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.
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. In 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.
After 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 excitement 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…