IT WAS A beautiful day yesterday and I opted for a bike ride instead of a visit to the gym. And instead of following my usual route along the Buffalo Bayou trail, I headed east, towards the Mexican part of town.
I ended up in the Second Ward, on Altic Street, where I came upon a cemetery, several acres of greenery in a neighborhood of modest homes. What intrigued me about this cemetery was the row of industrial buildings next to it; I thought that the juxtaposition of the cemetery against the warehouses might make for good photos.
So, finding the gate open, I rode my bike in and pedaled towards the back, careful to stay on the hard grassy area near the gravel lanes because I wanted to avoid riding over a jagged stone and getting a flat tire.
The reason I headed to the back portion of the cemetery was that in the back was where the color was. The front of the cemetery consisted of older plots with the kind of tombstones or headstones you’ll find in an average Anglo cemetery in this country. Staid, somber and colorless.
I learned later that Evergreen was established in 1894 for Anglo families but that in recent decades, it has become a predominantly Mexican cemetery, not surprising given that the area is mostly Mexican.
Before I entered the gate, I had seen a burly Mexican guy riding a bike along one of the roads on the perimeter of the cemetery. His head shaved, he had tattoos on his hands and forearms, he had a small goatee and a thin moustache, and he was wearing shades and a black hoodie.
As I got off my bike and proceeded to take my camera from my backpack, I worried a bit about the guy. I could no longer see him but I wondered what he was doing there, and in the back of my mind, I could hear the faint warning: don’t be stupid, that guy could be a thug and if he were to assault you here, there’d be nobody around to stop him – get your ass out of here.
But I suppressed that nasty voice; I wanted the photos, and so I stayed and started looking around for possible good shots. I quickly realized that the warehouses in the back didn’t really work as an interesting backdrop, but I found a couple of very intriguing gravesites and I spent some time shooting those.
SATISFIED, I GOT back on my bike and headed back towards the gate. Just as I exited the gate, however, I heard someone calling me. It was the guy on the bike.
Could I take his picture?
I hesitated for half a second before saying yes. Then he said, not here, but back there, in the back, with my babies, and he pointed to the far end of the cemetery then started riding in that direction, expecting me to follow him.
Yikes! Trepidation started setting in. What if he wanted me back there, where nobody could see, to beat me up, take my wallet, by camera and my bike? Who would come to my rescue?
But I had already said yes. To say no now, after first agreeing, would be cowardly, and – if the guy had no bad intentions – completely disrespectful.
So I followed. He was way ahead of me so I paid less attention to the jagged stones on the gravel road, and finally joined him at the edge of the cemetery, the area on the outskirts of the cemeteries that in traditional Mexican camposantos is reserved for angelitos – babies who die at birth or soon after, or are stillborn. The theory is that these young souls become angels and act as guardians to the rest of the bodies lying in that cemetery.
I got off my bike and followed him to one of the numerous tiny gravesites. I still had a bit of fear in my heart, but that was quickly dissipating.
The plot had a small grayish wooden cross, kept together with screws and wire. On one side of the horizontal beam was scrawled the name María de los Ángeles and on the other, María de Jesús.
There was also a small Styrofoam Christmas tree on the plot as well as several plaster statues – of Jesus, a couple of angels and something that looked like a frog. There were plastic Easter eggs, and the entire thing was framed by a green wreath made from plastic mesh.
These are my babies, he said.
No, no. My nieces. They passed away right after they were born. I try to visit them often, but I live far.
His name was Servando, and he explained that when he saw me taking pictures, he thought it might be a good idea to get a picture of himself with the gravesite of his babies.
I started to take out my camera.
No, no, he said as he reached into the pocket of his hoodie. With my phone.
He handed me his battered smart phone and knelt next to the cross on the gravesite to pose for the picture.
If I use his phone, I thought, I will leave here with no picture of him. After all this, I had to have a photo of this guy in this place. So I started to try to convince me to let me also shoot him with my IPhone, explaining that I could get a much better photo that I would be glad to share with him if he’d just give me his email address.
He finally agreed and I took the picture of him, posing proudly and lovingly with his left hand resting on the top of the wooden cross.
When we finished, I handed him my business card and asked him to send me an email so that I could send him a copy of the photo.
He said he would and, just as I was ready to get on my bike, he asked if I could take just one more picture.
Way on that side, he said, pointing to the opposite corner.
I agreed and got on my bike to follow him. Halfway there I realized that what I feared the most had indeed happened: my rear tire was flat. I got off and walked the rest of the way.
When we got to the other gravesite, of someone named Carillo, he explained that his uncle was buried there. I took the photo with his phone and this time I didn’t bother to use mine and, as we prepared to leave, he said, Adios Tío. Next time I’ll bring flowers.
Again, I said good-bye to him and encouraged him to send me his email address. I explained about my bike and asked if by any chance there was a bus stop around.
It turns out I was very close – about three blocks – from a station on the East Side rail line and I was able to get home without much difficulty.
ORDINARILY, I WOULD have been upset about my busted tire, but on this day, a flat tire seemed to be a small price to pay for such an adventure, and for the opportunity of getting to meet a man whose love for two nieces he’d barely gotten to know and for an uncle who was long gone was so great that he was willing to ride a bike a long distance to go pay them a visit – and who desperately wanted a visual recording of that visit.