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.
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.
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.
Winter excavations have their own unique set of challenges. Today the high was in the 30s, it was very windy and rainy. It was the kind of weather that made me question whether we were actually in South Texas. We decided the risk of working wet in freezing temperatures was too great and decided to take the day off to go to McAllen. We loaded up the cars, got a bag full of Whataburger breakfast taquitos “to go” and started driving south on 281.
Our first stop was the Sacred Heart Church where the Humanitarian Respite Center is located. Sister Pam and Sister Norma talked about the function of the center: “The center provides a place for the countless men, women, children, and infant refugees to rest, have a warm meal, a shower, and change into clean clothing as well as receive medicine and other supplies, before continuing onto their journey.” We learned they were averaging 400 asylum seekers per day before Christmas and about 100 per day now in the New Year. We divided up into groups that sorted donations, made small bags of toiletries and baby supplies, helped in the kitchen, held babies and played with children so parents could shower, located new clothing for families and a variety of other tasks. The center runs solely on the kindness of volunteers and donations.
Once the morning’s group of families finished rotating through the center we drove to the border wall. This part of the wall is more of a fence made of iron beams repurposed from Vietnam era military materials. After approximately 6 minutes at the wall we were approached by a Border Patrol vehicle. At first we were nervous we would be asked to leave immediately, but instead the officer welcomed the opportunity to talk with us and answer questions. He told us stories of his experiences with patrolling the wall and the people he encountered.
We left McAllen and began our drive north on 281. We needed to go through the Falfurrias Border Patrol Station on our way home. While we had no trouble getting through the large three lane traffic checkpoint, the wait in line provided us a moment to reflect on the fact that this is the reason we see so many deaths in Brooks County. It is this checkpoint that migrants are attempting to circumvent as they enter the brush land that surrounds the station, resulting in many of them loosing their lives.
We ended the day at La Cope Ranch in Encino for dinner provided graciously by the Ed Rachel Foundation. Their mission statement is taken from the last will and testament of the Foundation’s benefactor: “I devise and bequeath the rest and residue of my estate of every kind and wheresoever situated real, personal and mixed, to such corporation to be used exclusively for the benefit of charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes within the State of Texas“. The foundation has generously supported Texas State‘s work in migrant identification over the last few years. The meal was amazing and the representatives of the foundation were so nice and genuinely interested in the work we are doing towards migrant identification. The day off from digging allowed our muscles to rest and our minds to recharge. We are ready to jump back in to excavations in the morning.
Today was a really hard day, both physically and mentally. It seems like each step forward had their associated two steps back. Whether it be digging, searching, or mapping, nothing went as we expected. The phrase “expect the unexpected” definitely rang true today, and we had to really work as a team to adapt to the challenges and changing situations we encountered. In addition to these mental challenges, today was also physically challenging. Yesterday consisted of hours upon hours of digging. As one could expect, getting out of bed this morning was not a piece of cake. In addition, another 10 hours of shoveling and hauling buckets today proved extremely difficult and physically taxing.
As the morning went on, exhaustion began to set in. We were taking measurements in the western part of the cemetery when a large car approached. As this cemetery is still frequented by family members visiting their loved ones, we thought nothing of it. However, they came to a stop right where we were working. The door opened and a small dog hopped out, followed by two women carrying plastic shopping bags. These bags were full of bread, lunch meat, cheese, oranges, donuts, and bottled water. The women repeatedly thanked us for the work we were doing, and said that the work being done was nothing short of extraordinary. We graciously thanked the women and they went on their way.
Later in the afternoon, we moved back to the eastern part of the cemetery and continued to work in the area we begun the days prior. After we were about halfway through refilling the excavated areas, the same women approached us once more. This time, they told us that they would love to make us a hot meal and bring it to the cemetery for us to eat. They said it was the least they could do, again expressing their gratitude for the work being conducted. Witnessing the pure emotions of these women was truly a humbling and emotional experience for me.
Today reminded me that despite being sore and experiencing setbacks and challenges in the field, the work we are conducting is making a huge impact in the community. The fact that these women would give up their time, money, and energy to bring lunches and make a hot meal for over 30 volunteers is nothing short of amazing. This aspect of today really brought things back into perspective for me. It’s easy to get frustrated when things don’t go as planned, but at the end of the day, the work being conducted here in Falfurrias is truly an amazing humanitarian effort in response to a crisis whose effects are felt community-wide. Despite all of the challenges and trials faced in the field today, this one small act of kindness reminded me why we are here.