Report from Bernalillo, New Mexico, August, 2001
By Danny Lyon
Willie Jaramillo lies buried in the Lady of Sorrows cemetery. The graveyard is nestled in the corner of the exit ramp of Interstate 25 and the Cuba exit West. Johnnie Sanchez lies here too — Johnnie who spoke so eloquently about Willie in the film named for Willie Jaramillo, was killed in a car crash when he was twenty-one. And Ezequel Dominguez, who was part of the Alianza del Norte and got the guns for Reyes Lopez Tijerina’s famous raid on the Amarillo Courthouse of 1971, who taught us to eat chile by tearing a tortilla into parts and using the pieces instead of a spoon, Zequel lies here too. Johnnie’s brother Leonard Sanchez, who died before Johnnie, drowning in the ditch, and whose funeral was filmed in Little Boy, he too is here. Jessie Lucero, the Vietnam Vet and Zequel’s nephew, a tough and hansome man, is buried here. Biddie Costillo, farmer of Llanito, who once pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal his dark brown arm, then pulled off his watch to show us his pale white unburnt skin, saying “I’m no god dam wet back.” They all lie here.
The cemetery is filling up. The pale brown desert dirt and sand dotted with gravel and rock, a dazzling garden of color, as plastic flowers of red and yellow, bouquets of saturated plastic petals mark the sun burnt earth. Heaps of dirt, new graves, the name of the person lying beneath marked with a type written white covered card, stuck into the ground, as the dead wait while their names are carved in stone. Willie’s stone is rose colored granite. On it are the words he sang for us under the Rio Grande bridge, “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”
A pile of dirt rises from the ring of stones and rocks. Bouquets of plastic flowers stick out from the ground. A white teddy bear is lying on its back. A piece of wooden two by four, keeping it in place. Another dolls lies face down. A red bear looks unblinking into the blazing sun. A necklace of paper flowers, a string of unexploded fire crackers. The cross is steel, cut and made by hand and buried in the sand. “CHUBS” it says. Eva Marie Chavez. “Chubs” was nineteen years old when she was laid to rest in Bernalillo. Beyond her you can see the treeless top of Sandia Peak, 10,400 feet high.
Bernalillo, as ancient as any European settlement in America, sits beneath a peak where a man lived in a cave, 20,000 years ago. The town is circled by Pueblos whose people where here when the Conquistadors arrived almost five hundred years ago. Now, in a brief recent time, a speck in her long history, the one road that lacerates the town as it crosses West to the Rio Grande is lined with the names we have all come to despise — Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Sonic Burger, and on and on and on, with cars cutting through driven by people who do not know where they are, all driving by the grave yard they probably don’t even see.
The Bernalillo graveyard is the strength of these people. Here they bury their own dead with their own hands. They burn their children’s names on the markers with their own torches. They dot the desert with plastic flowers which will not fade and which will not die.