All posts by Olivia Messenger

Looking Back

We’ve been home for a couple of days now, but I feel restless. I want to go back and continue working. Knowing there are migrants needing to be identified and families anxiously awaiting news on their loved ones while I sit on my couch and binge Netflix doesn’t seem right. While I’ve recovered physically, my emotions are still all over the place. It is hard to rationalize why society has gotten to a point where we treat and judge people based on nothing beyond the fact they were not born in the same place as us.

Team members taking measurements at the cemetery

This Beyond Borders trip was vastly different from the previous ones I have been on. There was a different emotional toll than that experienced when we search ranchland or fill water stations. Not to say that either of those activities is easy or enjoyable, but seeing the bodies of migrants tossed in hastily dug holes like trash, and oftentimes with actual trash, hits in a different way. It doesn’t take much to have even the smallest bit of compassion or human decency, yet these migrants are looked down upon and treated appallingly for the simple reason of being born in a different country or to circumstances beyond their control. It frustrates and saddens me and makes me question a lot of things.

Team members digging at the cemetery

It is easy to villainize one person or another for the crisis, but, unfortunately, there is no easy solution and there is no single person to blame for what is occurring. There are many differing opinions and political discourses surrounding immigration and the US/Mexico border, but that will not stop migrants from crossing, with some perishing along the way. Funeral homes and cemetery workers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of migrants they end up in charge of. They are doing their best, but, at some point, they start to become desensitized to the atrocities they are seeing. This does not excuse what is happening to these migrants, but it is important to realize that this is a multi-faceted, complex problem with no simple solution.

Two team members removing dirt from a burial

As long as there are people such as Dr. Latham, Eddie, Don, Dr. Spradley and the Operation Identification team, and many other individuals and organizations who are taking the initiative and trying their best to give migrants and their families closure, I choose to believe that compassion and decency still exist. I wish we were never even needed down in Eagle Pass, but I am glad we were able to aid in the excavations and, hopefully, help provide some of the dignity and compassion these migrants, and all humans, are worthy of.

Working on this project with this team was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of it. After my experiences with Beyond Borders, I am only more determined to use my education and abilities in humanitarian settings in order to help those who have been wronged in any way I can. I’m sad that this is most likely my last trip with Beyond Borders, but I’ve cherished every moment.

~ Olivia

Jan 2023 Team

Day 5: Digging and Don

Team members removing dirt from a burial
Jordan and I excavating while Izzy and Kaitlyn look on

We woke up this morning sore from all of the work we did yesterday but ready to get back to it. We ate breakfast at the hotel, where Izzy had an awesome Texas-shaped waffle. After loading all of our gear, we hopped into Monica (who is not smelling too great after our long work days in the heat) and headed off to the cemetery.

We began working on the burial we had started to expose at the end of the day yesterday. This involved more use of the mattock to bring down a wall and removing larger chunks of dirt as we went. Somehow, Izzy and Jordan managed to hit rocks with the mattock hard enough that there were sparks flying. The weather was pretty cool in the morning, so we got to take longer turns, and the wall came down pretty quickly. Deputy Don White was standing by to provide his (sassy) advice and expertise and answer all of my random questions about his life while helping dump our buckets of dirt. Our team has really found our groove, and we worked very quickly and efficiently. Both Texas State and our team were able to remove individuals before lunch.

Our lunch break was extended for an extremely important visitor to the site. A family member of one of the identified individuals who had been removed on Texas State’s previous excavation in November 2022 came to see where their loved one had been laid to rest. It was an emotional time for everyone. I know nothing can bring their loved one back, but I hope they were able to find what they were searching for from their visit. For me, seeing their reaction helped reinforce how important the work we are doing here is. These are real people and real families that have experienced great tragedy. I wish the work we are doing wasn’t needed and that these families were still whole, but, hopefully, we can help them find at least a little bit of closure.

The backhoe working at the cemetery

When their visit was over, it was time for the backhoe to fill in the excavated graves and remove several feet of dirt from our next areas, so we didn’t have to spend hours manually digging through the rock-hard, sun-bleached top layer of dirt. When they were done, our team jumped in and got to work excavating the next burial. By this time, it was pretty hot and sunny, so we started up our timer and worked for 3-4 minutes in teams of two before switching. At least, we were only supposed to work for 3-4 minutes, but we always managed to finagle an extra minute or two because we didn’t want to stop.

Team members mapping at the cemetery
Mapping in our points

We finished up for the day, took some quick showers, and went out for a delicious dinner at Yopo’s. I’m sad that tomorrow will be our last day working in Eagle Pass, but we have done a lot this week to be proud of. Our team has really learned to work well together. We check in on each other consistently to make sure everyone is taking breaks when needed and drinking enough water. This week has allowed us to learn valuable skills as well as grow closer as a team. We’ve come to expect the unexpected and be flexible, and the experiences we’ve had and the memories we’ve made are ones I will carry with me.

Selfie of team members taken on Dr. Latham's unattended phone
A surprise photo left on Dr. Latham’s (unattended) phone
Team members on day 5

~ Olivia

Day 1: A Good Day for Digging

Our first day started bright and early – or should I say dark and early. With a meeting time of 7:00 am, we had to get up, dressed, and ready to work before the sun was up. Kaitlyn started her day with some Tai Chi while Jordan, Izzy, and I started with groans. Clearly, only one of us is a morning person. After a quick breakfast at our hotel, we were off in the minivan to meet up with the Texas State team and Deputy Don White at the cemetery.

Dr. Latham and Dr. Spradley

The Texas State team is bigger than ours and consists of master’s and Ph.D. students, but they all seem nice and ready to work. Dr. Ana Carina Marques and two of her students from the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley are also helping with the project. After a quick introductory meeting, we unloaded all of our equipment from the van and got ready to work. The morning started out a little chilly, but by the time the sun came out and we started moving, the Texas heat was making its presence known.

Team members digging at the cemetery

The cemetery workers had used a backhoe to help speed up our excavation process and prevent us from having to manually dig down multiple feet through the hard clay-like soil that is in this part of south Texas. Our team took one area, while the Texas State and UTRGV teams took another. We started out by taking some measurements, so Jordan can create a detailed map of the area (which we learned is harder than expected because we can’t do math). Then, it was time to start excavating.

Team members mapping at the cemetery
Measuring in our data points

During the first excavation, we began to find our groove as a team, removing dirt the consistency of peanut butter, emptying buckets, and reminding each other to take breaks and drink plenty of water. We quickly learned that wet dirt/clay is not fun to work with and will only feel heavier and heavier the more you work with and lift it. When it came time to remove the individual from the grave, we donned our PPE and worked together to lift and remove the individual from the grave. They were then taken to the intake tent

Two team members taking a break and watching others work at the cemetery
Jordan and I taking a break

While Kaitlyn went to the intake tent, Dr. Latham, Izzy, Jordan, and I started to work on our second excavation. The intake process, run by Texas State, is extremely detailed, recording as many features – both biological and material – as possible because you never know what may be the key to a positive identification. By the end of the work day in the field (approximately ten hours!), we had three individuals removed and through the intake process, with several more ready to remove first thing in the morning. We called it a day, had our bottles of ice-cold Coke from glass bottles (because it tastes better from a glass bottle. It’s a fact), annoyed Don a little (he loves us, even if he won’t admit it), and headed back to the hotel.

After quick showers that included a lot of soap and scrubbing, we headed out for a delicious dinner at Parilla de San Miguel. Once back at the hotel, we had our nightly debrief before Jordan started making her map, Izzy created a photography log for all of the photos we took throughout the day, and Kaitlyn watched the movie Stardust. We can already tell we’re going to be sore, but we’re excited to get back to work tomorrow.

The team plus Deputy White on day 1