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Wide Open Texas Spaces

Answering the Phone

Earlier this semester I sat with a student in my office for the first of several long conversations. His family came to the US from Ecuador when he was a child because his father had a work contract in Indiana. He graduated high school, enrolled at UIndy and is in his Senior year. While in college his family’s work visa expired and they returned home. He was able to stay to complete his degree. He hadn’t seen his parents or younger siblings since they returned to Ecuador. He was excited because his father was getting a new contract and was coming back so he was going to a hearing about the visa. The next time we met he told me his visa was denied because he is 20 years old and too old to be on the family visa. His parents and younger siblings are coming back to Indiana while he faces the reality of going back to a country he doesn’t know.  Is this the story of a migrant we encountered on our trip? No, but it could be. We fight over our broken system and we blame each other for the problems and in the process, we forget these are people. Every skeleton we recover or body bag we pull from the ground is a person with a story. Whatever their story, all I can think of is being on the other end of the phone. Waiting for the call that never comes. Making all the promises to God to just let them call or just let them answer when I call. That helpless feeling of just not knowing what is going on or what to do. While the answers we provide are not what many families want, at least we’re answering the phone when their loved one could not.

Beynd Borders Team members dig searching for skeletal remains
The 2024 UIndy Beyond Borders Team

All the people you read about on the blog are volunteers. They volunteer their time, use their own money and chose to dedicate themselves to answering that phone call from family members. Politics aside, the people we work with in the Texas Borderlands run the spectrum from right to left. Whoever you ask will say you cannot have an informed opinion until you spend a few days in the brush. And they all just want to bring some closure to families and return their loved one home. If you have the ability to donate to the cause here are some links:

Beyond Borders Humanitarian Forensic Science Team: Donate Here

Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery: Donate Here

South Texas Human Rights Center: Donate Here

Thank you for following our work. We appreciate your support and the ability to share our experiences with you. We will continue regular posts when we depart for another trip to the Texas Borderlands.


Back in Indy

It has been so difficult to put my thoughts into words today. I am attempting to write this blog post with what feels like fog in my brain, while staring at a blank page. There is so much to say, stories to tell, experiences to share, and yet today I have barely done anything with my time. It was such a sharp transition from full physical activity all day to complete freedom to do whatever I want. It is hard not to question how I ended up in this position when so many others do not wake up with the luxury I have. Why is there so much judgment surrounding where an individual is born? Why is there a competitive drive for different groups of people to always be better than the others? Why did this hierarchy start and what purpose or benefit does it offer? Why am I able to come home and binge Netflix when the idea of safety and security is out of the question for others? I know that where and what we are born into is a choice made by God that no earthly being has any control over, but the Bible teaches us to love and serve one another. If so, why does God choose to put one person in a better position than the other? This trip has been a test of faith bringing up all the questions no one can answer. However, what I have learned and will always remember is that empathy goes such a long way. Even though we did not come into direct contact with any migrants or their families, I do feel that we as a team have touched and benefited so many lives. 

The daunting, unanswered questions will always remain, but a very critical part of this reflection process for me is to also remember my favorite parts of this trip. Don and Ray were amazing to work with. I could not imagine doing what we did everyday without them. Along with them came Socks who added an exciting twist, always when we needed a pick-me-up. She was always just happy to be there no matter what we were doing. Another memorable moment from this trip was discovering shoe tracks from possible migrants traveling through the very same brush and thickets we walked through that day. Don had said they most likely were from the previous night or early morning. I remember reflecting on the drastic differences between all the gear, snacks, and water we had versus what little we can imagine the migrants had at the time. We spent an entire day refilling water stations with Eddie, seeing the locations where migrants have also walked through. Spending our last day away from home being together as a team helped bring the trip to an end. Moments like these are what made this so special. 

black dog with white chest rolling on her back on the ground
Socks being the most fun and adorable companion
UIndy team posing in front of the Alamo
The team in front of The Alamo in San Antonio
part of the team standing on top of a bridge on the Riverwalk
Us standing on a bridge overlooking the Riverwalk

I could not be more grateful for the time we spent in Brooks County. The friendships we made, challenges we faced, and laughs we shared will be lifelong memories. Having traveled to Texas before, I had an idea of what the vegetation would be like, but what I was not expecting was the mental exhaustion. It was difficult to stay focused and engaged all day, everyday. I knew every moment would be worth it and I did not even want to blink the time away. But, it was always in the back of my mind that time was ticking and the trip would come to an end. I am extremely privileged to be able to continue my education and live in a stable home and community. I want nothing more than to share the experiences and knowledge I have learned about the migrant crisis. I am confident this will transfer over to whichever career path I choose. Because of this experience, I will strive to always encourage those around me to practice empathy no matter the situation. I have grown as a professional, a human being, and in my faith because of our trip and I could not be more thankful.

The following are some of my favorite photos from the trip we have not yet shared!

two tacos on a plate from Torchy's Tacos
The best tacos from Torchy’s Tacos
three girls and a dog riding in the back of a pickup truck
Catching a ride back to the ranch entrance on our hottest field day
girl standing with arms crossed in front of a lake
One of the best pictures of me in the field
girl holding one large and one small wild cucumber
Posing with some wild cucumbers which we thought were watermelons and actually turned out to be poisonous


A New Reality

A view of Dallas, Texas on our flight back home to Indianapolis, Indiana.
A view of Dallas, Texas on our flight back home to Indianapolis, Indiana.

This is my first day back home in Indianapolis. Today I woke up naturally and not to an alarm. I was able to leisurely roll out of bed and, on my own time, and start to unpack. There’s no more sense of urgency to quickly get my things together to go out to the field and search. Although I am very happy to be back in my own bed and with the people I love, I feel a sense of longing. On the ride to the San Antonio Airport, I remember looking out the window at all the thick and thorny brush that had left cuts on my hands and clothes. I was sad that I wouldn’t be out there today with Don, Ray, Socks, and my companions. I won’t be able to see an entire night sky of stars outside, unpolluted by the lights of the city. Nor will I be out trekking through breath-taking scenic and massive ranches, searching for those who have gone missing. Being out in nature and doing something with a great purpose made me feel incredibly accomplished and motivated. Today I find it hard to be motivated to do anything, writing this reflection included. Instead, I lay here and look at some of the photos taken down in Texas. Now that I’m back here, in my normal life, I can’t help but feel ‘Did all that even happen?’

The constellation 'Orion the Hunter' taken the night we used Don's infrared drone.
The constellation ‘Orion the Hunter’ taken the night we used Don’s infrared drone.
Giving Don a Bluey bandaid after getting pricked by a Cat's Claw thorn bush.
Giving Don a Bluey bandaid after getting pricked by a Cat’s Claw thorn bush.

I began to think about my pre-trip reflection and my thoughts the days before the trip. I realize that I thought about the trip selfishly in the beginning. I asked: What would I get from this trip? How am I gonna handle the Texas environment? Will I be able to handle my emotions? Can I make a good contribution to the team? My initial thoughts all were about me while the realities of the crisis were a background concern. It was when we were down in Falfurrias did the crisis become my main concern. Some of these selfish thoughts permeated while we were on the trip. I felt the need to prove myself and find things in the field, take good pictures, and be professional. I needed to prove to myself that I can do this as a future job. I needed to show that it was a good decision to bring me to Brooks County. Although it was hard to push these thoughts aside, I had to realize that, in the larger scheme of things, my anxieties were no match compared to those of migrants attempting to cross into the United States. Even being at home those thoughts continue to resurface. I feel a sense of great guilt that I cannot keep these egocentric thoughts away and instead focus on the issue plaguing the borderlands.

Scene from one of the ranches we searched having a small area of water that is unsafe to drink.
Scene from one of the ranches we searched having a small area of water that is unsafe to drink.

Although I did research and read personal accounts before leaving for Brooks County, I wasn’t prepared to see the things I did and hear the stories Don, Ray, and Eddie had shared. With every heart-wrenching detail, I had to keep reminding myself that these didn’t happen decades ago, they happened weeks or months ago. While I was studying for exams for school, somebody’s child was lost, dehydrated, scared, beaten, and battered. While I ordered pizza, someone was eating the last of their canned fruit while taking a moment’s break inside a mot. Why am I safe here while others risk their lives attempting to cross through Brooks County? It doesn’t feel fair, coming back to my comfortable lifestyle in Indianapolis, while others are sleeping on trash bags outside exposed to the harsh South Texas environment. Dr. Latham had told us that we couldn’t choose to whom we were born and the privileges inherited with that. We could, though, choose what to do with that privilege. Going to Texas and working to make the very slightest change in the human rights crisis along the border is one way to use that privilege. I know that what we did in Texas was truly meaningful and, now more than ever, I want to continue to make a difference in people’s lives and ensure everyone receives the basic human rights they’re entitled to.