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Presidio Works To Preserve a Lipan Apache Cemetery And Tell Its Story

Sarah Vasquez for Marfa Public Radio
Unassuming as it is, the Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes holds a key piece of West Texas history. It’s the final resting place of nearly 50 people — at least some of whom were members of the Lipan Apache tribe.

At first glance, the Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes is easy to miss. 

It’s a small hill on the corner of Market Street and Barton Avenue, surrounded by stucco houses, and the only thing that sets it off from the road is a line of wire strung on some posts. Inside, piles of grey rocks mingle with tangles of creosote and prickly pear. If Billy Hernandez weren’t here to point them out, it would be hard to tell that each of these scattered cairns marks a grave.

“This looks like one,” Hernandez says. “Can you see the little rocks?” 

Looking around, he motions towards another stack, nearly hidden under an abandoned tire. “Oh, here’s more!”

At the top of the hill, though, two black crosses stand out from the dirt. Each is decorated with a name in faded paint. Hernandez walks up to the first one. “Here is my great-grandfather’s grave,” he says. “His name was Felipe Aguilar.”

Sarah Vasquez / Marfa Public Radio
Billy Hernandez and his family have been taking care of the Lipan burial site in Presidio for years, leaving flowers and cleaning the cemetery.

Unassuming as it is, this little mound holds a key piece of West Texas history. It’s the final resting place of nearly fifty people — at least some of whom were members of the Prairie Grass Band of the Lipan Apache tribe, which set up camp in this area in the 1790s as part of a peace agreement with Spanish settlers. 

That encampment eventually became a central neighborhood in Presidio: the Barrio de los Lipanes. And today, multiple families in La Junta, the Presidio-Ojinaga area, trace their ancestry back to the tribe. Hernandez and his aunt, Alicia Jimenez, are among them.

Jimenez is 80, and she’s lived in Presidio all her life. Felipe Aguilar was her grandfather. He and her grandmother, a woman from Ojinaga, lived in a little house on O’Reilly Street, just a few blocks from the cemetery.

“He always said that he was a Lipan,” Jimenez says. “And he wanted to be buried there.”

When Jimenez was growing up in Presidio, the cemetery extended well beyond its current limits. But in the 1970s, development started to creep in. An alley was paved over the south end of the burial site, and utility lines installed underneath it. Teenagers rode their bikes over the mound. Stones marking the graves started to disappear.

Still, Jimenez refused to let the cemetery be forgotten. As the oldest living member of her family, she’s committed herself to caring for her ancestors’ graves. She’s the one who got the two crosses — one for Felipe, one for his brother Manuel. And every year, she brings flowers to put beside them.

“I never knew my grandfather. And here I am, all these years, still bringing flowers to him,” she says. “He must know who I am up there and think, ‘Well, she’s a good kid.’” She laughs.

Sarah Vasquez / Marfa Public Radio
Left: Alicia Jimenez, 80, grew up in Presidio and has committed herself to caring for her ancestors’ graves. Right: Jimenez shows a photo of her grandfather Felipe Aguilar, who's buried in the Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes.

Jimenez also made a point of talking about her ancestors to younger generations. Her great-niece, Christina Hernandez, grew up in Austin, but spent summers in Presidio, where she first learned about the burial site.

“I really became interested, fascinated with this cemetery, and the fact that it was just a forgotten piece of Presidio history,” she says. “So it really started a project within our family, where we would visit a little more regularly and clean up the area.” 

Hernandez started helping Jimenez bring flowers to the cemetery on Día de los Muertos when she was thirteen. Now, she’s 43, and she still drives in from Austin several times a year to put out the bouquets.

“It's a sign of respect, a sign that our family is not forgotten, that we still remember them,” she says.

As she got older, Hernandez says, caring for the cemetery led her to research her Lipan ancestors' history — and, eventually, to get in touch with the tribal administrator, Oscar Rodriguez. Now, the tribal council has invited her and Jimenez to apply for enrollment, which would formally make them members of the Lipan Apache tribe.

That would be a big deal, Rodriguez says. He grew up nearby, in El Mulato, and believes his family members are also buried in the cemetery in Presidio. For years, Rodriguez has been fighting the idea that Indigenous people have disappeared from this area.

“The general narrative is this: a long time ago, there were people, archaic people, who did things and left evidence of their presence, and then died and went away.”

But as people like the Hernandez-Aguilar family have begun to reclaim their Indigenous heritage, it’s helped to challenge that myth — and reshape the understanding of Big Bend history.

Sarah Vasquez / Marfa Public Radio
(Sarah Vasquez / Marfa Public Radio)

“I think it's really exciting that this is happening,” says David Keller, an archaeologist at the Center for Big Bend Studies. “It's a corrective to a long-neglected narrative — these people didn't just disappear. They went into hiding, just to avoid being killed.”

Keller says the cemetery is key to telling the region’s story. “It's one of the few sort of named, definitive places that ties this area back to the Lipan tribe.”

But without protection, the burial site remains at risk. Erosion threatens to destroy the remaining grave markers; trash still litters the grounds; and without a fence, it’s hard to tell where the cemetery ends and the surrounding yards begin. 

“When I was there in 2013, I could clearly see open graves,” Oscar Rodriguez says. “I'm talking holes in the ground.”

Nearly a decade ago, Rodriguez helped to get the site designated a state antiquities landmark. The Presidio city council has also voted to protect it. And in 2017, Lipan Apache tribal members drove in from as far as South Texas and New Mexico to conduct a ceremony at the cemetery.

This year, the tribe worked with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance to apply for a state historical marker to mark the cemetery, which should be ready sometime early next year.

“It needs to be recognized and honored,” Keller says. “And the historical marker will go a long way towards doing that.”

Now, the goal is to put in a fence, and make sure the graves get regular maintenance.

Sarah Vasquez / Marfa Public Radio
In its early days, the cemetery extended well beyond its current limits. But in the 1970s, development started to creep in and stones marking the graves started to disappear.

“It's long-term care,” says Christina Hernandez. “Preventing erosion and keeping it clean, so that it's not just this forgotten little piece of square land with piles of rocks. So that there's dignity in that space.”

Rodriguez wants that, too. For him, it’s about showing that the cemetery is more than a relic of the region’s history.

“What the cemetery says is that the people didn't just die there, but they lived there. And they continue to live there,” he says. “So the Lipanes — very much like that cemetery — we're quite scarred, but we're still there.”

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.