootie directed. He was guiding me to a place behind some buildings.
I parked the car on the dusty gravely roadway, waving to a City worker Tootie knew, and we got out.
This was mid July.
The entire area was hot and dry.
And full of weeds.
And very quiet.

We walked towards a somewhat steep embankment, then inched our way down over the crunchy dried brown grass and weeds. The dirt was so soft and dry and crumbling under our feet.
Once again I was holding Tootie's arm as his short bow-legs and old worn boots were keeping him from tumbling down face first!
As we reached the bottom of the hill Tootie made a sweeping motion with his free arm for me to look around us...

I was stunned. I could not speak. I just could not think of a single thing to say.
Tootie told me that all the headstones had been scooped up and deposited here.
Dumped behind these buildings to be covered over with weeds and dirt.
THIS is what had angered Tootie so much.

We drove back to Tootie's home in silence. I gathered my stuff and then as a last minute thought I asked Tootie if he'd like an early dinner... it was a little after 4pm. He said yes and we went to one of his favorite Mexican restaurants in town. Great meal... food and service were both so good... but our conversation was quiet. Tootie gave me a few more details about the incident, we finished our food, paid the nice owner and I drove Tootie home again.
Then I drove home... deep in thought, and oh, so sad.

On August 24, 1998 I went back to Firebaugh.
... this visit was with Casey Borboa and his bride Lee on their 47th wedding anniversary!
We celebrated with some goodies Lee brought to the kitchen table while Casey told me wonderful stories of the earlier days and the family. Casey's full name is Escolastico, named for his grandfather Escolastico Borboa, husband of Quirina Buelna who was the daughter of Juana Bojorques!
Casey had great tales, and Lee showed me photos of so many family members. I was writing as fast as I could and trying to remember the names and how they all connected
... and of course my little tape recorder was on and sitting there in the middle of the table.

At the end of my visit with Casey and Lee I asked about Casey's cousin Clemmy... this was Tootie's younger brother who was Mayor of Firebaugh at that time. Casey said I should talk with Clemmy about a list of names of those buried in the cemetery before the headstones were removed. Casey said I could find Clemmy at the City offices... and so off I went, wishing them Happy Anniversary, sharing hugs, and promising to visit again.
Sadly, Casey died a little more than four months later.

I did what Casey told me to do... I drove straight over to the City offices and asked for Clemmy.
The nice lady behind the glass window politely informed me that Mr. Borboa was out of town until the following week but I could make an appointment if I wished. I told her I really just wanted to talk with someone about a list of names of those who were buried in the cemetery before all the headstones were taken away and the one stone monument erected. Her face seemed to drain of all color. She picked up a phone and while carefully cupping her hand over the mouthpiece she loudly whispered to the person on the other end “I don't know who she is, she's just asking about the cemetery and the old headstones!”
… and she kept staring wide-eyed at me through that glass window,
that glass window with the hole in the middle like at the movie theaters.
Didn't she realize I could hear her???

After slowly and carefully putting the phone down she looked right at me without saying a word
.... and my brain was racing ahead thinking was I about to receive a police escort out of town!!
But no... she just quietly said “You need to talk with the Fire Chief”
… huh?? Fire Chief? Why the Fire Chief??? This is way too weird. Drama!

I walked out the door, down the steps, turned to the right, and right into the next building just as she had instructed. The first thing I saw was a man in a chair leaned way back with his feet propped up on a paper strewn desk, his hands carefully clasped behind his head, barely touching his precisely combed hair, as if he had posed himself just in time for my arrival. He stared at me without moving a muscle, then he gruffly asked why I wanted to know about the headstones. Hmmmm, well hello to you too!
I thought we might at least say hello, or something before getting into all this.
Nope... straight to the point. OK. So here we go.

I started by telling him I'd heard  headstones had been removed when the parking lot was being built, and the one stone marking the spot of the cemetery didn't have all the names engraved on it. He frowned and said I must have heard wrong, no headstones were ever removed... and then, even more gruffly, he asked who I was and why I was so interested in this whole cemetery thing.
Ahhhh, now we might have some pleasantries!

As quickly as I could say the words I told him I was his cousin and had just spent the last four or five hours with his dad and step mom at their home celebrating their anniversary and sharing family stories and pictures and his dad said I should talk with Clemmy about the cemetery stuff and so I came over here and asked the lady behind the glass window and she called someone and then said I had to go talk with the Fire Chief.

I finished running all those words together without taking a breath and I watched him as he just stared at me.
He stared at me for just a couple of milliseconds.
… and then ya shoulda seen how fast those feet came down off that desk and hit the floor!
It was kinda hard not to laugh out loud.

Seems that when the Mayor wasn't in town the Fire Chief took over. OK, I guess that works.
Fire Chief Borboa didn't have any answers for me either... no one seemed to have any answers when those questions are asked. Or maybe I just hadn't asked the right person yet.
Apparently the only list of those who were buried in the Firebaugh Cemetery before it was converted to a grassy park was from the list of names created from the remaining headstones themselves.
However, according to the folks in City offices, ALL the families of the people who were buried there were notified that the headstones were to be removed so they could claim them. I'm not sure how that worked out... if there's no list of the original burials how could all the families have been notified?
To prevent any more drama... and that possibility of being escorted out of town, I quit asking.
Well, I quit asking people connected with City Hall.

Fast forward to August 2007...

There is an online website called Find A Grave. On that site is the Firebaugh Cemetery created by "MPerry" who posted a photograph of the memorial stone located near the front of Toma-TEK Inc at 2502 N Street just south of Firebaugh. This photo, taken in 2007 has two more names on the stone than in the photo I took in June 1998. MPerry created a memorial page for every person on the stone, with all the information that was available which was ...simply their name.
No birth date. No death date. Nothing but a name. Yet they deserve much more. So much more.
With a major amount of digging (no pun intended!) I have been able to add details to most of the memorial pages for those in the Firebaugh Cemetery. (An ongoing very time consuming project!)

Fast forward again, this time to 2013...

To be fair to those involved, much more research on this entire Firebaugh Cemetery issue has provided additional information on the background of the “grassy hill park” proposed by the City.

According to the news article in the Fresno Bee, 17 Nov 1988... the Firebaugh Cemetery had been neglected for years... weeds overgrowing the grave sites, and no one seeming to take care of, or even cared about the cemetery. According to City Manager Perry Powers (1988) the city had not intended to violate a burial ground, they only wanted to clean up the mess and create a memorial for the dead who were still buried there. There had not been a burial in the cemetery since the 1970's. The cemetery headstones had been terribly vandalized, knocked over and strewn about making it nearly impossible to know who was buried where!
Local teens often partied there after dark, the soft and sinking dirt adding to the creepy-ness.
The City Manager reported “We don't even know how many people are buried there”.

The City had owned the cemetery property since late 1981, according to the news article, but just didn't have enough money to fund the memorial project. Taxes from the new tomato plant were to be used to create what Powers called “a rolling, hilly park with a memorial listing all the people who are buried there”.
Originally, according to onetime Firebaugh City Councilman Renato Landucci in this same Fresno Bee article, his father, Amadeo Landucci and Pompelio Giomi established the cemetery in 1920. Mr Landucci also said it was a burial ground for the early settlers of Firebaugh as well as for the poor or transients. Both Landucci and descendants of the Giomi family had deeded the cemetery to the City of Firebaugh.

An important note here regarding the time frame of the Firebaugh Cemetery.

Mr Landucci said the cemetery was established in 1920. In the Fresno Bee article is the mention of a headstone, one of those dumped behind the water treatment plant, for a Reyes Espinosa who died and was buried in 1905. I've seen that beautiful shiny black headstone... it was still in one piece the last time I was there … and yes, Reyes Espinosa was buried in 1905.
Reyes Espinosa was originally buried in the Pueblo de Las Juntas Cemetery, as were so many other early Firebaugh folks!

… and with that said, we're just about to get into another story
... the story of the Pueblo de Las Juntas Cemetery.

But before we go there let me add that in the 1940's or so, long time Firebaugh resident and building contractor Frank Lopez was hired to move the remains of some of the people buried in the Pueblo de Las Juntas Cemetery
… and place them in the Firebaugh Cemetery.

So there ya have it.
My original anger at the City of Firebaugh, anger fueled in part by Tootie's outrage,
and my sad feelings due to my perceived terrible treatment of the old Firebaugh Cemetery
have now been replaced with just sadness.

Sadness that even though there IS a memorial stone identifying many who were buried there,
and even though the City made a huge effort to honor those now long gone citizens of early Firebaugh, and those of the Pueblo de Las Juntas ...
... we no longer have the beautiful, old, and often thought provoking epitaphs of those early pioneer residents of Firebaugh.
We'll also never know if our Juana Bojorques was buried here, will we?

No comments:

Post a Comment