All posts by Isabel Melhado

Rewind and Reflect

To think I am already writing my reflection post is wild. It feels like 2 seconds ago that I was anxious and scared about the trip, and now I am back in my apartment preparing for the upcoming semester. This trip has brought me memories and lessons I will keep and cherish for the rest of my life. 7 days flew by faster than I ever had expected. [Also, I’ll warn you. This is going to get pretty emotional.]

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Working water stations

I actually started writing this post while I was still in Texas on our last work day. I was feeling extremely discouraged, feeling like I hadn’t done enough, holding in tears as we made our final walk back to Gloria, knowing it would be the last time. We did not make any recoveries while in Texas this trip, and it feels like a double-edged sword. Working so hard with only pictures and animal remains to show, when that wasn’t our goal, doesn’t feel like success, but remembering that searching was our true objective brings it more into perspective. The work we did searching allowed us to learn a number of things like which areas were more active with migrant traffic and help Don cover areas that would’ve taken days to do alone. Our work on the water stations potentially saves a number of lives. I was able to learn so much about people’s perspectives, the politics surrounding this work, and how one’s background can influence how you see this work and why people do it.

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Searching in the brush

Comparing our skills from the first day to the last revealed an exponential change. By the end of the trip, we were able to navigate through thickets, brush, and complex MOTs (not technically defined as Mass of Trees but that is how I remember it) much faster than day one when it took us a few minutes even to find a route out. I learned a lot about footprints to where I could identify them and follow the direction they went. Being able to recognize a path through the brush made a significant difference while searching because we were quicker led to areas of migrant activity. We became compass pros and improved our line searching skills each and every day. Plus there was one rescue while we were there, so one young life saved.

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Don getting bothered by his favorite tourist

Meeting and getting to work with Don, Eddie, Melissa, Jason, Matt, Leo, and even Ray has left me with memories I will never forget. Thank you for searching with us, keeping us safe, and putting up with my antics for days. I have learned so much from each of you and am so thankful to have met y’all. I hope if I get this opportunity again that I will get to work with you all again. (I’ll try to keep the noises down next time)

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Evidence of recent migrant activity

Being back in my room writing this leaves me with such a mix of emotions. We discussed it briefly in our last decompression session before leaving Texas, and Dr. Latham told us a lot of these feelings are common and normal before I even expressed how I was feeling. I feel like I didn’t do enough. That 5 days wasn’t enough. I continuously think on the challenges we endured while just searching the brush, holes, hunters, wildlife, cacti ( many kinds but pencil cacti that I am still pulling the spines out of my legs), thickets, and so much more. We had issues with these all while fully prepared, good shoes, water, snacks, thick clothes, protection, and people to warn us. Others are doing this in the dark, with just the clothes on their back, and fresh water being a luxury. How am I back in my bed when others are still out there fighting for their lives? What can I do here that will actually help someone in real time? I feel useless. That is not the case though as much as I may feel it. I am in school to better myself so I really can make a change, with the authority and knowledge to do so as well. There are many ways we can help from here (& you from your home as well). My time fighting for others and trying to help them is not over. I am thankful for the support I have to push me to keep going and those who have experience in these fields and are willing to help guide me.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t change how I am still feeling. What I saw and learned in Texas influences every second of my day. I find myself questioning whether I am justified in doing mundane things, correcting myself when I speak and think certain things, how can I complain or be deserving of this wonderful, plentiful life I have when others are putting their lives on the line just for the possibility of a new life. For the possibility of a future that may not come. The future promised to those making the dangerous trek is not always delivered and often times wasn’t the true future intended. The image of clothing we saw, food we found, all on our searches flashes through my mind constantly. I have an immense sense of guilt as I go through my days when previously I wouldn’t have batted an eye. I am very thankful for the life I live, but after my experiences and lessons learned in Texas, I am thankful to have my team around me and those who have also gone on this trip to talk to them about these feelings and work through these new challenges with them.

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Dream Team

I am forever thankful to Dr. Latham for this lifechanging opportunity. I will be forever thankful to her for this, her kindness and patience along the way, and the team she chose as well. Having Olivia, Alex, and Tanya was truly the dream team, even when I’m sure we worked Dr. Latham’s last nerve quite a few times. I was terrified to leave and so anxious, as I said previously, but being with them was the best possible scenario for me. Everyone is so laid back, kind, and funny that it made the experience go so smoothly. This could’ve been a very different story if these people weren’t so genuinely amazing. I hope I will get to return in the future to pursue this work because along with learning so much, it strengthened my belief that this is the career and future I want to pursue and that I really can make a change.

UIndy, thank you for giving me this dream of an experience. My eyes have been opened in a multiplicity of ways, and my life has truly been impacted by this work and the inspiring people I got to work with.

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The incredible people we were so lucky to work with
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Texas skies

Til next time, treat others with kindness, pursue happiness, and radiate positivity.

Texas Tourist, Cajun Queen

Izzy

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The Eventful Events of Day 2

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Day 2 Team Photo

Day 2 in the field started with sleepy faces and gas station breakfast tacos, the best fuel for a hard day of work in my opinion. We made our way to the South Texas Human Rights Center to meet Eddie and Deputy Don White before leaving to start our day. Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery received a distress call earlier in the morning from a migrant abandoned in the brush. Thankfully, the young woman from El Salvador was located and assisted to safety.

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The lids of the water stations have information for those who may be in distress. Eddie’s smile is because I pestered him to.

While the members of the Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery were working to get her processed, we went to work with Eddie to repair and replenish water stations located on the way to the ranch we intended to search later in the day. We made a few extra stops where Eddie explained to us the meaning behind some of the things we were seeing. One of those stops was at a ladder attached to the fencing of a ranch. Ranchers place these ladders so the migrants can climb over the fences without breaking them, which is what usually is happening. At the pictured ladder, a lone glove hung from the dangerous barbed wire.

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Ladder on a rancher’s broken fence

When we received a text from Don saying they were done and headed our way, we left for the ranch gate to meet them there. To pass the time, we had a small snack and a jam sesh to our team-made Texas playlist , including great songs like I’ll Make a Man Out of You from Mulan, Low by Flo Rida, A Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler, I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys, 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton, and so many more. Music is an important mental health break and coping strategy for the Beyond Borders team. With the group back together, we went into the brush to really start our second day of searching. Thank the Texan gods that today was warmer because I think my lasting reputation here will be that I was the Louisiana girl that was always cold and is a “tourist” (Don’t ask — Just know I’m thankful my momma built me sassy and strong.).

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Thorns in the terrain

Alex previously wrote that the terrain is unforgiving, and he was not wrong. The terrain was different today from yesterday, being more of an open field instead of working our way through mostly trees and thickets. With that, we got the gift of actually being able to see more than just the color of your closest team member’s shirt, and thus, our UIndy team was able to better perform our line search.

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Melissa, Oakley, and Oakley’s searching crocs

We detected very little migrant activity, only finding elements that indicated to us that it had been long since someone had passed through the area. We are also working with South Texas Mounted Search and Recovery. Melissa, Oakley, and Matt were off on their own. Oakley, a cutie sweet baby search dog trained by Melissa, showed a distinct change of behavior, meaning she found a scent to track. Melissa and Matt also said they were getting whiffs of something that smelled like decomposing remains. This gives us a new target area to search tomorrow. We communicate through walkie talkies as we are so spread apart, so we were also alerted when Don received another distress call from a nearby ranch. Border Patrol kept Don in the loop about their search for the distressed individual as we finished our search today.

In my opinion, tensions ran higher on our way back. It can get very frustrating having to repeatedly check and correct yourself in terms of directionality in a line search, while trying to stay aligned with your team, while being flanked with people who aren’t necessarily following the same plan as us, and on top of all of that, you’re hot, sweaty, sore, tired, hungry, and have to pee (this part is mostly if you’re myself, Tanya, Olivia, Melissa, or Dr. Latham because we don’t have the easiest way to pee outside if you know what I mean.). In retrospect, this was the most challenging part of our day, which is a win honestly.

We returned to the cars and went to shower and clean up for the evening barbeque! We met up with Eddie, the Remote Wildlands Search and Rescue guys and Melissa for some chicken, sausage, bacon wrapped jalapeño poppers, baked beans, potato salad, guacamole, and some quality time with everyone. I previously wrote about how excited I was for the food, and I have NOT been disappointed. Getting to see everyone in a more relaxed environment let us see a new side to each face.

As tired as we all are, we returned to our rooms smiling after another hard day of work. When we’re at UIndy, I like to say that one of my primary jobs there is to provide comic relief as tensions running higher than skyscrapers tends to be the norm. I tried to carry that over to this trip as well. Bugging Don and Eddie has been one of the highlights of this trip and memories I will carry forever. It is still serious work, but we do not have to be grave while we do it. Today, though, I felt a lot more emotions than yesterday. You never fully grasp the true gravity of what people go through until you experience a part of it.

Today started with the distress call. The young woman was 25 years old, only 2 years older than me, and from the same country my dad migrated to the US from. Seeing her face and hearing her story hit me hard. She was out there alone while I complained of being cold while dressed in multiple layers. I stared at the single glove hanging from the barbed wire for minutes as my mine wandered who lost this? where are they now? are they safe? are they injured? are they alive? I said there was low migrant activity detected where we searched today, but someone’s water jug was there. Someone’s cereal bar wrapper was there. Two individuals called authorities in distress to be rescued. Two individuals realized it was life or death and were luckily able to call in distress to be rescued. This journey people endure requires so much in every single aspect, physical strength, mental strength, strategy, knowledge, trust, and none of it is guaranteed to get you all the way to safety.

I don’t say this to bring the tone of this post down, but to recognize what I have. I am able to make jokes and keep a situation light. My life is not on the line, but I am searching for evidence of someone whose life may very well hang in the balance. You feel guilty for being “excited” to find something because you’re driven by forensic anthropology, but you also don’t ever want to find something because that is someone’s life lost fighting to better it. It’s another reason why the cookout was so nice as well, because we got to hear and express how everyone felt about this work that we do. That, although we all come from different backgrounds, use different protocols, have different political beliefs, etc., we all have the same goal. Keep people alive. Keep people safe. Help those in need.

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Don with his hands in the shape of a heart because I am his favorite problem child

To end this blog on a lighter note, here is a picture of Don being my bestie.

Izzy

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Pre-trip Post

The holidays always seem to go by quickly, and with the trip coming up in a matter of a week, time is speeding by. There are many things on my mind before we leave but most feel very superficial at this point. I am just coming back from visiting my family for the holidays, so my mind is in 100 different places. Right now, my priority is actually getting the things I need for the trip, such as the proper work clothes and other materials. I want to take extreme care in choosing what I bring. I want everything to be the best possible tool for the intended job. That is where my worries are lying at the moment, making sure I have everything I will need. I am also an extreme over-packer, so I am trying to be efficient at the same time.

It is very apparent that this trip will take a significant amount of work and not only physical but mental energy. The mental toll this trip can take will be hard work to process, so before we go and our posts hit a bit deeper, I want to share the lighter things I am looking forward to. I am ready to meet the people who have been doing this remarkable work and whom I have learned so much about already. I am excited to build a strong bond and even stronger friendship with my team. Less relevant but still very important, I have heard many, many stories about how amazing the food is in Falfurrias, and I think we may stop at Whataburger.

Izzy

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