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.
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.