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Families of Mexican pioneers hail move to protect access to historic Vail cemetery

Established in 1913 & increasingly cut off by development, Bravo Leon Cemetery includes graves of generations of local Hispanic families

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The Bravo Leon Cemetery looks west and at sunset the horizon has a warm purple and reddish-orange hue that glows over the shadows of the Santa Catalina Mountains. - Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The lone road to Bravo Leon Cemetery, the burial place of Mexican pioneers who homesteaded the Vail area in the late 19th century along with generations of their descendants, will be kept open and maintained for the public after a vote by the Pima County Board of Supervisors, easing tensions with families who have been pleading with the county to protect the plot and its traditions from encroaching development.

The supervisors voted 5-0 to spend about $233,000 to chip-seal about a half-mile stretch of the Leon Ranch Road, a skinny dirt road and the last remaining route to the cemetery. The board also approved an estimated $7,000 per year to maintain the road in the future.

Families of those Mexican pioneers and the community around the cemetery are excited and grateful to see the road paved, several said. Family members of those buried there have been taking care of the cemetery since it was established in 1913, and recently they've organized a legal effort to protect it.

En español: Familias de pioneros mexicanos logran salvar acceso al panteón histórico en Vail

Marilyn Dailey lives near the cemetery and has been a key figure in organizing the families and neighboring community. She was involved in collecting donations to maintain the road and hire attorneys to protect Leon Ranch Road. She said the board's decision was "amazing," but she and others involved with the cemetery remain skeptical because of how much of a struggle it was to get the county to act.

"We're all extremely happy with that," she said. "We have some reservations on whether or not they'll actually do the work… It's one of those trust issues, right? We've been through a lot in a year."

Still, she expressed her excitement, saying the decision by the supervisors "feels a little historic."

"This is an old road, and Pima County is stepping up an acknowledging that it was a fundamental part of Vail over a hundred years ago" she said. "That they're acknowledging that finally I think is amazing."

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She said paving the road will also help with dust control and make driving safer for the elderly and special-needs individuals who use the road.

Leon Cemetery is tucked into a patch of desert, east of the Pantano Wash and just north of an expanding series of newer subdivisions named for Rancho del Lago — a late-19th century ranch that was transformed into a popular resort in the 1940s.

Homebuilding in the area cut off the easiest road to the cemetery, forcing people to take a narrow, battered dirt track that includes a large hill that's almost impassable for horse trailers and small cars.

Sisters Sarah Hiteman and Barbara Mayer, both fourth-generation descendants of the Estrada family buried at the Bravo Leon Cemetery, said they didn't believe the road would be paved until they saw it happening.

"I'm happy that that happened," Hiteman said of the vote. "But I will believe it when I see it. I'm not holding my breath."

However, Hiteman thanked the Board of Supervisors during public comments at their meeting, saying "the pioneer families support what's being proposed" before they voted on it.

Supervisor Steve Christy, the board's single Republican and the representative for the area, said that he understands their reservations but guarantees the work will be done.

"I'm going to make sure it gets done as their supervisor," he said.

"It was on the agenda, it was sent out in memorandums from the County Administrator's Office, there was a great deal of effort expended by deputy county administrators... who spent many, many hours trying to work this complicated issue out," he said. "Because of all that I don't see how there will be any problem or any concern that this roadwork will not be done."

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'Cut off from history, our culture'

Hiteman, Mayer and others attached to the cemetery said that they feel like their pleas to protect the cemetery and recognize the road have been ignored by county administration, and they believe it's because the cemetery is a concern of Hispanic, non-white families.

Dailey told TucsonSentinel.com before the vote that a lawyer was on standby to go to court if the county decided not to pave the road. Homeowners in the area were all told they have legal rights to the land around Leon Ranch Road to protect it from more development, she said.

"We have prescriptive rights, and we'll prove them. We will have a road going through," she said. "Viner can make the money from Pima County. (The county) can have a dust bowl going through there. Or they can step up and do the right thing."

Developers Richmond American Homes and Pepper Viner Homes began construction near the cemetery about 15 years ago in Rancho del Lago, the area where Mexican families settled more than a century ago and, before that, where the Tohono O'odham once lived.

Subdivisions built around the cemetery narrowed access to the cemetery from Vail and the surrounding Rancho del Lago area. The remaining access via Leon Ranch Road — a dirt road a little shorter than a mile long with a steep drop — is too narrow for two cars to pass each other, and becomes impassable during flooding.

Construction of those neighborhoods intensified flooding because it diverted water towards the road. The county paving plan includes more than $52,000 to install walls to protect the road from flood waters.

Dailey said that the flooding "is so much worse than it ever used to be."

She also said that the Hispanic culture in the area is being ignored by developers and the county.

"The road that the families will be left with if we just all walk away from this; they just won't make it down here," she said. "That's really a sad thing right there and really violates so much about the Hispanic culture that's being run over the top of, that's being thrown under the dust."

The cemetery is still actively used, with three burials already this year — the most recent just last Friday. At that burial, a casket had to be transferred from a hearse to a pickup truck because the mortuary refused to risk driving down the steep, narrow Leon Ranch Road.

Hiteman and Mayer said that the condition of the current road has threatened the cemetery's traditions and the culture of its families.

"You have to consider that people die throughout the course of a year, and if that road is not open, if that road is flooded, how are we going to get a hearse to the cemetery if they're going to be buried there?" Hiteman asked. "We'd be cut off from our history, our culture."

Sonny and Art Leon, descendants of the cemetery and road's namesake Leon family who now live within a short walking distance of the cemetery, take care of most of the maintenance for the road and the plot.

But each year, families still come to the cemetery on Dia de los Muertos, and Art said most take time to sweep and clear up some of the grave sites as they mark the day.

Pima County hadn't paid for any road maintenance before on the undeveloped track, and the cemetery's community and families have asked for county support in the past. Hiteman and Mayer said county officials told them the county doesn't support roads that it doesn't recognize as county-maintained, though the sisters also said county vehicles use a section of the track to access a small water treatment plant.

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Leon said that paving the road would be "excellent" and that he can't wait to see it happen. Leon is a 63-year-old retired "concrete man" who spent his childhood on Rancho del Lago, the area where the cemetery was established and where subdivisions are rising.

For Leon, the new subdivisions are a sign of a shift in investment away from Old Vail to the "city folk" who want to buy new houses on old ranch land.

"There's no stopping this, it's something we've got to accept," he said. "You can't change change."

At the Leon cemetery where many of his relatives are interred, he points out land to the west where his grandfather did back-breaking work to move water from the Pantano Wash to fields for horses.

"That's when I learned how to work," he said. Leon's father was a cattle rancher with Dailey's father in the 1980s.

One of Leon's relatives buried at the cemetery is Jose Maria Leon, who was born in 1888 and died on April 22, 1915 after being hung from a tree with one of his two brothers by a sheriff's deputy and a county ranger who were seeking information about other parties. The two law enforcement officers were convicted of second-degree murder and received sentences of 10 years to life.

Taking the road further

Dailey, who uses Leon Ranch Road every day, said that the county could do much more than just pave the dirt track to help protect the Rancho del Lago area near the cemetery and serve residents.

"I really hope this gives the county a chance to pause and reflect on what's going on here," she said. "We're hoping that the county will step up and do the right thing... but they could take this so much further."

She said there's a smaller quarter-mile stretch of road that runs past the water treatment plant that could also be developed and maintained to create more access to the cemetery and the ranching homes around it. Dailey also said wildlife has also been disturbed by nearby development.

The area has bobcats, javelinas, coyotes, rattlesnake and deer, and she said she increasingly sees these animals in parts where they hadn't been before.

Hiteman echoed that during her public comments to the supervisors during Tuesday's meeting, saying "this is a true opportunity for Pima County to use as a case study, taking advantage of lessons learned."

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She said Pima County should "overhaul the approval process and policies of new development projects plans" and "more importantly, recognize and protect the small, long-standing neighborhood's accessible roadways."

Supervisor Christy said that "everything that needs to be accomplished has been accomplished" by putting the plan to pave the road in motion.

"I think the solution that the folks out there are looking for and the family of the pioneers that are buried there is year-round access to the cemetery and on a regularly maintained road," Christy said. "I think it's a terrific opportunity that the county has taken to utilize transportation funds that normally wouldn't be spent in this manner."

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry recognized a "broader non-transportation public interest in establishing the proposed public road" because of its history, he told the supervisors in a memo, and recommended that they approve paving and upkeep for the road, even though it wasn't included in the recently approved budget and the county hasn't previously maintained it.

The county could start chip-sealing the road in late November or early December, according to Huckelberry's memo.

After paving the road, the county Department of Transportation will include the roadway in their maintenance system and budget, giving it the recognition that families of Rancho del Lago and the Bravo Leon Cemetery have sought.

Hiteman and Dailey said they hope the county will recognize more roads in Rancho del Lago and name them after families with ties to the area and its history.

There are members of about 80 families buried in the cemetery, Leon said, and Mayer and Hiteman said there are about 160 graves in the small cemetery that rests at the foot of a hill and faces west towards reddish-orange sunsets in the evening. The area around the cemetery is almost completely silent in the late and early hours, Dailey said, and there are often the smells of corn being cooked nearby, creosote, mesquite and ripe cactus fruit.

There are several generations of some families buried there — the two families with the largest number of graves are the Leon and Romero families. Each have four generations buried there. Most of the families are intertwined, connected through marriages.

The first burials in the cemetery took place in 1913. One of the first was Carmelita Leon, the daughter of Santiago Santos and Mariana Bravo Leon, born in 1897. She died in September 1913 after being shot in the abdomen by Rafael Romero. A coroner's jury ruled it an accident.

Romero died a few years later, after his horse stepped in an unseen hole and threw him, breaking his neck. He left behind three daughters and four sons. All of them and his wife Maria, who came to the Arizona Territory in 1881, are buried in the Bravo Leon Cemetery.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Paul Ingram contributed to this report.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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1 comment on this story

Oct 6, 2021, 7:00 pm
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Monthan Ranch Road, named for the family of one of the WW1 aviators that D-M AFB is named after, used to be in this area as well, just south of Leon Ranch Road.  It no longer exists due to Lago del Oro construction.  I was recently in this area looking for this very cemetery.  Asked at one of the model home areas but the agent there knew nothing about either road.  Finally did get to Leon Ranch Road via Rex Molly Road.  The road is narrow and was steep in one spot but I was able to access it in a 2WD vehicle.  Didn’t find the cemetery but realized later after looking at Google Earth that I hadn’t quite gone far enough north.  Happy to hear that the road will be improved and preserved.  Had Monthan Ranch Road been kept open access would have been easier from Lago del Oro Parkway.  But too late for that.

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