All posts by Jessica

A day in McAllen, Texas

Today was not a field day; instead, today was spent volunteering at the Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. The Respite Center is a place where people seeking asylum can visit and obtain a shower, food, and clean clothes prior to hopping a bus that will take them to the place they will stay until their court hearing. The Respite Center was started by a nun at a local catholic church that observed migrants waiting at a bus station typically without food and wearing the same clothes they had been traveling in.

This is where the Respite Center comes into the picture. At the bus station, volunteers are waiting to take the migrants that are dropped off, back to the Respite Center to await their departure. Arriving at the Respite Center, migrants are greeted with a round of applause and a joyous greeting of ‘Bien Venitos’! This welcoming is a small part of trying to make these people feel human again, to feel ‘welcomed’. After arriving at the center, migrants are checked in and given clean clothes, a shower, tooth brush, and food. After this is completed, migrants are helped with making phone calls and are given a place to stay and relax.

Prior to arriving at the Center, our group was given a brief introduction as to how the Center functions and what to expect. After arriving at the center, I was incredibly grateful for the introduction, but I am not entirely sure if anything could have really prepared me for what I actually saw and experienced. Upon arriving at the center, we met with Sister Pam and we were taken into a large room where different areas are divided up to form an assembly line type process. Our group sat down and we were given a quick tour by Sister Pam of the different sections and where we would be able to assist. Afterwards, we were very fortunate to have two people who wanted to tell us their story. Sister Pam was able to interpret the stories for us and needless to say, it was incredibly emotional to hear first hand the incredibly tough journey they had to endure. 

My task was ‘shower duty’ meaning I assisted with making sure there were clean towels and the showers were stocked with shampoo and soap. Once the migrants arrived at the center, my task quickly changed. I had walked back from the showers into the main room for a reason I cannot remember, when a woman and her two children approached me. She clearly needed assistance with helping to find clothes for herself and her children. Everything seemed to happen so fast; the next thing I know, I’m holding her 8month old son and going through racks of clothing ‘guesstimating’ sizes for the woman and her 5-6 year old daughter and son. I should also mention that there was a huge language barrier between us, so we communicated through hand motions and lots of head nodding/smiles.

On the surface, it appeared that I spent the entire time holding an adorable baby boy and watched an especially well behaved little girl. What I actually did was so much more; for once, this woman was able to relax knowing her children were safe. They were warm, had clean clothes, full bellies, and were safe. I am still amazed at how accepting the baby boy was; I will always remember cuddling him until he fell asleep, exhausted from his long journey. I will never forget helping this woman whom I don’t even know her name. All I know is that she traveled with her son and daughter all the way from Honduras. Just thinking about this experience makes me very emotional. I cannot fathom what this woman had to go through up until we met and I will never know. This unknown woman is one of the strongest women I have ever met and her driving force is wanting a better life for her and her children. This experience, this trip has changed my perspective on everything and moving forward, it makes me want to advocate for these people and volunteer my time as much possible. This was a life changing moment and I am forever grateful to have experienced it.



Day 6: Cold day in Texas

Digging a test trench

Apparently when we arrived in Texas, we also brought the weather from Indiana with us. Today we were back in the field and although we started later (9am), it was still 28 degrees with a windchill that made it feel 19 degrees. Always prepared for changing weather conditions, our group packed on the layers and headed out to the cemetery.

Upon arriving at the cemetery, we unpacked our gear and went to two new areas to map. Prior to leaving on Thursday, the cemetery grounds keeper pointed out two more areas that had unidentified migrants buried. One area did have two markers that stated ‘unidentified’ while the other area was void of markers due to them being damaged previously. After mapping the areas, Texas State arrived, split into two groups and started excavating the two areas. Our group, went back to our original section and dug two trench pits on either side of the previously excavated burials. Both trench pits did not reveal any anomalies and were back filled. After finishing that area, we relocated to the section where UIndy and Baylor University had excavated in a previous field season.

Excavating a burial

The previous field season took place in 2013 and sometime between now and then, another unidentified migrant was buried in the same area. Our group focused our efforts on excavating this burial, which  has already turned out to be quite different than the first three and we have not even finished the excavation. The soil is more dense than the other site (the other site consisted of mostly sand) so our walls are not collapsing as easily as they did compared to the first site.

Warm Meal on a Cold day

Our field day was cut short today because an extremely gracious lady from Falfurrias brought us a hot dinner (rice, beans, brisket and pizza).  She even brought warm socks for everyone in the group. This act of kindness shows the magnitude of generosity that majority of the visitors that we get at the cemetery have towards our group. The food was absolutely amazing and was greatly appreciated by all, it was a lovely end to a hardworking day. Tomorrow our plan is to head out to the cemetery at 7am and to immediately start on our quadrant in hopes of making signifiant progress. However, if we have learned anything this far; it is to expect the unexpected, so who really knows what tomorrow will bring.

Group Photo




Day 3: Sticker Burrs

Here we are at the end of day 2 (in the field) and I have been stuck by more sticker burrs than I can keep track of. It is a love/hate relationship, me and sticker burs; I hate them and they seem to love me. These sticker burrs are also different than the burr you would find in Indiana; in Texas, they are small, sphere shaped with tiny knives that stick to everything. In my original post, I thought scorpions were going to be my kryptonite but no, it is the dreaded Texas sticker burr.

Reflecting back on today, I am astonished at the amount progress that has been accomplished  within our group as well as the Texas State group. It was an early morning for everyone; arriving at the cemetery at 7am, our groups immediately got down to work. There were three groups working on three different areas of the cemetery and although we were all doing the same excavation work, at the same cemetery, with the same goals; we all faced different challenges.

One of the challenges our group faced was figuring out how to excavate an area that is comprised mostly of sand causing the walls of the burial to be completely unstable. This was an excellent example of teamwork and why having an open line of communication is important in field work. We were able to bounce ideas off each other and develop a not-so-standard solution on how to move forward with the excavation resulting in the recovery of two of the three burials.

Another challenge our group faced was being the center of attention to a large group of media personnel who were at the site in order to bring awareness to this humanitarian issue. It was not until I was able to step back after my excavation rotation that I realized how many people were actually filming us. dsc_0297In the moment, it may appear troublesome having so many people crowding such a small area but it is a small price to pay for all of the positive attention it is bringing to the crisis here in South Texas.

dsc_0213After each burial excavation is completed, the remains are taken into a private tent area where all the remains and personal belongings are inventoried. Once the inventory is completed, the remains and personal belongings are prepared to be sent to Texas State University for analysis. What we are currently doing in South Texas really is a small first step, in the longer more complicated process that takes place after the remains arrive  back at Texas State University.

Today was a pleasant mixture of exhaustion and img_3009excitement as we were able to take that first step in the long process of getting these individuals identified and repatriated. At the end of the day, we are all in high spirits….. exhausted.. but in high spirits as we sit around the table wrapping up day 2 by completing our evening tasks of blogging, mapping, note taking, and logging photos. Its hard to think that this is only day 2 and that we only have 7 days left. I am excited to see what the next week may bring us since we have plans for visiting the Humanitarian Respite Center and traveling to the border. It has certainly been an eye opening experience thus far and I imagine that after volunteering at the Human Rights Center and visiting the various places that it will only become richer. Until next time…