All posts by Alex Wong

Never forgotten…

Despite only spending a week in Falfurrias, my time there was an eye opening and life changing experience.  If someone asked me if I would go back, I would reply “in a heartbeat.” As I reflect on my trip, one of the most important life lessons I have learned is how truly fortunate I am in so many ways.  A roof over my head, quality education, daily access to food and water, good health, and people around me who have always been a positive and supportive influence.  These are just a few of the many blessings I have been afforded throughout my own my life. As I look back, I know there have been times I have taken that for granted and this trip has really put into perspective how most of my problems are so minuscule in comparison to others.  Overall, from this experience I have become more mindful of the disturbing reality that not all people are afforded the same basic human rights and changes in immigration policy remain an uphill battle.

Since arriving back in Indianapolis, there is one specific moment that keeps running through my mind over and over again. This moment was during our third day of searches when I stumbled across a tattered and faded T-shirt tied in multiple knots.  From my observation, the individual used the shirt to create to a makeshift bandana to cover their face from the sun. As I unraveled the knots, I realized the shirt was a Real Madrid youth soccer jersey. It was at this instance that a thousand different questions popped into my head. My initial thought was wondering if this individual was okay? Other questions that followed included: How old were they? Did they make it to their destination? Did they have dreams of going to the United States to become a professional soccer player? All these questions were overwhelming my brain and I woefully knew that I probably would never know the answer, but I remained hopeful that this individual made it across safely. 

Youth soccer jersey found in the brush
Real Madrid C.F. Youth Soccer Jersey

Youth soccer jersey found in the brush
Real Madrid C.F. Youth Soccer Jersey

For me, finding lost or forgotten personal effects (jackets, hats, shoes, etc.) was one of the most emotionally challenging aspects during our searches.  As I looked at each item, I knew it might have represented a small glimpse of who the person was and what they enjoyed doing. As a diehard soccer fan myself, seeing the youth jersey brought forth a sobering feeling that I wasn’t expecting.  Over the years, I have read numerous stories about young migrants (often without their parents) attempting the journey across the border in hopes of being recruited to a well-known youth soccer academy or college so that professional coaches and scouts can notice them. Holding that jersey made me wonder if this individual had a similar goal.  Soccer has always been seen as a shared language between cultures and that day I felt a special bond with this individual without every really knowing their story.

Migrants shoe left behind in the brush
Migrant shoe left behind in the brush

Other major takeaways I noted from the trip was the overall development and maturity of our Beyond Borders team.  I thought all of us grew as anthropologist, forensic scientists, and people.  We always had each other’s back and held each other accountable while out in the field. Despite potential cultural and political differences, each member had a common goal of protecting human life and working towards basic human rights for all.  Overall, the team chemistry was great, and I thought that aspect made it a very fulfilling and enjoyable learning experience. I certainly feel like each of us have become much closer since returning home.

January 2022 Beyond Borders Team
January 2022 Beyond Borders Team

I want to thank Dr. Latham for the opportunity to participate in the Beyond Borders project. In addition, I wanted to send a big shout out to all those who worked with us during our time in Falfurrias. You are all truly amazing people and I hope to see all of you again in the near future! Lastly, thank you to all those reading our blog and have supported our mission over the past decade.

Team Member searching on a ranch


I like bread and butter…

Today was our team’s last day in the field.  Despite sore legs and wandering minds, we were eager to get it started. Our schedule for the day consisted of working on water stations in the morning with Eddie followed by searching a new ranch site in the afternoon with Don.  At around 8am, we pulled up to the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC) where we were greeted by the sweet aroma of Eddie cooking up some of his world-famous menudo for breakfast. For those who don’t know, menudo is a traditional Mexican soup made with cow’s stomach lining (panza) and oxtail in a savory broth and red chili pepper base.  According to Eddie, menudo is the best hangover cure!  It was my first-time trying the dish and I was slightly hesitant but to my own surprise I really enjoyed it.  If anyone is interested in his recipe, feel free to contact me (just kidding, it’s a secret!)

Bowl of Menudo
Menudo, Breakfast of Champions!
Beyond Borders Team enjoying Menudo
Enjoying the Menudo!

Before leaving the STHRC, we had an early birthday celebration for Eddie who will be turning 74 tomorrow (well technically today since the post is on 1/12). Please send Eddie your birthday wishes! He also wanted me pass along that he is currently in market for a new truck. On to water station duty…

Team members filling a water station

I had the honor of riding with Eddie as we headed to work on water stations.  During our drive, I got a comprehensive introduction into the layout of South Texas and the different landmarks migrants will regularly follow during their trek across them.  One interesting tidbit he mentioned was how the expansion of power and gas lines at these ranches have been a valuable guide for migrants in the past few years.  In addition, a recently developed water tank (tangue) on this ranch has greatly increased migrant traffic. Overall, our team refilled a total of eight water stations today along with the construction of a brand new one. While refilling water stations was a simple task, it was humbling and gratifying feeling to know that this could potentially help save someone’s life.

Team members filling a water station
Beyond Borders Team with Eddie and a water station

The UIndy Beyond Borders team refilling a water station; typically, each water station holds between 6 – 8 jugs at a time; The design of the water station has been modified over the years.

At around noon, we unfortunately had to say our final farewell to Eddie. Over the course of just a few days, I have learned so much from him. In particular, making changes in immigration policy requires knowing your community and engaging with it regularly. Furthermore, pushing with a smile is a valuable part of humanitarian work. I hope to be given the opportunity over the summer to further develop our relationship.

Team Members beginning a search
Ready to search.

Following water stations, we reconnected with Don and began our final search efforts.  The ranch site we were searching today was one in which a migrant was left in the brush in November.  GPS coordinates of the individual’s last location were called in, which gave us a starting point for where to begin.  A big positive as we began our search was that the weather was finally sunny unlike the previous days. However, the ranch environment was much different requiring our team to navigate through some undulated terrain with very thick grass and prickly bushes going up to our shoulders (Tip: Avoid pencil cactus at all cost!).  The harsh conditions resulted in some moderate scratches and maybe a fall or two (we won’t mention names) but fortunately everyone was okay. Over the course of the next several hours, we found numerous signs of migrant activity including shoe treads, backpacks, and clothes. Don pointed out to us that the shoe footprints were quite new (possibly from last night). In the end, we didn’t find anything more than that. A major takeaway from this experience was that even with exact coordinates of a migrant’s location, there are many internal and external factors that can influence a successful search and recovery. The unpredictability that is associated with this process is a very sobering realization.

Footprints in sand
Tread marks from boots; possible recent migrant activity

After a long week of searching, we enjoyed some glass bottle Coca Cola and Topo Chico to quench are thirst.  Overall, my time in Texas was one filled with lots of learning, laughs, heartfelt moments, and new friendships. The idea that we are leaving Falfurrias tomorrow leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth. It went by too fast, and I feel like there is so much more I can learn and help with.

Team members behind some tall grass
High five!
Team member searching through a discarded backpack
Olivia examining a backpack found in the brush

Author Note: The blog post title is related to our favorite field song of the day. We would like to shout out Brooks County Sheriff Don White for putting up with us in the field.  Thank you for all that you do! Your awesome sauce!


PS – Just because we are leaving doesn’t mean the blog is done! Stay tuned for the next week for more posts!

Grey Day in Texas

Day one in Falfurrias was cold, grey, and windy with temperatures in the low 40’s. It was not the warm weather our team was hoping for in South Texas, but I don’t think any of us could complain much since the current temperature back in Indianapolis is in the single digits.

Weather forcast
Weather app screenshot: -12 wind chill, no thank you

Despite the chilly conditions, everyone was excited for the new opportunities to come. In preparation for the long field day ahead, we made a mandatory return trip to Whataburger for their tasty breakfast taquitos (Highly recommend the potato option: 10/10). Feeling refueled by bacon, potato, and eggs, we headed off to the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC) to meet up with Eddie Canales. Upon arrival, Eddie gave us a brief introduction into the history and objectives of the center and the many changes that have occurred since the previous UIndy Beyond Borders team visited in January 2020. One of the topics that really stood out to me from his talk was how the COVID pandemic has affected the border crisis from both a socioeconomic and political viewpoint. While the pandemic has altered the landscape dramatically, the numbers of migrants still making the dangerous trip across the border remains constant. Overall, these interactions have really put into perspective the many complexities of humanitarian work at the local, state, and national levels. Despite the recent success of STHRC over the past decade, Eddie emphasized that there is still a long way to go in raising awareness about basic human rights and making meaningful changes in immigration policy.

Below are a few different pictures from inside the South Texas Human Rights Center.

Poster of the South Texas Human Rights Center
Objectives of the South Texas Human Rights Center
Refrigerator Word Magnets Saying "Pride in the Cause"
Refrigerator Word Magnets: “Pride in the Cause”

The second half of the day, our team worked with Brooks County Sheriff Deputy Don White and his fellow members from the Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery nonprofit organization in search and recovery efforts of missing migrants. We conducted systematic line searches at three different sites of a ranch previously unsearched by the UIndy forensics team. As expected, the ranch terrain was very treacherous and unforgiving.  Fortunately, due to the colder weather, insect activity was not present, which allowed walking through the high grasses somewhat friendlier. After several hours of searching the brush, there was no clear signs of recent migrant activity. Although our team didn’t see much in terms of human activity in the area, we gained invaluable first-hand experience and knowledge into the physical and mental barriers that migrants face when traversing these ranches. It was a frightening and sobering thought to learn how easy it was to get turned around and end up going in circles. One final lesson I learned from today was that overcoming the unexpected challenges is tackled with effective communication, which are team did really well in. With day one completed, I am looking forward to getting some much-needed rest before continuing our searches tomorrow.

Day one Team photo
Day #1 Search Complete
Discarded backpack and other supplies
Migrant backpack and other supplies
Team members in a systematic line search
Systematic Line Search