Rio Grande Valley landowners won a partial victory Monday when the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection said it would not disturb the Eli Jackson Cemetery in San Juan, which currently is on the proposed route of the border wall between the United States and Mexico.
It’s one of two burial sites that hold members of the family of Nathaniel Jackson, who settled here before the Civil War. Current family members sued the federal government trying to stop construction that would have required the exhumation of some of the bodies.
“It has never been CBP’s intent to disturb or relocate cemeteries that may lie within planned barrier alignment,” the agency said Monday. “Understanding the historical and cultural resources that may lie within planned barrier alignment has always been part of CBP’s public and stakeholder outreach process.”
Officials offered no details regarding the rerouting of the wall to bypass the cemetery. Family members worry that the wall, which President Trump insists will be a solid barrier, might still be close enough to create flooding and erosion problems that still could disturb the graves.
The fate of the family’s other graveyard was not addressed in the statement.
The cemeteries are only two of many that run along the historic Military Highway that once linked the forts along the Rio Grande — that we know of. Some unmarked burial grounds, of both settlers and indigenous people, might also be found along the route, which hasn’t received much archaeological attention. Federal laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act protect such sites. CBP, the Army Corps of Engineers and others involved in the border wall project should be prepared to deal with the possible discovery of such sites, which could test the validity of its pledge to respect those “historical and cultural resources.”
People who believe the historic La Lomita chapel site deserves the same respect might want to renew their efforts to save it from the earth movers; the path of the wall runs right through it, and the government already has defied efforts to reroute the wall and save La Lomita, which was a base for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the legendary mounted priests who served the spiritual needs of the faithful all along the border.
It could be argued that respecting the souls of the living is just as important, perhaps even more so, than respecting the souls of the dead.
So while it’s important to show appreciation for the government’s concession to the Jackson family members, it should inspire those with similar claims to argue that theirs merit similar attention.
Better yet, Valley representatives in Congress would do well to note that this obviously historic land deserves thorough archaeological study before excavation begins.
There’s no telling what historic treasures await discovery, and could be lost permanently once the earth movers and wall builders start turning land that in many places has remained virtually untouched since before Texas secured independence from Mexico.
The fact that the historic secrets along the Rio Grande have never been explored thus far is a travesty; to allow them to be lost forever to a symbol of intolerance would be a tragedy.