Today we arrived at the cemetery at 6:30 am and were able to start our work under the rising sun. Our first goal this morning, was to create steps leading from the excavated area to the surface for us to be able to work efficiently and safely. As we worked, there would be peaks of sunshine complemented by overcast skies and cool winds.
After completing our steps came our first challenge which was uncovering the first burial. Our group quickly found that a portion of the burial extended under one of the walls, requiring us to cut away a section of the wall and then undercutting the same spot another foot just to reach the end. Our group worked efficiently and tirelessly; taking turns every 4-5 minutes, that way everyone had an opportunity to rest and drink plenty of water.
Tomorrow our goal is to tackle the next two burials. Our area is especially tricky because we must excavate the first three burials in our section (including the one that was excavated today), then rebury the area to excavate the last two burials. All the burials are estimated to be at least 5 ft deep but what we have found thus far in this area is that the burials are closer to 6 feet down. Our entire group is extremely thankful for the assistance of the excavator operator, Silvestre, for his assistance with digging the area. It is slightly terrifying to think about where we would be without him. The next three days are going to be extremely hot with temperatures expected to be in the high 90s to 100s with total sunshine. Even though every evening we have come back exhausted, I have a suspicion that these past two days are going to be considered our ‘easy’ days due to the rising temperatures.
It is hard physical work that we are doing, but it is also hard work emotionally. For me, it always comes back to the reasons why we volunteered on this humanitarian issue. No one should be left unidentified and everyone has a right to know what happened to their loved ones. That is all the motivation we need to continue this mission and that is what is going to help us get through the next couple of days. That and iced cold cokes.
Today was our travel day to Rio Grande City. We started our day with a smorgasbord for breakfast, trying to finish up all of our leftovers before we hit the road. Our breakfast consisted of breakfast tacos, lunch meat, a leftover Southwest chicken wrap, and leftover taquitos. After breakfast, at around 10am, we bid farewell to San Marcos and began the five hour trip to the border.
The drive went smoothly, and thankfully, our van has a DVD player so we were able to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink to pass the time. The further South we drove, the more rural it got. At one point, we went an hour and a half without seeing any towns, houses, or buildings. In our past seasons in Texas, we have heard stories from different individuals regarding their crossing experiences. Many of these stories indicate that people travel for hours and miles without any more direction than “head towards that tree for about three miles.” It is one thing to hear these stories, but to see the routes and terrain these individuals travel is truly an eye-opening experience. If it takes over an hour and a half to drive between towns, it is unimaginable how people can walk these distances in the heat of the Texas sun without direction, food, or water. Along the way, we saw a few water stations placed along the highway. It was really wonderful to see these water stations, because not only do they indicate a life-saving resource for these individuals, they were built by Eddie and other volunteers at the South Texas Human Rights Center. So even at the border, we have reminders of the incredible people we have met and wonderful experiences we have had the past five years in Falfurrias. I think these little reminders are a good sign for our new beginning in a new county.
After we arrived at the hotel, we unpacked our belongings and took a shopping trip to HEB to get essentials for lunches in the field. Afterwards, we headed to the cemetery to meet the Texas State team and see what we are up against in the week to come. We pulled up to the cemetery and it was HUGE! It was not only larger than Sacred Heart, but also contained a greater variety of graves, including mausoleums and large fenced-off enclosures. We did a walk-through of the four different sites that UIndy and Texas State plan to excavate this trip and were told that the UIndy crew will begin in Area 2. After the Texas State team left, we stuck around the cemetery for a bit to formulate a game plan for tomorrow. Area 2 is covered in debris, rocks, and broken glass, so the first task we will tackle tomorrow is clearing off the surface. Next, we plan on taking measurements of surface markers for the maps I will create, and we will then begin the excavation process. I am anxious to start excavations tomorrow, but after devising these plans, I feel confident in what we will be able accomplish the next five days.
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.