There are a few images that come to mind when someone says, “New Orleans:” scenes of the French Quarter on a sunny day with Creole delicacies making the air fragrant with spices, taking a bumpy ride in a streetcar along St. Charles Avenue, or sipping a cold cocktail while grooving to the loud, intoxicating sounds of a jazz band on Frenchmen Street.
Other people may envision walking among the thousands of tombs in the famed cemeteries of the city. These above-ground, often elaborately-carved solemn works of art and reverence were erected beginning three hundred years ago when the city was founded, and the burgeoning city grew up around them. They are literally embedded into our culture and are a part of the life of the city.
After years of standing strong on the shifting soil, in the humid air, and weathering the occasional flood, the tombs fall into disrepair. During massive floods, some tombs can become unsealed, and the caskets drift out into the street. Cracks creep through the stone causing seeds to settle in the crack which can grow into plants that further break the stone apart.
When tombs fall into disrepair, the owners of the cemeteries contract concrete construction specialists to bring them back to their former glory. One of the most prominent tomb repairmen is German Sarmiento, the owner of VGR Construction.
German was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and he began learning how to do concrete work as a child. He recalled, “I’ve been working most of my life. I started working with friends building foundations when I was 12, 13 years old. I was working during the day and going to college at night.” In Honduras, college is comparable to high school. At the age of 16, German left Honduras and headed out to California. He was hoping to escape the violence of his home country that his father fell victim to, but he entered Los Angeles in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic. “I used to live in downtown Los Angeles, and I saw a lot of stuff. I decided that life there wasn’t for me, so I moved to Montreal nine months later in October of 1987. German’s new home was unlike any other place where he lived before. He explained, “I moved to Montreal, and it was so different. I went from nice weather to cold weather. There were piles of snow, and I said, ‘Wow!’ I couldn’t believe it. A year later, I moved from Montreal to Toronto which was a lot better.”
German settled in Toronto for the next 17 years, and he loved the culture of the city including the delicious food; he especially liked poutine. “The thing I miss about Toronto is the people that came from all the world. It’s a multi-cultural city. Portuguese, Brazilians, Italians, Hindus. You see people from all over the world.“ However, the winters were harsh, and it eventually became too much for him. He said, “I was doing hard, hard work doing concrete for big companies doing schools, Home Depots, and big buildings. I started to have these problems with my joints. I thought I was getting arthritis. The cold goes into your bones. I got sick of the weather, and I wanted to live a different life work-wise. I felt that in my heart that I was meant for something else.”
After all those years in the north, German knew that it was time to move back south where the weather is warm. He headed down to Orlando, Florida and started working at Disney World doing concrete. He only lived in Florida for a short while before moving to New Orleans; he visited the city once and fell in love with it. “The city looks more like the city that I lived in in Honduras; it’s a mix between Toronto and San Pedro Sula. I like it a lot because the streets have all the old buildings,” he stated. He also said that he loves Creole and Cajun food, especially gumbo and crawfish.
Just six months after German moved to New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina hit and changed the landscape of the city. German immediately began doing house gutting and demolition on flood-ravaged homes. He remembered, “At the time, I didn’t have a legit company; it was just a lot of fixing up. A lot of people didn’t have insurance. There’s still houses that are damaged from back then, believe it or not. I did demolition, but I never liked to demolition. I’m more into building things rather than destroying it. That’s what I’m about. But it is what it is, and it’s a good business to be working in.”
Part of the massive destruction that Katrina inflicted was on the centuries-old cemeteries all around New Orleans. They had been ravaged by the storm itself or inundated with flood waters in the days after. One year after Katrina hit, German was contacted about repairing some tombs in Catholic cemeteries that have Perpetual Care status. Tombs that have Perpetual Care are maintained by The Archdiocese of New Orleans because the family that owns it paid a fee for it. German explained, “If your family has an old tomb, and you go to the office and buy Perpetual Care, The Archdiocese has to repair the tomb. From there on, they take it over, and you don’t have to pay anything for the rest of the time that the tomb’s there. Some people buy Perpetual Care for old tombs if they want to get it fixed.”
Much of German’s work with VGR Construction consists of repairing Perpetual Care tombs and other tombs that the Archdiocese of New Orleans chooses to be brought back to their former glory. “I keep up with the cemeteries that contract me, and I’m still here. I do okay with them, and it keeps me living and puts food on the table,” he said. This type of work will never really end since the environment that they’re in have tendency to break them apart. “This city is so soft that we can feel the movement of earth when a big truck goes by. There’s not much that people can do because the ground moves so much that eventually the tombs will crack and get damaged.”
German carefully repairs the tombs to make them look just as they did when they were first erected, taking precautions to make sure that the repairs will be as long lasting as possible. “We work with the Archdiocese of New Orleans to keep whatever materials they used at the time. We go back with the same materials they used in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. We’re using a lot of lime. We remove the loose concrete or lime, then we go back with lime. We try to leave as much as we can that is old and good in the tomb. Some of the tombs don’t have that luck, and we have to take off everything and strip it to the brick. We fix the loose bricks, then we repair the rest of it in a way that looks real,” he said.
German isn’t planning on making another big move at this time because he loves New Orleans and he thoroughly enjoys his work maintaining the iconic and world-famous cemeteries of the city.