- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

SAN ANTONIO

It’s a barrio where rusty railroad tracks run alongside a garbage-strewn knoll overgrown with weeds. Laborers in paint-stained jeans mill around, waiting to be picked up for a one-day job.

A deserted cemetery with a padlock on the gate completes the mournful tableau. The good news, if there is any, is that the hero rests among his own people. The bad news is nobody knows where exactly.

Gregorio Esparza, one of a few Hispanic defenders of the Alamo, fought valiantly on the old mission’s walls to give Texas its much-coveted independence in the midst of a conflict that would alter the history of North America and make the United States a continental power.

But he does not have a proper grave — not anymore.

“It’s sad, really, that it has been destroyed,” said Socorro R. Morales, a 64-year-old direct descendant of the Alamo defender. “I’d like to be able to come to his grave from time to time and bring flowers, but I can’t. There is nowhere to go.”

Few local officials know how and why — or what to do about it, despite public interest in the deadly battle after which only Esparza received a formal Christian burial.

Esparza is much less known than fort commander William B. Travis, renowned knife-fighter Jim Bowie or famous frontiersman Davy Crockett, who organized the 13-day defense of the Alamo in early 1836 against the army of Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

But few historians disagree that Esparza, one of fewer than a dozen of the Spanish-speaking Tejanos who had joined the defenders of the Alamo in their fight for independent Texas, faced starker and more wrenching personal dilemmas than any of the other fighters.

On top of issues of loyalty, religion and patriotic duty came the knowledge that each cannonball he fired into waves of charging Santa Anna troops from the walls of the old presidio could hit his own brother, Francisco, who fought on the Mexican side.

He knew many in Mexico would brand him a traitor, Mrs. Morales and many historians argue, but he realized that joining the ranks of the Santa Anna army would prop up a tyrannical Mexican regime that trampled upon individual liberties and land ownership rights — and engendered an obsequious oligarchy.

“He could have saved his life by going through Mexican lines,” points out Mrs. Morales, a sparkle of pride lighting up her eyes. “But he had to be loyal to the land that fed him and his family, and that land was here in Texas. He probably knew he was going to die, but that’s where he wanted to be.”

Regal oak trees stand guard in her spacious back yard on the slope of a hill a few miles south of the Alamo — not far from where the Esparzas had their modest hacienda 170 years ago.

After the Alamo garrison was massacred on March 6, 1836, brother Francisco and Gregorio’s widow pleaded with Santa Anna, who relented and allowed them to pull his body from a funeral pyre that was about to be set ablaze.

They buried him about a half-mile to the west in what would later be entered into the books of the Campo Santo cemetery as Burial Site No. 1563. With time, one would have expected a proud monument to grace this site.

Fast forward about 85 years to the Jazz Age. Different times, different priorities. Expanding Christus Santa Rosa Hospital, built initially next to Campo Santo, is clamoring for more space and wistful eyes turn to the old, largely abandoned burial ground, which is increasingly beginning to look like nothing more than a prized piece of real estate. In the 1920s, a company is hired to move the bodies to what is now San Fernando Cemetery No. 1.

According to most accounts, the job was done in a manner that could hardly be called meticulous.

Felix D. Almaraz, professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a longtime member of the Bexar County Historical Commission, calls the reinterment purely “symbolic.”

The company, said Mrs. Morales, most likely just used a backhoe to dig up the graves and haul remains mixed with dirt to the new site in a horse wagon. “Because the dead were Hispanic, they didn’t care,” she shrugs.

A 5-foot-high chain-link fence with a perennially padlocked gate surrounds the unkempt patch of San Fernando, now a magnet to the local homeless.

“No, Esparza has no grave here,” Mr. Almaraz said with a sigh. “All that exists is an aluminum sign saying he is buried somewhere here. The cemetery is closed most of the time. They open the gates only when they come to cut the grass.”

Yet, even this may not be the hero’s resting place. According to another theory that is gaining currency, the modern Santa Rosa medical complex now stands upon what used to be the Catholic section of Campo Santo, where most people of Mexican origin were buried in the 19th century.

“Many of us Tejanos believe that Esparza could be and probably is still buried underneath the hospital building,” insists Robert Garcia, a local historian and author of a book about the role of Tejanos, or residents of Mexican descent, in the Texas revolution.

The only Campo Santo grave that has been preserved is that of the valiant Ben Milam, who was killed by Mexicans outside San Antonio nearly three months before the siege of the Alamo. His towering statue now dominates the square bearing his name. But he was a Kentuckian and spoke English.

“He was a Mexican for them, and that says it all,” said Richard G. Santos, a former chairman of the Bexar County Historical Commission who now teaches in Crystal City, Texas, when asked about the destruction of Esparza’s grave. “Nobody cared.”

When she was in school, Mrs. Morales recalls, she wrote a paper for her history class in which she detailed the exploits of her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

“The teacher called me a liar in front of the whole class,” she said with a faint smile. “She said there was no such person at the Alamo.”

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