Friday, October 21, 2016

Chickens and roosters turn East L.A. graveyard into barnyard

Rooster amid the tombstones/Aurelio Jose Barrera

Photo by Aurelio Jose Barrera

Story By Ana Facio-Krajcer Photos by Aurelio Jose Barrera

Motorists who drive west on 3rd Street past the 710 Freeway  may get a glimpse of 103 year-old charcoal gray tombstones at the Serbian Cemetery in East Los Angeles. And if they’re lucky, they may get to see an unusual sight: red and black chickens scampering about the cemetery or perched atop the tombstones.

But in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, where it is common for families to keep chickens and other animals in their backyards, seeing these birds at a graveyard is not that unusual to locals. In fact, the chickens as well as roosters have been part of the manicured cemetery’s landscape for decades, say neighbors, visitors and cemetery staff.

“As long as we’ve been coming – which is my whole life – the chickens, I remember them being here,” said Helen Djukic, 46, standing near her father’s grave. “It’s very natural for the chickens to be here. I love that the chickens have a safe place to roam and eat the grass. It’s fantastic. It’s like a sanctuary here.”

People have different ideas on how the cemetery became home to abandoned chickens. Some say that neighbors who had too many of them in their backyards simply walked into the graveyard and dumped the unwanted extra fowl. Others say they were thrown over the fence at night when the cemetery is closed and unattended.

Regardless of how they got there, the birds are welcome guests, said John Lovrensky, the vice-president of the Serbian United Benevolent Society.

“Somebody dropped the chickens when they were little, and we didn’t have the heart to get rid of them, so we just let them roam around,” said Lovrensky, whose group owns and maintains the cemetery.

The cemetery is evidence of East L.A.’s past cultural diversity. Serbian, Russian and Chinese immigrants once called East L.A. home. Now, descendants of Serbian immigrants who lived in East L.A. in the early 1900s, visit the burial ground, where the tombstones are carved with the names of the dead in both English and Cyrillic letters.

Visitors to the cemetery, like Raika Raicevic, 53, wouldn’t mind seeing more chickens on the spotless lawn. Raicevic, who has been visiting the gravesite of her mother since she died in 2002, is one of several visitors who feed the birds. The West L.A. resident said she often scatters chicken feed at her mother’s gravestone.

“I love chickens,” Raicevic said. “I don’t mind feeding them. Animals are God’s creatures.”

An avid photographer, Raicevic often takes photos of the chickens at the graveyard. Although she enjoys seeing the chickens, she said there are a few people who don’t like them at the cemetery.

“The majority of people don’t mind because the chickens are making people feel welcome,” she said.

Jose “Pedro” Guevara, 63, the cemetery caretaker, agrees  that cemetery has been a sanctuary for the various chickens he has cared for over the last 15 years. Currently, two hens and three roosters live at the cemetery but he has cared for as many as nine.

“The chickens are happy living here,” Guevara said. “I feed them and take care of them because it’s not their fault they were left here.”

People sometimes ask him how he keeps the chickens from multiplying and taking over the cemetery grounds. He says he eats the eggs the hens lay daily. If he didn’t eat the eggs the place would be crawling with fowl, he said.

Joe Hernandez, 69, who has a clear view of the cemetery from his home on South Humphreys Avenue, said there are no complaints about the birds.

“They don’t bother anybody. The train makes more noise than the chickens,” Hernandez said of the Metro Gold line Eastside extension that began running by the cemetery on 3rd Street three years ago.

Guevara, who is originally from San Luis Potosi, said as long as he is the caretaker of the Serbian Cemetery, he will take care of the chickens. For him, they are a distraction from his daily work routine. “People tell me that it must be depressing working here, but for me it’s happiness,” said Guevara as he sat under a tree near a gardening shed, feeding the chickens at his feet.

Clucking past the graveyard/Aurelio Jose Barrera

Photo by Aurelio Jose Barrera

Photo by Aurelio Jose Barrera

Photo by Aurelio Jose Barrera

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  1. This put a smile on my face. Heartwarming story with fabulous photos.

  2. I love this story!

  3. Makes a depressed guy smile

  4. I love this! “It’s not their fault…” so wonderful. My grandmother kept chickens most of her life in Cuba, she would always talk about them (by name!) long after her family had come to the US. I wonder if I can sneak some into Rose Hills for her…

  5. Great story!

  6. I am of Serbian descent, and never knew about this cemetery. I visited Serbia, and my relatives all had chickens running around. It’s a Serbian thing!!

  7. Natalie, the Chickenblogger

    Beautiful photographs.
    Thank you for sharing this story.
    It makes me happy.

  8. Loved the photos – nicely done. I may have to put this on my list of East LA highlights.

  9. kikiriki! what a handsome rooster!

  10. Nice pictures. Chickens are like decorations to a wonderful graveyard, well maintained.

  11. Gorgeous cemetery and the chickens are the final decoration. More than likely these are common combination meat/laying breeds that either escaped their owner’s back yards or got dumped. The buff roo looks very much Orpington, the two reds could be either Rhode Islands or New Hampshires, the black hen could either be a sexlink or Australorp (hard to tell with her being black and in shadow), and the gamey little hen looks like a Junglefowl or game bird mix from Fayoumi or Dandarawi breeds.

    Wonder if anyone else can guess what these breeds are? Since most back yard owners get chickens for eggs and/or meat, I think my guesses are fairly accurate. The only one that stumps me is the cute little game-looking hen.

    Glad the grounds-keeper eats the eggs because a few chickens can breed an unmanageable flock in a year. Some large breed hens can hatch a dozen chicks a couple times a year! If the hatched chicks aren’t domesticated, they become very wild feral chickens spreading out to adjoining neighborhoods and a growing cockerel population can become very noisy in an urban environment. Ferals are extremely difficult to catch and seldom if ever can be domesticated once caught. Hawaii, Caribbean Islands, and St. Augustine Florida have an out-of-control feral chicken problem. I love chickens as I have fowl of my own but I really dislike irresponsible owners that don’t contain their pets and that goes as well for lizards, snakes, dogs, cats, etc!

  12. this is my neighborhood I grew up in! Born n raised n still here. Back in the 80s the neighborhood played ball on those streets; my dad worked there in the 70s where he met Salata, Pete RIP. As teens we would scare ourselves and walk into the really old Russian cemetary adjacent to the Serbian. The Russian side used to be open and non guarded for years . There is also a small n interesting church. I’m surrounded by cemeteries: Chinese, Russian, Serbian, cavalry, jewish(mt Zion, hope),evergreen-Japanese, old la families, and one more off Whittier blvd n Indiana.

    As for the chickens, someone had them out of their yard and ended up with the paisanos. Today I met a elderly African American lovely n kind n interesting woman from Baldwin hills who’s father moved to Boyle heights from Alabama. Time moves and we participate in this city that has provided mts rivers valleys soil oil minerals climate industry work n much more, a home. But nothing should hold us from migrating again. My folks migrated, so should I? Or dwell in ixtlos (east Los) for another generation.

    The white flight has reversed and developers are going wild in la lately! All humans want to claim land (“east la used to be European” “this used to belong to Mexico” “this was tongva first” “the animals were here first” “the Chinese built this city”. The problems that arise from power and wealth does not seem to be fixable. Duality.

    I appreciate this paper and continuing the recorded history of communities, in your case the east side communities.

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