There’s something ironic in celebrating Día de los Muertos in a ghost town. Yet every year, local and area residents as well as visitors from all points of the compass gather to honor the memory of those buried in the Historic Cemetery in the Terlingua Ghost Town.
The cemetery reflects the starkness and the beauty of the region. Established in 1902 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has over 500 graves or commemorative monuments. Pathways meander among the various plots, numerous graves are covered with rocks and many grave markers are homemade. It is still an active cemetery and is said to be one of the most photographed places in Texas.
Día de los Muertos – translated from Spanish meaning “Day of the Dead” – is a celebration that helps families honor their ancestors. It’s meant to be a joyful time when people remember the deceased and enjoy memories. Day of the Dead combines an ancient Aztec custom of honoring the dead with All Saints’ Day, a Catholic commemoration the Spanish brought to Mexico in the 1500s.
As with most holidays, Día de los Muertos traditions are rich with cultural influence and adjust over time. There are altars (ofrendas) where favorite foods or drinks of the deceased are placed. Skeletons remind the living that death is just a part of life. Small, decorated sugar skulls (calaveras) are placed on altars and exchanged as gifts. They are decorated with colorful paint, glitter, and beads and are smiling to remind the living of the happiness their loved one once brought them.
In Terlingua, it’s tradition to gather at the cemetery at sunset on November 2nd for the local observance of Día de los Muertos. An altar at the entrance to the historic cemetery is decorated with candles, crosses, and photos of loved ones. Candles, flowers, offerings and memorabilia are placed on the graves of family members. Visitors are welcome to bring flowers or mementos to place on one of the three large altars to commemorate loved ones who have passed on.
Kara Gerbert, a longtime resident of Alpine who has participated in the celebration says, “It’s a day the locals get together to remember the families and the persons buried there. It’s not somber, but it is appropriately respectful.”
Following the local custom, a bonfire is started early in the evening and burns late into the night. People bring chairs and gather around to visit with old friends and meet new people, listen to music and share food and beverages. Many in attendance have family buried in the cemetery. Others see the celebration as a way to acknowledge the history of the town.
Another Alpine resident, Belle Pena-Lancaster, has attended a few of the celebrations and says, ”People are respectful. They share stories and talk of memories. There is usually a potluck that is held as well. Overall, it’s a great experience!”
As darkness falls, the cemetery glows with the soft light from the multitude of candles that have been placed on seemingly every grave, that line pathways and that adorn the various altars. People meander throughout the cemetery looking at graves and chatting with each other.
Like many other Texas “ghost towns,” Terlingua is a historical site and a tourism destination. Located out in Far West Texas between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park, Terlingua is also several miles from the United States and Mexico border. With an abundance of cinnabar in the area, miners were attracted to the area in the 1880s. By 1902,Terlingua consisted of temporary structures and a population of approximately 300 laborers, mostly Mexican. Howard Perry established the Chisos Mining Company in 1903 and quickly built up the area. By 1922, Terlingua produced 40 percent of the quicksilver mined in the U.S. and was home to 2,000 miners and their families. The 1930’s saw the decline of production and in 1942 the Chisos Mining Company filed for bankruptcy. By the end of World War II, mining stopped and the population of the area began to decline. Terlingua became a ghost town shortly thereafter. Today the town has numerous abandoned buildings and structures in various forms of decay, but there are also several active businesses and occupied homes.
Driving south on U.S. 118 from Alpine for about seventy-eight miles and following the signs from FM 170 for about five miles, travelers will arrive at the entrance to Terlingua Ghost Town. Driving up the hill, one notices a variety of buildings: taquerias, galleries, overnight accommodations and the facade of Starlight Theatre, the area’s premier restaurant and live music venue. The Historic Terlingua Cemetery is about midway up the hill and to the left – and locals love it! As always, be respectful of the surroundings and enjoy the Terlingua Ghost Town for what it is: community.