A woman carrying a bucket walks back and forth between a rusty water faucet and her mother-in-law’s grave. She throws water on the plot, which is the only green area surrounded by acres of brown.
Leslie Letrán waters the grave because cemetery workers don’t. “We come at least twice a month to water,” she says. “It’s hard to maintain. It shouldn’t be us.”
Evergreen Cemetery holds an important place in the lives of many people both in and outside of Boyle Heights, either because they have someone buried there or because they live in the community.
At 136 years old, it is the oldest cemetery in Los Angeles. More than 300,000 people are buried there, including musicians and actors, Japanese American war veterans and former mayors and council members of Los Angeles.
Today, family members and politicians are pushing for improvements in the caretaking of the cemetery. Covering more than 67 acres in Boyle Heights, Evergreen serves not only as a place to visit the deceased, but also as a green space in a neighborhood with few open areas.
Drought or neglect?
Cemetery officials have blamed the dry grass on citywide drought restrictions from the Department of Water and Power. But city water officials say the cemetery is not watering as much as it could because of its antiquated irrigation system and lack of staff.
Robert Estrada, a DWP Water Conservation Specialist, believes there are several reasons why Evergreen Cemetery looks the way it does. He notes that the cemetery’s watering system is old and likely has broken pipes.
“You get the pressure, but not the flow,” he says. “The gap between sprinklers is why it never gets green.”
Another problem, Estrada says, is that Evergreen does not have an automatic watering system. Its manual system requires staff to actually be on the grounds to operate the sprinklers.
Current restrictions limit watering on residential and commercial properties to three days a week, before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m.
Richard García, the grounds supervisor at Evergreen Cemetery, confirmed Estrada’s suspicion that the staff is not watering the entire cemetery three days a week. The grounds staff works from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and does not have enough time to turn on all the sprinklers, he says.
Not enough time
“We can’t do the whole cemetery in an hour and a half,” he says. “We barely get the cemetery covered in the week.”
Jonvive Anguiano, 34, has four generations of family buried in the cemetery and is not happy about the conditions. She started a petition on change.org to gain community support to force better management of the cemetery.
After six months, Anguiano has 750 supporters. Looking around while visiting the grave of her mother, she says, “It looks desolate. It doesn’t look like other cemeteries that I’ve seen.”
She adds, “They don’t care because their loved ones aren’t here. I don’t think they care enough.”
While other cemeteries, like Forest Lawn and Rose Hills, use recycled water or underground wells, García, the grounds supervisor, says that Evergreen lacks those options.
Recycled water is not available on the Eastside. DWP officials say a new irrigation system would be costly and not a likely investment at an old cemetery where there are few plots available to sell to bring in new revenue.
Over the years, Evergreen Cemetery has faced many complaints. The cemetery is owned by Tony Soo Hoo.
For more than a decade, Soo Hoo has been on probation with California’s Department of Consumer Affairs Cemetery and Funeral Bureau for violations, including grave desecration and failing to document the location of burial sites.
Soo Hoo did not return phone calls from Boyle Heights Beat.
Anguiano, the petition circulator, says, “Many people have the same anger and love I do about the cemetery because of their loved ones, and they want to see something done about it because it is a part of their community.”
Both DWP and cemetery officials pointed out that there are hoses on the cemetery grounds, and community members may water their family plots.
The cemetery’s state of neglect also caught the attention of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. Calling it “Never green,” Molina has gotten involved in an effort to force management to revitalize Evergreen. She has gone to water the cemetery, and now has members of her staff monitoring to make sure watering is taking place.
“I think it’s not only the disrespect of the dead,” she says, “but the disrespect of the community.”