Even the Slightest Contributions Make a Difference

It is amazing how much a trip to South Texas can impact one’s life. I have just completed my third season with Beyond Borders and I feel heaviness in my heart. This is partly due to the feeling that no matter how much we, and others, volunteer their time and skills to assist with search and rescue missions, identification, and providing resources to aid in human survival, there will always be more work to be done. As long as people continue to seek refuge in the United States or aspire for the opportunities that are available here — with a severe hindrance from doing so legally — law enforcement and the community will be overwhelmed by this crisis. In addition, it is difficult to see the stark contrast between the privileges I have that so many others do not. I cannot imagine risking my life in pursuit of another, knowing very well that I may not survive the journey. Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, gave a presentation about the mission and goals of his organization. I remember him mentioning that many of these people do not wish to leave their home. There is pride, loyalty, and familiarity in the places we grow up that really isn’t replaceable. Many even try to come work temporarily to send money back home or return to their families with more financial stability. There are many reasons that this trip has provided alternative perspectives regarding migration policies which I think is extremely valuable as I hear the various, inescapable opinions portrayed by news and media sources.

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One of Dr. Latham’s goals for involving students in this humanitarian work is to open their minds and hearts to different perspectives, and prompt them to become better global citizens as they move on beyond the program at UIndy. I applied for this program with the hope of experiencing humanitarian aspects of anthropology to see whether or not this was a passion I wanted to pursue as a future career. I was so naïve to what that entailed before coming on these trips. I can genuinely say that I have gathered a diverse understanding of the border crisis through my multiple Beyond Borders trips.

Exhumation season in 2018.
Exhumation season in 2018.

My first trip was a purely exhumation-based season. I was able to witness the treatment of the non-citizen decedents through their burial conditions and method and documentation of interment. I realized that there is no upheld standard of investigation into migrant identities. There is no attempt at contacting families or repatriation, so forensic scientists and volunteer organizations are needed in order to facilitate that process.

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My second trip consisted of more community interaction and involvement as I met volunteers from the South Texas Human Rights Center, visited and donated to the Humanitarian Respite Center which helps individuals who were detained and released as refugees to reach to their destinations, and tended to water stations on private ranchlands. Furthermore, we conducted forensic archaeological survey and exhumations in the Sacred Hearts Cemetery where hundreds of migrants are buried without a name.

This trip was very different than the previous. I discovered how delicate and complicated it can be to communicate with ranch owners, law enforcement, and community volunteers while working within the confines of the law. Very little land in South Texas is publicly accessible, so I realized how much time and effort it takes to build relationships with landowners to receive access for conducting search and recoveries. It was also physically exhausting and mentally taxing to walk the very same routes that many migrants had taken before us. Truthfully, it is quite likely that there were living migrants who saw us in the brush even though we couldn’t see them. When working with skeletonized remains, a forensic anthropologist must be able to separate their emotions from the scientific analyses or it would be too much to bear. Yet, when we were out there walking in their shoes, there was no

A migrant's eyeglasses left behind.
A migrant’s eyeglasses left behind.

separating it. We saw personal effects, shoeprints, empty food and water packages. Deputy White shared some unsettling and saddening stories of living and dead individuals that he’d encountered on searches over numerous years as a sheriff and volunteer. Eddie (STHRC) and Rafael (Desert Angels) shared stories of family members who they’d helped find their loved ones, dead or alive, and how sometimes the process of gaining legal permissions to search an area meant the difference between life and death of an individual. It is amazing that they have the heart to dedicate their lives to this work.

I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to gain a more holistic understanding of the border crisis. I hope that anyone reading these blog posts feel that they’ve gathered a deeper understanding as well. I must always remember that even the slightest contributions make a difference, and that we cannot do this alone.

 

Sammi

Hasta La Próxima

I can’t believe it’s only been one week since our first day in Falfurrias…I also can’t believe how much of an impact just one week can have. 

Being able to work with Eddie at the South Texas Human Rights Center was a pleasure and a privilege. We got to see and be a part of the impact that the water stations placed by the Center makes on the community. Not only are these stations providing lifesaving water to passing migrants, they also provide an outlet for the community to participate in this humanitarian work. As we worked to refill and repair these water stations, we noticed in every single one that members of the community — not directly affiliated with the South Texas Human Rights Center — had been adding their own water and other beverages. This gesture showed me that there were people in the community that were taking their own steps to helping with the humanitarian crisis at the border and that was extremely impactful to see. It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity that is so prevalent in the news and on social media that you forget how caring and positive people really are. This trip really highlighted the importance of a community that supports each other and the hardships that impact one another. 

Eddie holding an empty migrant's water bottle.
Eddie holding an empty migrant’s water bottle

A huge part of our January 2020 trip was performing search and recoveries. We went to multiple ranches and walked for miles through thick brush and sandy terrain trying to find migrant pathways. We used a lot of different skills to maximize our time in these ranches such as line searches, mapping, and our knowledge of osteology; knowing the difference between human and non-human osseous material is invaluable here given the amount of wildlife that exists in Texas ranchlands. 

Searching in the brush
Searching in the brush

A part of this trip that was significantly different from our May 2019 trip was our vast interaction with different groups of people that became involved in our search and recovery days. This was a significant part of the trip for me because I got to learn a lot about the different ways in which people have become involved with the border crisis. This trip we worked with Border Patrol, we performed a search with another humanitarian group (Desert Angels) and we interacted with the media as well as family members who had missing loved ones that had crossed the border. All three of these interactions were very different from each other but they all had a significant impact on my understanding of the border crisis. Yet, what affected me the most was meeting the mother of a son who had gone missing in the brush. While her heartbreak was most evident, she had nothing but kind words for us and continued to thank us for any time we were able to give to her to try and bring some closure to her family. These are the interactions that propel my want to continue in the field and use the skills I am privileged enough to learn to help others.

The team with Rafael of the Desert Angels
The team with Rafael of the Desert Angels

I cannot talk about this trip without mentioning Sheriff Deputy Don White. In our five work days we had in Falfurrias, he was by our side each day helping us repair water stations or walking alongside us in the brush. Not only is his knowledge of tracking, wildlife, and sense of direction invaluable to the success of our team, but his positive attitude and genuine care for the wellbeing of each and every one of us made it that much easier to keep one foot in front of the other. There are no words to express how grateful I am to have met and worked alongside such a dedicated individual. 

Sheriff Deputy Don White
Sheriff Deputy Don White

Ultimately, I am so appreciative for the amazing team I had the opportunity to be a part of. While I get to see Sammi, Tanya, Sidney, and Dr. Latham (almost) every day during the school year, getting to spend time with them in this setting is just another reason why I want to continue to pursue the field of Anthropology. I am so excited to continue to learn with and from them every day. 

The team on Day 1
The team on Day 1

Although it was a short trip, what I learned in that time and the experiences I was fortunate enough to have will stay with me for a lifetime. 

Alba

Back to Indiana

The travel day to Falfurrias is always filled with excitement to experience Texas food and culture and an anxious desire to start the fieldwork. The travel day back to Indianapolis is usually different. The team is exhausted mentally and physically, they are ready to go home but they don’t want to leave and they have not had time to process the trip yet in the quiet and comfort of their own homes. All of which usually leaves team members feeling a little off. The travel day home is a transition from the long and demanding days in the field to their home lives in Indianapolis. I try to give them a final few Texas experiences before the team departs to Indy to keep their minds off the emotions they will experience leaving the field and the anxiety they will face thinking about classes starting tomorrow.

We spent the morning cleaning the minivan and packing everything up.  After leaving the hotel we went to Sacred Heart Cemetery. We walked through the cemetery looking at the sections where exhumations had taken place since 2013. In area 1, Wilmer’s marker is still alone in the middle of the vast open space. I made sure to clean up any trash around the marker and add some flowers for him.

Sacred Heart Cemetery
Sacred Heart Cemetery

Then we picked up breakfast at Whataburger. You can’t leave Texas without trying a breakfast taquito and honey butter chicken biscuit. Everyone slept off and on the drive to San Antonio, which shows just how exhausted they are. Our first stop was the Alamo. It’s always nice to tour the gardens around the mission. Then we move to the River Walk, which is just across the street. The weather was beautiful and it was a nice way to stretch our sore muscles. Our last stop before the airport was Moses Rose’s Hideout for some delicious brisket.

The Alamo
The Alamo
River Walk
River Walk
River Walk
River Walk
River Walk
River Walk

Despite severe weather warnings, our flights were only minimally delayed and we were back in our own beds by midnight. Over the next few days we will continue to post and reflect on our trip to Brooks County. Thank you for reading about our work and your support.

~KEL