All posts by Jessica

A bittersweet ending

After arriving home in Indiana, the same bittersweet feeling always seems to settle in my chest. You have this feeling of accomplishment but at the same time you think about the work that still lays ahead and the accomplishment feeling dissipates and anxiety sets in. I use the word anxiety in a non-negative way, I use the word anxiety because I am anxious to keep going. I hate having to wait for another field season in order to continue participating in this humanitarian effort. This is such an amazing experience to be a part of and each field season I come away feeling that I’m actually helping.

This field season was different from all the others.  Although each field season was unique in its own way. Some of the challenges I faced were more weather related than some of the difficulties I had faced in Rio Grande City and Falfurrias. The cemetery that we were working in was located in the middle of an open field with no protection from the wind. The wind would be calm in the morning when we would start our day but in the afternoon there would be wind gusts of up to 20-30 mph. This would cause dirt to blow into our faces and make shoveling nearly impossible. We would come home in the evenings with our faces covered in a layer of dirt. Although this made shoveling and moving dirt harder than it needed to be, we were still able to persevere and get a lot of work done.

Overview photo of the cemetery.
Overall photo of the cemetery

This field season was supposed to be an ‘easy’ one because we were told where we could find unidentified migrants. What we didn’t know was that the unidentified migrants were also buried amongst people who were identified but had no grave marker. This made our job more challenging because we had to make sure the individuals we were recovering to take back to Texas State University were unidentified migrants and not positively identified individuals. Thankfully, the persons who were identified had paperwork with them stating that they were identified. If they were identified, then we would not remove them and at the end of the field season gave them a grave marker. One thing that meant the most to me was being able to place flowers at each grave marker. We may not know who these people were but it is important to me and to our group for them to know that they are loved.

Smiling team members covered in dirt after a day of work.
A quick snapshot of how dirty we got in the field!

This field season could not have been accomplished without our amazing team members along with the amazing Texas State University team. This was my first time working in the field with some of the UIndy group and I was pleasantly surprised at how well we worked together. Our group communicated so well in the field which is probably one of the more important things to have when working in a group setting. I loved how in the evenings we could plan how we were going to tackle our quadrant the next day and then execute that plan without a hitch. This was a really spectacular group that we had this field season; honestly, I’ve never been to Texas without an excellent group to work with so I hope this trend continues.


Day 7: A New Day, A New Adventure

The days are long, the evenings are short, and the nights are even shorter. This field season is different in many ways but has the same common goal as the past three field seasons I have participated in. The goal of recovering migrants in hopes of getting them identified and returning them home to their families. With our fifth field season in progress, we are still learning how each county and funeral home operates and nothing is the same from one place to the next. Some keep better records than others, but the reality is that these funeral homes and counties are doing the best that they can with an overwhelming situation. It won’t change until there is policy change and increased funding for this mass disaster situation.

Team members digging trenches.
Digging Trenches

Today was a hard day of moving a lot of dirt and digging trenches. Although we may feel tired, we are all still motivated in continuing this humanitarian effort. With each burial that we locate, it is an individual whose family is that much closer to finding out what happened to them. It is easy to get lost in the manual labor but once you find a burial, it is like finding that golden ticket.

In the area that we were working in today, we were told originally there were three possible burials. We located six in that area and the ones we found were not even in the direct area that we were originally pointed to. It is no one’s fault because the funeral home is relying on memory to point them out, so it really is a guessing game and thankfully, we have become pretty good at analyzing it.

Exposed trenches in the cemetery.
Our quadrant

After recovering three burials, Joe and Louis were able to come back and help us extend our quadrant outside the original lines. We did this because the group next to us located a burial outside of their quadrant; so, in order for us to do our due diligence, we needed to check our area too. I cannot thank Joe and Louis enough for helping us with this endeavor. Although the dirt is nowhere near as hard as it was in Rio Grande City, it is still extremely difficult to get through by hand. So far, most of the quadrant has been dug by hand so it was nice to have a small break while the back hoe did its job. It is also kind of sad because the amount of work that the backhoe did in 1 hour is more than we could do in a day by hand.

Day 7 team photo.
Day 7

I love being apart of this humanitarian effort and being able to work along side community members and Texas State University. We have had several visitors from when we were in Brooks county and it is nice to see the familiar faces. We only have two more days left in Harlingen and it is a bittersweet feeling. Tomorrow we plan to visit ‘the wall’ which will be a sobering experience and remind us why we are continuing this effort.


Day 3: Diggin’ It

Today was another early day, arriving at the cemetery at 6:30 am along with Texas State University. After arriving, our group wasted no time in unloading equipment and getting our day started by excavating a smaller area that was obstructed by trees and headstones.

Sammi and Leann started on a more complicated part of the smaller section that involved what appeared to be one burial with three small plastic markers. The markers were for two known burials and one ‘john doe’, obviously a situation that needed more investigating. As Sammi and Leann proceeded with excavating the first grave, it was quite the difference compared to the day before. The dirt in the area we had worked on the day before was comparable to Team members excavating a burial.cement while the soil in the smaller, shaded area was softer making it more easily excavated, or so we thought. Turns out there were pockets of cement-like compacted soil that made it slightly more difficult but was still better than the day before. Sammi and Leann quickly found the known burials, which were located close to the surface, but noticed that just below them was an anomaly in the soil. What they found was the unknown burial located beneath these two known burials. If it were not for Leann and Sammi’s attention to detail, it is possible that the unknown burial could have been missed.

While Sammi and Leann were working diligently on their first excavation, Jordan and I started on a small area just north west from their location. Jordan was in “beast mode” and dug two feet while my back was turned… well, maybe not that quick but it sure did Two team members excavating a burial.seem that way. In what seemed like no time at all, Jordan and I were able to uncover our first burial. After having Texas State digitally record the location with their RTK  (aka – magic stick) our team took measurements by hand, and then we were able to remove the unknown burial and back fill the area. The final depth measurement for our first excavation was 98 cm below the ground surface.

Before noon today, our group was able to remove all four unknown burials from the smaller area in our quadrant. After a delicious lunch we started in the larger area, Jordan and I teamed up again to work on an area that we originally had thought was one unknown burial. It didn’t take us long to realize that we actually had two unknown burials with Jordan’s burial extending underneath the wall. Jordan and I refocused our efforts on the area I was excavating and thank goodness because the soil surrounding the burial was hard like cement and I definitely needed Jordan’s assistance with breaking down the area around the burial.

At the end of the day, our group located a total of 9 burials and recovered 6 unknown burials (3 were known). Unfortunately, the area that we will be working in tomorrow appears more complicated than we originally had thought. On day 1, we were told that there were 5 unknown persons buried in the area that Joe and Louis had excavated. At the end of the day today, we have located a total of 7 areas of interest that need to be investigated further. The tradition of ‘expect the unexpected’ appears to be holding true again this field season.

Day 3 team photo.