ALAMO, Texas (Border Report) — Leaning on a gray marble bench beneath a majestic shade tree that her sister planted, Sofia Bravo stares at the graves of her mother and father at her family’s cemetery in a quiet and remote field surrounded by cabbage, onion and sugar cane fields in deep South Texas.
Next to Evangelina and Erminio — Sofia’s parents — are the graves of three uncles and her grandparents. Plastic marigold flowers and other mementos decorate the graves where American flags swing in the Gulf breeze. A porta-potty is even located in the corner so family members can take their time visiting.
About 150 graves — mostly relatives of Bravo’s — lie in this cemetery located about half a mile north of the Rio Grande and close to where President Donald on Tuesday commemorated his administration’s completion of the 450th mile of border wall.
On Thursday, Bravo’s quiet weekly communing with her deceased relatives was interrupted by the banging and beeping of dump trucks and earthmovers backing up and the swinging of cranes just a few yards from where construction crews were finishing a new segment of border wall — one that looms high on the earthen dirt levee just above her family’s Webber Cemetery.
“It used to be a very silent place. It was a sacred place where we would come and pay our respects,” Bravo said Thursday as she gave Border Report a tour of the cemetery. “I do not like the wall being next to me. I feel that it was an invasion of this beautiful cemetery.”
She had been concerned that Trump’s visit on Tuesday would bring rioting and looting to her family’s usually peaceful cemetery. But that did not happen as state troopers blocked side roads and prevented the public from getting near the border wall.
Nevertheless, she says the border wall construction is cutting off her family’s access to this cemetery where the patriarch of her family, who was a captain in the War of 1812, is buried.
Bravo, 60, said she opposes the border wall. She calls it a barrier to freedom and said it represents everything that her great-great-great grandfather John Ferdinand Webber (1795-1882) spent his life fighting.
Webber, whose oval gray headstone marker is just a few yards from Bravo’s parents, operated an underground railroad by shuttling slaves south across the Rio Grande to Mexico. He married a former slave, Silvia Hector, who was freed with her three children.
Silvia and Webber went on to have eight more children and those are Bravo’s ancestors. They formed a core of interracial families who gravitated to the Rio Grande Valley and helped ferry slaves across the Rio Grande to Mexico where slavery was already abolished. This included families like those who founded the Eli Jackson Cemetery and Jackson Ranch, which are located 4 miles west of the Webber Cemetery.
“He wouldn’t feel very happy about that wall being there because he freed Silvia to be free and this doesn’t represent being free. This is restricting people from coming,” Bravo said as she pointed to the 30-foot tall metal rusted metal bollards casting shadows on some of her family’s graves. “I believe in immigration. I think they should let them come in and make them do the right thing. Instead of putting walls. Will the walls stop them from coming this way? It’s not going to stop them.”
Bravo grew up in these parts where fields of cabbage and sugar cane and onion dot the flat horizon. But after Hurricane Beulah in 1967 caused catastrophic flooding, she said her family began selling off more pieces of land and moving to nearby cities, like Donna, San Juan and Alamo.
But at one point, these lands were all owned by Webber, according to ancestry records supplied to Border Report by her family.
Webber was born in 1795 in Danville, Vt., and served as a captain in the War of 1812 before he fell in love with Silvia and moved south. They first settled near Austin, in what now is called Webberville, but records show the interracial family felt shunned and eventually made their way as far south as possible to Hidalgo County, to the banks of the Rio Grande, overlooking Mexico, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
He bought several leases of land from the Spanish and from Mexico, according to family documents. And he sold parcels to the other families, many of whom were also interracial, said Leslie Alexis Dutcher-Trevino, a Webber relative who lives in Fort Worth and is helping to research the family’s ancestry in their hopes to get the cemetery designated as a state historical marker, and possibly a national historical marker.
Silvia, who was born in 1807 in an unknown state, was freed in 1834 along with her three children, according to research conducted by the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley.
“During the Civil War they used their land on the Rio Grande to ferry people into Mexico where slavery had been abolished,” Dutcher-Trevino said.
The neighbors married amongst themselves and Bravo says most of the families in the region are related to her in some way, or another.
Bravo is the family’s cemetery caretaker and mows the grass herself. She has keys to open the gates and warns visitors of the bees that like to nest near a hole in the metal gate entrance that once chased and stung a cousin who came to visit from San Antonio.
Descendants of the Webber Cemetery, in Alamo, Texas, are applying for a Texas State Historical Marker and a National Historical Marker. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)
Now she worries that she will lose easy access to the cemetery with the increased Border Patrol equipment, like flood lights and infrared cameras and underground sensors that she has been told by the Army Corps of Engineers will soon be installed on the border wall here. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan has consistently defended construction of the border wall, saying “border security is national security, and a strong border wall system is critical to keeping the nation safe.”
“Will I have to call someone to ask permission to come visit my family’s cemetery?” she asks.
She points through the metal bollards of the border wall to a grove of palm trees where she said her father was born. It’s near pumps on the river that the family used to stage the escaping slaves, she said.
She tried to get to the pumps on Thursday but the area was blocked. And as she drove south of the border wall levee a truck came up behind her honking and flashing its lights.
“I don’t like that they tried to run me away,” she said as she drove away. “This isn’t right.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.