Category Archives: Human Rights, Migrant Death

Talking about the project itself

Day2: Footprints in the Sand

It’s 10:30am in South Texas and it is 77 degrees Fahrenheit with 87% humidity. It feels like 90 degrees. There is a slight cool breeze, which feels remarkable. Soon the sun will be straight overhead and it will be beating down on all who cross its path. The paths along the ranches are pure sand with weeds. You have two options: walk along the sand in the open, or walk through dense brush and leaves without knowing what is lurking below. There are snakes, scorpions, spiders, lizards, and sticker burrs below the forest floor. The brush is so dense it is impossible to get through without getting scratched. When you get to a fence, you have to maneuver yourself over it somehow, with barbed wire at the top. All fences are much taller than waist high. Getting over them requires bending the fence. Ranch owners don’t appreciate bent fences so they leave ladders. The ladders that are strategically placed along the fences aren’t used because coyotes tell the migrants that the ladders are booby-traps.  Water stations are not utilized even when they are essential  to living because the coyotes tell the migrants they are a trap. Overhead,  an aerostat looms watching for any body heat below.

Two wooden ladders along one segment of fencing on North La Copa Ranch
Two wooden ladders along one segment of fencing on North La Copa Ranch

There is little room for error in a migrant’s journey from Latin America to South Texas. Trouble is everywhere. Today we walked along the paths of North La Copa Ranch and experienced a very small portion of a migrant’s journey. Needless to say, it was tough. We walked for roughly 2 hours searching for any migrants, deceased or alive, and by the end of our walk, we were drenched in sweat with little water left in our water bottles. We were fortunate because we had water, protection from rattle snakes, good boots, good gloves, sunscreen, and hats. We knew what was ahead of us and behind us. We had Deputy Don and his huge gun to protect us. We were most certainly safe. We had very little to worry about along our walk.

Notice our gear and Deputy Don!
Notice our gear and Deputy Don!

I think each of us experienced different emotions as we were conducting our search this afternoon. It was an extremely powerful experience. In 2 hours, we walked less than 1 mile of North La Copa Ranch. We didn’t climb any fences, we could walk wherever our heart desired, and we had water and at the end of our walk, we knew we would have air conditioning and food. At the beginning of our walk, it was pleasant. The humidity was high but it didn’t feel very hot because the sun was behind clouds and there was a breeze. By the second hour of our walk, the sun was beating down on us and as a result, the temperature had risen dramatically. By the end of the day, it was 98 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperature coupled with the extreme humidity is almost unbearable. Our walk today made me understand why so many migrants give up along their journey. We have talked a great deal with Deputy Don and Eddie on our trip so far, and they have both said that when a migrant gives up, they are done for. They will die. I tried to immerse myself in the landscape as we were walking. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I was a migrant traversing the land. It is certainly enough to totally break a human. The choices one must make along the way are difficult. The terrain is unforgiving. The environment doesn’t care if you give up or not. Walking through South Texas requires a great deal of hope and a whole lot of will.

A sandy path on North La Copa Ranch
A sandy path on     North La Copa   Ranch

After a morning and afternoon of difficult realizations and a strenuous search at La Copa Ranch, we spent a wonderful evening at La Mota Ranch with Peggy and Bill Clark (Lasater). They invited us to their beautiful home to swim in their pool and eat a delicious meal with them. We had so much fun swimming in their cool pool after a hot day and talking with them about the history of their ranch and their many interests. We also had the opportunity to see the turkeys and peacocks they have on their property! Who knew peacocks can fly?!

One of Peggy and Bill's peacocks up in a tree
One of Peggy and Bill’s peacocks up in a     tree

Today was a powerful day. I learned a ton today about myself and South Texas. But at the end of the day, we are all just footprints in the sand.

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Haley

 

 

 

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Day 1: U-turns and Window Markers

Where I come from, things like U-turns and window markers are staples in every teenager’s life.  It means driving around town with a newly minted license and a car full of friends, getting lost with no destination in mind – just because you can.  It means boys in trucks showing off for girls by doing donuts in the parking lot after school.  It means cheering on your high school soccer team by decorating all the cars, or leaving notes for your friends during free periods. In South Texas, U-turns and Window Markers mean different things.

Yesterday we spent our first full day in Falfurrias working with the South Texas Human Rights Center, starting the morning by catching up on everything that’s happened in the past few months and discussing a game plan for the rest of the week.

Cleaning barrels for redistribution
Cleaning barrels for redistribution

We began with washing out some water station barrels destined for redistribution before eating lunch and heading out to check one of the routes.  I had the pleasure of accompanying Eddie in his truck and being the record keeper for the stations we checked.  The rest of the team took the minivan, and between the two vehicles we were able to divide and conquer the route.

 

Having the opportunity to talk with Eddie a bit more gave me the chance to ask a few questions – about him, his past, his experiences here and his knowledge.  We chatted about my childhood growing up on a farm, finding similarities and (many) differences with how the ranches are set up here.  Ironically enough, it was a short remark he made during one of the longer legs that stuck with me and inspired this post.

On the route
On the route

As we were driving, we saw tire tracks in the sand of one of the driveways. Eddie asked if I had seen them, telling me they were probably either from a drop off for migrants starting their journey on foot, or from a Border Patrol vehicle making a U-turn in response to a call or sighting.  This got me started thinking about how drastically different my experience with U-turns are to what he had just described.  For me, they bring back fond memories of adventures chasing storms and meteor showers in the summer, but in this context they mean something much less light-hearted.

In South Texas, a U-turn in a driveway can mean the end of a portion of a migrant’s journey.  Whether it’s followed by the hazardous trip on foot through the thorny brush, or getting picked up by Border Patrol and an unknown future, it marks a checkpoint of sorts.  However long it took, and whatever they went through to get there, they made it at least this far. But they’ve still got a long ways to go.

Watching the brush pass by as we drove, I tried to imagine how I would feel standing there and looking at the terrain ahead of me, knowing I had to cross it on foot in this heat, with the sun beating down relentlessly.  Would I feel dejected? afraid? renewed determination?  I guarantee above all, I would be weary.  I can’t imagine the strength it takes to continue.

 

STHRC Water Station
STHRC Water Station

As we were filling one of the water stations, we realized someone had added to the writing on the side of the barrel: “Help Build The Wall – Donate Here”.  It seemed to be written in some sort of window paint or chalk that didn’t want to come off easily.  The phrase was so contradictory to the point of the water station that for a minute, my brain had trouble processing it.  I don’t know if it was written as a prank or out of malice, but seeing those words next to the AGUA painted on the barrel brought the conflict of attitudes about migrants into stark relief.

I thought about someone pulling up to the station and grabbing a window marker out of their vehicle to leave the message.  Flashing back to doing the same thing to decorate my friend’s car for prom reminded me just how lucky I am to have had a happy, relatively uncomplicated life that meant I never had to go through the kind of prejudice and stressful experiences that others do.  It reminded me that I am here because I am fortunate to have resources, and want to do whatever I can to help.

As an Anthropologist, I strive to understand things through my own experiences as well as putting myself in others’ shoes to get a glimpse of their perspective.  Sometimes, it’s little things like U-turns and window paint that really make the breakthrough for me.

End of Day 1 at the STHRC
End of Day 1 at the STHRC

Rachel

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Tres Cementerios

The UIndy Beyond Borders Team has been participating in this large scale migrant identification initiative for 5 years now.  Five years. Five field seasons. Three counties. Nearly 200 exhumations. As you have already read in previous posts: each cemetery presents its own unique challenges to locating and excavating the burials and each country provides a unique setting in which we would find ourselves challenged and learning more about the complicated humanitarian crisis unfolding at the border.

Brooks Co
Brooks County

With each field season we have learned to be flexible, to problem solve, to apply our archeological skills in new ways and to expect the unexpected. We have learned the value of planning and teamwork,  the type of motivation that can only come with a passion to do what is right and just, and the hope that our hard work will benefit someone who is longing for answers.  We have learned to push through the pain of bruises, blisters, muscle aches and sun burns.  To let our head coach us to believe we are not physically aching, tired and heartbroken because we cannot slow down until our job is complete. We have made lifelong friendships and we have learned things about life and humanity that only others embarking on a similar mission can fully grasp. We have seen the best and we have seen the worst of humanity in action.

Rio Grande City Cemetery
Starr County

We have learned that our early understanding of this issue was naive and the issues are so deep are so complicated that it is difficult to truly grasp what is happening and why it is happening. We have learned that while we can be advocates, we can never truly understand these issues because of our nationality and privilege.  But we can listen, we can contribute our skills and we can use our platform to educate and inform those who have no idea that thousands of people are dying and being buried in the southern US borderlands.  As forensic scientists we are able to tell stories and document inequalities that may otherwise go unheard and unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans. We see the imprints of lifelong poverty on the bones and teeth of the dead we uncover, we see the love they have for their families in the photos and notes found in their pockets, we document the places they die and bear witness to the fact that these deaths are happening in staggering numbers. We not only work to give them a name and restore their memory but we make them a part of the indelible medicolegal record that will one day work towards change and social justice.

Willacy County
Willacy County

As another field season comes to an end I again find it difficult to express my feelings. On the one hand I want to say how proud I am of my team and the entire field team in general. I want to feel pride in our work and comfort in that fact that 37 more people now have a chance at identification and repatriation.  But on the other hand these feeling seem so inappropriate within such a large and violent crisis. It is a humbling experience and it is eye opening and shocking to see how these migrants are viewed and treated in life and in death.  We thank you for following our journey, which is intimately entwined with the journey of those we unearth. We hope you learn,  you feel and you share what is happening.

Please let us know if there is something you want to see on the blog in the future and please support our continued work if you have the ability to do so.

~KEL

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