by Brenna Goth – Jul. 20, 2012 10:28 PM Green Valley News
It’s scarcely mentioned in the Tubac Historical Society’s archives, and the town’s Chamber of Commerce only lists it as privately owned. Even the owners — Tubac’s Ybarra family — don’t know much about its origins.
The 2-acre graveyard is a fixture in the town, which began under Spanish rule in the 1700s and is now regarded as an artists community. The brightly decorated burial sites, fenced by metal and barbed wire, make the cemetery a distinguishable landmark.
For 80-year-old caretaker Patricio Ybarra, the cemetery is an heirloom passed down from father to son. It’s worth his weekly maintenance to ensure that families can continue visiting their ancestors and eventually be buried among them.
“People who have relatives here have a place to bury if they want to bury,” Patricio says on a Sunday morning as he collects silk-flower scraps scattered around headstones. “That’s what we’re trying to do. And that’s why I have my son here, because he has to take over after I’m gone.”
The graves he cares for are adorned with sun-bleached mementos left by family members: a can of El Pato hot chile sauce, terracotta pots and artificial white roses depicting the Virgin Mary. A lizard sunbathes on a cracked concrete headstone while fire ants march between the weeds and scrub brush.
It’s a true desert cemetery and a relic of Tubac’s territorial days. No one seems to know when the first person was buried here, but the oldest legible headstone dates to 1893.
The earliest graves are rectangular piles of stone, which were used prior to concrete to keep animals from digging up bodies, says Mary Bingham, a former librarian for the Tubac Historical Society who has researched the cemetery.
“There are so many questions,” Bingham says. “There was so little documentation at the time. The early days are real fuzzy.”
The cemetery started as a small plot of land where local families could bury relatives, Patricio says. His father, Teodoro, owned surrounding land and incorporated it when space for graves became limited.
Teodoro, who died in 1977, donated the cemetery to Santa Cruz County in the 1950s for use by relatives. Patricio gained responsibility in the late 1990s when the county handed it back to the family, he says. Several county workers contacted last week said they didn’t know why the county returned it to the family.
Patricio and his son, George Ybarra, now live about 10 miles away, in Amado. They come to the cemetery whenever they have spare time, usually after Sunday church services, to pull weeds, collect trash and tidy up after storms. The family does not charge a burial fee but asks for donations to cover maintenance costs.
Patricio grew up in Tubac near the cemetery but says he rarely talked about its history with his father and knew only that it had been donated to the county. Memory loss from a stroke that Patricio suffered last year makes it difficult to remember some of the stories.
“I didn’t ask him anything else,” Patricio says. “That was his business, and if he wanted to tell me, fine. I thought I knew enough.”
Now, it’s the small things that Patricio remembers that paint a picture of the cemetery’s history, says George, who is next in the line of inheritance.
“That’s what we’re going by, is what he (Teodoro) told him,” says George, 55.
According to family legend, the Ybarra family moved to Tubac from Mexico in the late 1800s. Other early Tubac families are buried along with the Ybarras in the cemetery.
Headstones with the same last names — Contreras, Quintero, Duarte — sit concentrated in small plots with dates ranging from the 1800s to last month. George estimates that between 10 and 15 families are represented and only people with blood relatives already buried in the cemetery are eligible to be buried there.
The cemetery has been the site of historical and artistic projects throughout the years but fundamentally holds value for the families with Tubac roots. The Day of the Dead, which is celebrated near Halloween, is especially busy when people come from California and Mexico to visit the graveyard, George says.
Out-of-town visitors also come to trace their lineage. Headstone data was once recorded and compiled into a list now kept at the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and Museum.
“A lot of the family descendants take care of their own graves, and that’s what we like them to do,” George says. “They’ll come and decorate them on holidays or their birthdays.”
Curiosity about the cemetery is sparked in part by its “cementery” sign.
“It’s quite central in the town,” says Shaw Kinsley, director of the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park & Museum. “Everyone notices it, in part because of the misspelling.”
“Cementery” may be a mistake, but it could be early “Spanglish,” George says.
“Whoever did it was thinking Spanish,” he says. “It started ‘cementerio,’ which is Spanish. It started that way and they ended it in English. To me, it’s kind of like half-Spanish and half-English, which is what we all talk around here now.”
The cemetery’s quirks make it “a special place,” Bingham says. Its appearance seemed unusual at first compared with cemeteries in other states, she says, but has its own charm.
“I saw the cemetery in Tubac and thought, ‘Oh, my lord. It’s really rough and tough,’ ” Bingham says. “But it’s a tradition here.”