Burial ground in historic Peñitas earns designation, honored for its early roots

A grave marked with 1835-1920 at the St. Anthony's Cemetery is seen on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Peñitas. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

PEÑITAS — Norma Mandujano Herrera prayed before the grave of her great-grandmother, Sinforosa Perez Mandujano, where she lay interred in the St. Anthony cemetery when a man approached her. The man, 96 years old, said that not only had her great-grandmother delivered him, but she was also responsible for delivering more than 90 percent of newborns as the town midwife.

“We didn’t know that,” Mandujano Herrera said, speaking on her and her sister’s behalf. “The little we know, we’ve heard from townspeople.”

Mandujano Herrera, 54, lives in McAllen and said she doesn’t visit the cemetery often, but still feels a lot of pride in her family’s history, which is one of the stories found among the city’s cemetery.

“There’s just such pride in knowing and hearing the people talking,” she said.

On Saturday, the city unveiled a historical marker at the cemetery granted by the Texas Historical Commission, the first such designation for the city.

“The designation honors Peñitas cemetery as an important and educational part of local history,” Adalia De Luna, secretary of the Peñitas Historical Society, said during the unveiling ceremony. “This holy place is vital to the new generation so they will not forget our past ancestors and provide awareness in the history of the community of Peñitas.”

The small town, tucked between Palmview to the east and La Joya to the west, is believed to be the oldest settlement in the United States, De Luna said, tracing its establishment to the 1520s.

Credited for founding the town are five Spanish explorers and a priest last-named Zamora whose descendants are said to be buried at the cemetery.

Antonio Zamora, who was born in 1851 and buried in 1894, has the oldest marked burial at the cemetery, which has about 500 marked graves. About another 120 burials there are unmarked because some of them were handmade wooden crosses that have since rotted.

Among those that are known are Mandujano, who was born Feb. 14, 1883 and died on Sept. 8, 1962. She was considered the mother of Peñitas, having dedicated her life to delivering newborns.

Also buried here are several veterans, including two Civil War veterans who fought for the Union Army.

During the ceremony, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, spoke about what the town personally means to him, saying that when people ask him where he’s from, he responds that he’s from Peñitas.

Hinojosa, who was born in McAllen and attended school in the Mission school district, worked as a farm worker when he was a teenager.

“When I first ran for public office, for state representative, my slogan was ‘From the cotton fields of Peñitas to one of the highest offices in the state of Texas,’” Hinojosa said.

“This cemetery has a lot of history of your families,” he said. “That cemetery is us.”