Nine. The number of days in the field. Nine days of digging in the hard south Texas dirt. Nine days bringing the remains of the nameless back to the surface; back to the light of day. Nine long, tiring days of body aches and pains.
Seventy-two. The number of bodies uncovered by our efforts. The number of persons either too poor to afford what most would consider a ‘proper’ burial, or too poor and downtrodden to afford the ‘proper’ route to United States citizenship and instead paid the ultimate price: their lives.
Thirty-seven. The number of individuals whose bodies and personal effects traveled to Texas State University for forensic anthropological investigation. The number of families who we hope, through our efforts, will one day see closure.
The slogan for Texas State Universities’ Operation Identification is “bringing names to numbers”. A New York Times article from May 2017 reported that there were 6,023 documented migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2000 and September 2016 (NYTimes, 2017). It is hard, though, to picture the true magnitude that numbers entail until you see body bag after body bag being removed from the ground and placed in a cargo trailer.
For me, participation in this years Beyond Borders team really drove home the crisis that is occurring in our country. Sure, I have attended lectures on the topic, processed remains of migrants, and read articles reporting the issue, but participating first hand in the recovery of these individuals has placed it all in a new light. I recall a story told by our backhoe driver in which he told us about job-offers from the cartel and how people who mistakenly take these offers are told they will be loading cargo only to arrive and be forced at gunpoint to load semi trailers full of illicit drugs. Working class citizens, who want nothing more than money to put food on the table, roped into a massive international drug ring; not by choice but in fear for their lives. If these things are happening in the US, I can only imagine the atrocities people are facing further south where there is less security and a far lower standard of living.
When viewed in this light, it is easy to see why people will risk literally everything to cross the border by foot. Obviously not every migrant will have had direct contact with the Cartel; this does not, however negate the fact that our country offers safeties, luxuries and opportunities that many can barely dream of… Things that for many are entirely financially and logistically out of reach by the ‘proper’ methods. Things that are worth literally dying for.
As our last day comes to a close, I cannot help but think about the people I am going to miss. I will miss Dr. Spradley, Dr. Gocha, Deputy Don, and the many others who volunteer their time to assist in identifying the individuals who exist as a mere number in the legal system without this humanitarian effort. I will miss Joe and Luis, who not only came to the cemetery every day with an eager outlook and a focused mind, but proceeded to bring us donuts, fried chicken, fruit, or pistachios to show their appreciation for the hard work we put in. Today has been full of various emotions. Dr. Latham said this has been considerably different than the final day of most previous field seasons. This time, the groups are not working to quickly, carefully uncover the final few individuals before cleaning up and leaving the site. The UIndy team has finished thoroughly investigating every open area of our quadrant for the remains of the unidentified migrants we are searching for. This time, our final day is a day of closure.
As Joe and Luis worked on filling in the large pits we had excavated within, everyone else supervised and cleaned up the site. Texas State came back with coffee, so Joe took a break and came over to our group. During this time, he shared some of his experiences living and working close to the border. It was powerful to hear the sincerity in his voice as he reminded us that people walk enormous distances to cross into the United States in search of a safer life and higher paying jobs, yet die of heat exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration as they journey through the state avoiding checkpoints. This was the most I had interacted with Joe during the trip, but it was valuable to receive a local’s perspective about those suffering in this crisis.
Once the surface had been entirely leveled out, we gathered plastic flowers, trimmed the grass around grave markers, and stuck the flowers in the ground or tied them in place in front of every burial. Every single burial received at least 3 flowers, thanks to Leann. Leann essentially became the self-established site florist for two hours as we finished marking burials that had been missing a sign. It is so important to Texas State University and University of Indianapolis to show our respect and leave the cemetery even better than we got it. This felt like the perfect final gesture to end the exhumations with a small gift.
I have been very touched by the events of our final day. I was able to see the site in stunning condition before we left to drive back to our hotel for the last time. There is still much to do. Leann and I have some mapping to work on over the weekend, and a long day of travel ahead of us tomorrow. However, I have been absolutely amazed by the amount I have learned from this experience. Texas has been extremely good to the Beyond Borders team this year, and for that we are grateful. We are very fortunate that Dr. Latham’s involvement with this project has allowed us to participate another year and provide students with the opportunity to help provide closure to many families who have lost their loved ones.
The days are long, the evenings are short, and the nights are even shorter. This field season is different in many ways but has the same common goal as the past three field seasons I have participated in. The goal of recovering migrants in hopes of getting them identified and returning them home to their families. With our fifth field season in progress, we are still learning how each county and funeral home operates and nothing is the same from one place to the next. Some keep better records than others, but the reality is that these funeral homes and counties are doing the best that they can with an overwhelming situation. It won’t change until there is policy change and increased funding for this mass disaster situation.
Today was a hard day of moving a lot of dirt and digging trenches. Although we may feel tired, we are all still motivated in continuing this humanitarian effort. With each burial that we locate, it is an individual whose family is that much closer to finding out what happened to them. It is easy to get lost in the manual labor but once you find a burial, it is like finding that golden ticket.
In the area that we were working in today, we were told originally there were three possible burials. We located six in that area and the ones we found were not even in the direct area that we were originally pointed to. It is no one’s fault because the funeral home is relying on memory to point them out, so it really is a guessing game and thankfully, we have become pretty good at analyzing it.
After recovering three burials, Joe and Louis were able to come back and help us extend our quadrant outside the original lines. We did this because the group next to us located a burial outside of their quadrant; so, in order for us to do our due diligence, we needed to check our area too. I cannot thank Joe and Louis enough for helping us with this endeavor. Although the dirt is nowhere near as hard as it was in Rio Grande City, it is still extremely difficult to get through by hand. So far, most of the quadrant has been dug by hand so it was nice to have a small break while the back hoe did its job. It is also kind of sad because the amount of work that the backhoe did in 1 hour is more than we could do in a day by hand.
I love being apart of this humanitarian effort and being able to work along side community members and Texas State University. We have had several visitors from when we were in Brooks county and it is nice to see the familiar faces. We only have two more days left in Harlingen and it is a bittersweet feeling. Tomorrow we plan to visit ‘the wall’ which will be a sobering experience and remind us why we are continuing this effort.