PHARR — On an otherwise quiet and sunny Thursday morning, the once serene experience of making a visit to the historic Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery and the adjacent Eli Jackson Cemetery has been disrupted.
On this particular day loud piercing sounds fill the air near the sacred grounds.
The hum of government contracted pickup trucks driving up and down the once scarcely traveled residential road that snakes around the homes that are sandwiched between the two sites.
A woman hesitantly approaches the cemetery; probably because a contract worker, who in his bright fluorescent vest, stands next to the cemetery’s entrance. She waves at him, and after a brief back and forth, she proceeds into the burial site, the man doesn’t move and proceeds with his work.
The heavy machinery is so close to the sites that you can hear as the metallic jaws, operated by a contracted worker, tears into the earth. The incessant beeping sounds of trucks backing up and dropping off mounds of dirt that were just scooped from the land makes it hard to concentrate, much less pay respects to those who founded this land in 1857.
Feet away are the gravestones and resting place of those founders: abolitionist Nathaniel Jackson, and his African-American wife, Matilda Hicks, who left Alabama and settled near the banks of the Rio Grande; and their descendants, families that are ubiquitous with the Rio Grande Valley.
The land, among other things, was used as a refuge for runaway slaves from Texas and the Deep South, according to local historians.
Relatives of the Jacksons, specifically Sylvia Ramirez and her brother Ramiro Ramirez, after a long public battle with the government, with help from media and local congressional members U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, believed they had seemingly saved the historic sites after they helped pass a bill last June that would exempt border wall construction from entering the environmentally sensitive areas, including “historic cemeteries.”
The bill would become law later that year.
But now as the dirt surrounding the sites is dug out of the ground bit by bit — work that Ramirez said began around Aug. 14 — she and other relatives can only hope for some outside intervention before the wall is built into the levee.
CBP officials subsequently confirmed the planned construction to The Monitor.
Ramirez believes that although the government is not encroaching on the actual sites, the wall structure on the levee will place them on the other side of the country and will change visiting the cemetery and church forever.
Pablo “Paul” Villarreal Jr., the tax assessor for Hidalgo County, spoke to The Monitor in a non-official capacity representing the Eli Jackson Cemetery.
Villarreal, a great-great grandson of Nathaniel Jackson, echoed Ramirez’s dismay at the government’s decision to build the wall on the levee, when there was room to build further south.
Villarreal, like Ramirez, does not want a structure that would stand between visitors and the historic sites that are frequently visited.
Ramirez and Villarreal both expressed wanting to have the same protections afforded to other local protected sites, including La Lomita Church in Mission, which was included in the aforementioned bill.
According to Ramirez, in her communications with both U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and Congressman Vela’s office, La Lomita will be spared any physical structure in the area but no reason was given as to why the same protection wasn’t afforded to the historic church and cemeteries.
Villarreal said he understands how the government works but does not understand why the wall has to be placed at the levee, and not further down to avoid disrupting the historical sites.
“But if you’re to build something like (the wall); what does that mean? That the land behind (the wall) — is that now Mexico? Or is that a nation that you don’t enter anymore? It’s one of those things where I just don’t understand,” Villarreal said. “We’d like to conserve our history here in the Valley but at the same time, if the government is going to build something, work around those areas to where it doesn’t really interrupt the history.”
He also said more should be done to highlight the sites’ respective historical designation.
The Jackson Ranch & Cemetery was certified by the commission in 1983 while the Eli Jackson Cemetery was certified in 2005. He said veterans from multiple U.S. battles are buried at the sites, including Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War to name a few.
“There’s some veterans, (buried there), other local people, Eli “Polo” Jackson, a (Hidalgo) county commissioner (for) Precinct 2 back in those days. We would like to keep that history, also along with the (Jackson Ranch & Cemetery),” Villarreal said.
“It’s so important for us to keep the history of our ancestors that came here and did so much for, not only for our family, but for people around this area.”
As of Friday, Ramirez said there were no new updates. She said she was still in communication with Congressman Vela’s office and was prepared to file an injunction against the government if necessary.