Shovel in hand, an Evergreen restoration team member wipes away a bead of sweat that emerges on his forehead. He and another committee member are replanting a headstone that had slowly fallen over due to rainfall. Volunteers are scattered across the cemetery, pulling weeds and sweeping away dead leaves that cover the names of those who passed. 

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) held an event at Evergreen Cemetery on Friday in celebration of the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, a Chinese holiday that pays respect to ancestors through the act of cleaning up cemeteries. About 88 Chinese people have been buried at the site, but only eight remain after many families have dug up the remains of a deceased loved one to return them to their hometowns. 

“By celebrating their ancestors, it’s a spiritual connection, and allows their ancestors to rest peacefully into the future,” Clark said, while taking a break from flame weeding the greenery that had overgrown along the entryway path. “It’s an acknowledgment of history and future, and it brings spiritual rest to the Chinese community who were buried here.”

To celebrate the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, participants burn paper gifts in remembrance of lost loved ones. This year organizers decided not to, as the Evergreen Cemetery is in a fire sensitive area. Instead, volunteers handed out red envelopes, which symbolize good luck and happiness and contain paper money and chewy ginger candy. 

The MAH first started celebrating Qingming in 2014, after local businessman George Ow funded the Chinese Memorial at Evergreen Cemetery to pay respect to his ancestors. Since then, the MAH has encouraged the rest of the community to come learn about local history and help with restoration work.

The Evergreen committee has been refurbishing the cemetery weekly for about 10 years now.  This has presented volunteers with opportunities to research the history of Santa Cruz and uncover  stories about the builders and contributors of the town we know today. A history of racial segregation is also evident at the cemetery, with people of color buried at the peripheries of the graveyard. 

Author of “Evergreen Cemetery of Santa Cruz,” Traci Bliss mentioned how her family donated land to the cemetery during the 1850s, when plots were mainly for white Christians who owned the territory.

“When this cemetery was created, there was massive segregation. Nobody but the Catholics were allowed to be buried in the Catholic cemetery,” Bliss said. “And so [Chinese residents] wanted to make sure they could not be eliminated from the cemetery. And that’s why they bought their whole section up there, and forever protected it and […] made sure that they were protected.”

Volunteers lift and lay bricks in the Chinese memorial area of Evergreen cemetery. Photo by Gabriela Levy.

It is difficult to reverse the segregation that exists at the graveyard, as Evergreen is now an inactive cemetery, meaning only descendants of those who are already buried there can reserve a burial plot. 

It was not until the late 1800s that a Chinese family bought a plot of land there. Bliss said the investment was a response to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from moving to the U.S. during the late nineteenth century. Even though Chinese workers made up less than one percent of the nation’s population, many Americans blamed their wage declines and other economic struggles on them. This prompted President Chester A. Arthur to sign this discriminatory act in 1882 in the name of white “racial purity.”

“The cemetery is really old, so it’s hard to change something that’s already done,” said MAH Education Coordinator Oscar Paz. “But it’s good to talk about it and have those conversations of, ‘Why is it like that?’”

After the cleanup, Clark expanded on the cemetery’s history and Chinese cultural traditions. Although a large cemetery with about 2000 people buried there, many people of color had been pushed to the sides of the cemetery, as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) allowed burial practices to be legally separated by race. Evergreen volunteer Kate Clark sees the Qingming festival as an opportunity to pay respect to the Chinese laborers who helped build Santa Cruz and are now buried within these grounds. 

The pillars of the 17-foot tall Chinese memorial gate, funded by Ow, read in Chinese calligraphy: “Eternal land of struggle and home. Forever meritorious are the Chinese pioneers.” The verse reminds Clark of the importance of shedding light on and honoring the history of individuals from oppressed communities, motivating her to engage the local community in uncovering the stories behind those buried at Evergreen cemetery.

“So that’s exactly what we take this monument to do,” Clark said. “To continue to tell the stories of these incredible people who left their country, their language, their culture, their families, and came here and helped build the infrastructure that we benefit from today.”

Stop by Evergreen Cemetery any Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to join the restoration team in keeping the graveyard clean and finding out more about Santa Cruz County history.