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A Legacy of Division in Marfa's Cemeteries

The Marfa cemeteries. Credit: Mary Walling Blackburn

Just off Route 90 in Marfa, TX are three cemeteries, divided by fencing -- and race. Though racial segregation seems like a dated practice in West Texas, the separations between whites and Hispanics are still visible among the departed.

In the borderlands, intermarriage is hardly rare. But in death, people remain segregated. One cemetery is known as the Anglo cemetery. The other two -- Cementerio de la Merced and the Marfa Catholic cemetery -- are Hispanic.

"This is the Catholic cemetery. It's the first Hispanic or Mexican cemetery," says Alberto Garcia, assistant librarian at the Marfa Public Library. Garcia walks through rows of tombstones and makeshift crosses adorned with colorful silk bouquets, about one hundred feet from the railroad tracks.

On the other side of the fence is the Anglo cemetery, full of well-groomed, grassy plots. But the divisions here aren’t just aesthetic. It wasn’t too long ago that racial segregation was once a way of life in Marfa, Texas.

"Well, it was not legally segregated, but it was segregated by custom," says historian Lonn Taylor, a former curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. According to Taylor, before the 1970s West Texas had separate schools, barber shops, and churches. Even movie theaters had their own unwritten rules about where to sit.

"Anglos sat in the center part of the theater and Mexicans were expected to sit on the sides of the theater," says Taylor.

It was an accepted way of life until the late 1960s. Garcia says if you were white or Hispanic growing up here, you knew where you were supposed to be. But what about if you were neither white nor Hispanic? In the corner of the Anglo cemetery is a small patch of land scattered with a few gravestones where you’ll find the answer.

"George and Chaney were the only blacks in Marfa when I was growing up," says Garcia.

George Livingston and Granison Chaney were good friends who moved to Marfa in the 1930s. Chaney shined shoes for a living, but he’s best remembered for his small part in the 1954 film “Giant.” Livingston was a chef at the Hotel Paisano, and operated a barbeque restaurant for many years.

"They acted a lot more like a married couple than friends," Garcia remembers fondly. "They were always bickering, always fighting."

Both men were staples of the community until their deaths -- Chaney in 1972, Livingston two years later.

"Chaney identified more with the white community, whereas George lived in the Hispanic part of town, and so he was more involved with the Hispanic people," Garcia recalls.

Though Chaney and Livingston had forged ties with the white and Hispanic communities, why were both buried in the white cemetery, only a few years after integration and within a decade of the signing of the Civil Rights Act?

"Basically they were buried by the county, as paupers," Garcia says.

One corner of the Anglo cemetery is known as the “paupers’ corner," separated from the rest of the tombs by a small gravel path. The graves themselves are simple stone markers, surrounded by patches of weeds. One flat marker reads "Granison Chaney, 1893-1972, loyal citizen." Another bears the inscription, "George Livingston, 1901-1974, Paisano Hotel chef."

For Garcia, where the men were buried has more to do with economics than race. He says their lack of resources and family left few options and resulted in low-maintenance burials by Presidio County.

But when it comes to the white-Hispanic divisions, Garcia maintains the importance of race in determining cemetery boundaries.

"I think it’s more along the racial lines than religion," Garcia says. "That’s the Mexican cemetery and this is the gringo cemetery."

In this part of Texas, Hispanics hold many key political offices. Yet a visible reminder of historic inequality are the cemeteries, where in death, people remain divided.

- Mia Warren