Ninth in a series
Read the Written in Stone series online at gvnews.com
Across Southern Arizona, cemeteries are tucked away in ghost towns, on ranches, in the desert and along quiet corners. But Continental Cemetery is different. It sits not only near the living, but surrounded by them.
The 3-acre cemetery, at least a century old, was once by itself on a hill overlooking the community of Continental, east of present day Green Valley. Today, however, it is nestled inside the Madera Reserve neighborhood, with at least nine upscale houses in close proximity.
And yet this almost wasn't. When the idea first began for Madera Reserve in the mid-1990s, the developer originally proposed moving the cemetery. The old Continental families with relatives interred there fought the move, petitioning the county board of supervisors to leave it be.
“It's like, you don't do that,” said Lydia Lopez, who has numerous relatives buried there, including most of her immediate family.
The small, vocal group eventually won out and developer Diamond Ventures incorporated it into the development, erecting a wall around it and putting up a metal gate at the entrance.
The cemetery's origins aren't exactly known, but its meaning to the old families stretches back generations. Continental itself dates back to World War I, when it was a farm to grow guayule to make rubber. After the war, cotton became the cash crop and for a time the fields were owned by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. Then came Farmers Investment Company, owned by the Walden family, which started its pecan operation out of fear that synthetic textiles would make cotton unprofitable.
By the time the Waldens arrived in the late 1940s, the cemetery was well established, with a four-strand barbed wire fence enclosing it. Many buried in the cemetery are former FICO workers and their families.
The oldest dated grave is that of Luz Encinas, her name spelled with a backward “z,” from May 22, 1918. Not much more is known about Luz beside the fact that, in Spanish, we are told she died at the age of 70. Her grave, a simple concrete slab, is so faded that even that information is hard to read.
There are a few graves in rougher shape, mostly on the northern end, that are either missing headstones or are simply a pile of rocks, maybe mixed with concrete.
But the rest of the cemetery can only be described as colorful. Graves are adorned with flowers, cherubs, flags, toys, crucifixes and a variety of personal items. Most buried there are of Mexican or Pascua Yaqui descent, and one grave even has a figure of a Pascua Yaqui deer dancer. But beyond that, the graves themselves are more than crosses and headstones. One grave is covered in blue tile, another has a cross made of horseshoes, several have large reliefs of books carved into stone with messages in Spanish.
Families at rest
Due to spacing, Manuel Dominguez – who died in 2014 at the age of 78 – could not be buried next to his son Bernardo – who died at 29 in 1993. So his grave was place closed by and a path of blue-painted rocks set up connecting their two resting places.
The Castillo family even has their own designated tree, decorated with a sign, horseshoes and even beer bottles.
The grave for Josefina Valledolid looks like small church, with an alcove for icons of the Virgin Mary, flowers and a large wooden cross.
“It feels like a Mexican cemetery because they bring their favorite things and dishes,” said Maria Esparza, whose sister and cousin are in the cemetery.
Burials date back to decades or just the past couple years. However, space is becoming limited. When the cemetery was walled off, a list was drawn up of the families – mostly FICO workers and their relatives – that could still be interred there. After nearly 20 years, they are coming to the end of that list, Esparza said.
Family members have also gotten creative to be next to their loved ones. Recently the Mosley family dug up the slab over a grave and dug it deeper so the wife could be interred on top of her husband. That has happened a few times, Esparza said.
She said the idea has been floated a few times to establish a small area in the cemetery for the interment of cremated remains, but that hasn't happened yet.
Esparza said before the developer came in, the road up to the cemetery used to be exceptionally rocky and difficult, with funeral coaches often struggling to make it to the top. Lopez recalls there were times where the hearse wouldn't even try to go up and people would haul the coffin up by hand to the cemetery.
After all these years, the cemetery still is a family affair. Names like Lopez, Teso, Mosley and Alvarez appear frequently. And, every so often, it's the families of the deceased who gather to help clean up the plots. It's also a place people will gather to celebrate All Souls' Day, Esparza said.
For Lopez, who has since moved to Tucson, funerals there also mean reunions with her extended family.
“It's kind of fun when we get together, because that's when we see everybody,” she said.
David Rookhuyzen | 547-9728