• Contacted by a man who grew up with his migrant family in Crookston more than 70 years ago, Victoria Ramirez helps Gabriel Zapata locate burial sites of his siblings

Gabriel Zapata needed help. He said he needed closure. But the military veteran who grew up with his migrant family in Crookston more than 70 years ago didn’t know where to turn to find the burial sites of three of his siblings who died very young in Crookston, likely from an outbreak of tuberculosis that swept through the region.

Zapata wondered if he should contact his American Legion “brothers,” or maybe local firefighters in the hopes of getting some information. Maybe, he thought, he should contact the local Catholic church, which he said, according to his parents, Antonio and Augustina, was so helpful to his family back in those long ago days, when they were tending to the sugarbeet fields and were so poor and in great need.

But Zapata, 78 and a current resident of San Antonio, Texas, on a whim went a different route in search for some assistance on his three siblings who died so long ago. Saying he “loves to get news updates” on things happening in Crookston, Zapata said he was clicking on the Crookston Times website and came across a story from 2018 on local resident Victoria Ramirez, who’d been presented with the Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Award at the “Night of Expression” event at the University of Minnesota Crookston.

He wrote Ramirez a letter. He wrote one to the Times, too, seeking any information he could get at all on the burial sites of his three deceased siblings, Josephine, Margaret and Pedro, whom he recalled all died in 1940-41.

Ramirez received her letter and wasn’t really sure what to make of it. She didn’t act on Zapata’s request right away, but she soon felt compelled to help him out if she could.

“We had no connection whatsoever; I didn’t know who this person was,” she told the Times. “But what I was intrigued about…I forget about the Hispanic population and that migrant families have played a role in Crookston for that long. Sometimes we think it’s only been 20 or 30 years, but some of these people were here. They were born here. There were bad winters. TB (tuberculosis) was bad. It looks like it went through this area and it was really tough on people.”

Ramirez, a longtime staff member at Polk County Social Services, went down the hall at the Polk County Government Center, to the Polk County Recorder’s office. In only a few minutes, along with an assist from Jim Bredman at the Stenshoel-Houske Funeral Home, Ramirez was able to determine that Zapata’s sister, Josephine, died on Oct. 11, 1940, and that his other sister, Margaret, died on June 7, 1941. The cause of death listed in their documentation was tuberculosis. His brother, Pedro, died as an infant, likely of TB as well, but Ramirez was not able to find any information on him. Bredman steered Ramirez to the person who handles burial site information for Calvary Cemetery in Crookston and she was able to track down the grave sites of both Josephine and Margaret.

Ramirez says she feels bad that she wasn’t able to find any information on little Pedro Antonio, but Zapata’s joy over learning the information on his deceased sisters makes her feel better.

“Life is surprising sometimes; you’re so busy with your life, going through the day to day, and then something like this, a random letter, crosses your path,” Ramirez said. “I’m so glad I was able to spend what turned out to be only a few minutes of my time to help him with something that was very meaningful to him. For me, it’s another reminder to pay it forward when you can; it can literally take minutes of your time, but the impact can be great.

“I hope Gabriel’s story is well received and spreads a little positivity,” she adds.

Zapata followed up with voicemail messages and emails to both the Times and Ramirez upon receiving the information on his two sisters. He said he wasn’t surprised that someone stepped up to help him, because he learned over the years from his parents that Crookston was a wonderful and supportive place for them back when they were a young, “extremely poor” migrant family literally trying to survive from one day to the next.

In his email, Zapata said he visited his sister, Pauline, 90, in the nursing home to share with her the news that he had been able to find out where Josephine and Margaret are buried. Pauline, who is in failing health, “became very happy and emotional,” Zapata said. “She was older and had played with both of them,” he wrote in his email. “She also recalled the great grief our parents endured after losing two beautiful girls in such a short span of time.

The family, with its roots in Texas dating back his his grandpa’s time in 1895, has a long history of military service, Zapata notes.

“We shall always be extremely grateful for the kind-hearted residents of Crookston and the Catholic church that helped our family that was in such great need,” Zapata says. “We now follow along, helping others in need, since we have been in their shoes.”

It’s possible that Gabriel will trek north one of these days to visit the grave sites of his sisters and mark them. Ramirez said if that happens, she hopes to met him.