Day 5: Until Next Time


The six of us focused diligently on our line search with each step we took into the sinking sand. The thicket was so dense that we could not walk in a straight line without compasses. The thorny bushes extended outward and clustered in groups; dangerously spiked tree-limbs slouched to the ground causing us to duck, twist, and maneuver underneath them to pass through. We could not ignore these spaces and walk around them or we weren’t being entirely thorough. What if a bone was dragged months ago by carnivores into a dense patch of vegetation out of plain view?

Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.
Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.

These areas are often too dense to see into from a distance. Our mental exhaustion was unquestionable. Our eyes swept the ground from left to right, alternating between farsighted and nearsighted focusing as we partitioned the different vegetation, rock, insects, animal burrows, and other potential safety hazards. We simply could not let our guard down during this process while we looked for human bone and any migrant’s personal affects. The wind was blowing violently which kicked up sand and further obstructed our vision. Our hats and glasses shaded from the sun but didn’t seem to block the sand from getting in our eyes, nose, and mouth and sticking to our Chapstick. The air was a humid 87 degrees for our last day of searches and dang did we feel it! Out here, it’s a different kind of beast.

Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.
Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.

During our first search of the day, Dr. Latham asked us to wait up while she investigated an area of interest. A minute later we all went over to discover that she’d found a recent camp-out. There were numerous backpacks. The fabric was fairly recent, so we unzipped them to find they were filled with non-perishable foods, prescription glasses, toiletries, electrolyte pills, fresh trash bags, and clothing. The trash bags are quite utilitarian: used for ground cover while sleeping, shelter, raincoats, blankets, and any other creative adaptation. You could sense the weight this had on our hearts once we realized these were signs of the recently living. We even found store-bought tortillas in some of the backpacks that just expired a week ago and were free of mold. A group came through here recently, far more prepared than most, and hopefully they did survive.

Following Deputy White to set up another line search
Following Deputy White to conduct another line search.

Today was our last day of searches and we had finally truly mastered our system. I am in disbelief that this is our final workday. We covered 5 miles of walking distance through extremely thick brush on 2 ranches. The average walking speed according to Deputy White is around 0.7/0.8 mph when conducting line searches through the South Texas thicket. Yet, he determined we were covering ground at about a rate of 1.7 mph. Deputy White has been conducting searches for decades, so it was invaluable to have his insight in the area. The technique seemed to be as follows: start with a coordinate of known migrant activity, or one that hadn’t been searched in a while. These could be prioritized due to 911 calls with GPS coordinates, some kind of insider intel, previously discovered pathways, or unsearched areas on a ranch that we had permission to enter into. Then spread out and sweep from east-west and west-east directions until you discover a sign or lack thereof. This is a vastly complex subject with various levels of involvement and organization, so we were largely there help out wherever we were needed. I wholeheartedly wish we could assist more often, but it’s all very complicated with this being private land.

Dinner at Jalisco’s

Today has been my favorite day of the trip so far. Regardless of the treacherous terrain, the hardest part was saying goodbye. Goodbye to the Texas landscape: although it feels like a terrifying beach where everything is trying to harm you, it has been a genuinely beautiful sight to behold. Goodbye Eddie Canales: we have been truly inspired by your passion for saving human lives, your stories, your leadership, your contagious laugh, and your friendship. Last but not least, goodbye Deputy Don White: I cannot even begin to describe how much you have contributed to this life changing experience for our team. We are all indebted to you and look up to you so fondly.

Each trip is one in a million and is unpredictable in the best ways. This may end up being my last trip, but it won’t be the last for Beyond Borders; so speaking on behalf of future teams: goodbye all… until next time.






Day 4: There’s no “I” in the Beyond Borders team

Today began at 7 A.M. in the hotel lobby, where the team had a breakfast mostly composed of protein and Emergen-C to prepare for another long day of search and rescue or recovery. This breakfast was very different from previous mornings because we met with people that we would be working with later in the day. Rafael, the director and founder of Los Angeles del Desierto, traveled all the way from San Diego, C.A. to help a mother in search for her son. We met his team based in Texas and also met the mother, which was pretty emotional for me. I could see the sadness in her eyes, but she was very thankful for our volunteer work and gave us a bendicion (blessing) before we made the trip down to the ranches.

The first search and recovery operation really highlighted the forensic skills that we have to offer as team. For instance, Sammi (the mapping expert), was able to show me how to successfully construct a “baseline” for a map, under circumstances that were not ideal. She was able to adapt and create a detailed map in a very timely manner. I am quickly learning that working as a solid team is a tool that is essential in the field of forensic anthropology. Maintaining communication is key to getting the work done efficiently and correctly. During my time in Falfurrias, I have also realized that it is not only about working well within the Beyond Borders team, but also being a team player when it comes to working with other organizations. In this case, we had to work with U.S. Border Patrol, the Sheriffs Office, ranch owners, and the South Texas Human Rights Center. This involves a lot of “parties” and maintaining good working relationships will allow for more successes when it comes to searches, identification and repatriation of missing loved ones.

(Sammi taking measurements for the map)
(Sammi taking measurements for the map)

The second search, was quite adventurous as it required a 4×4, all wheel drive vehicle to get to the coordinates that Rafael had provided. Our rental car is  a mini van that does not come with those capabilities which left us no choice, but to pack in the back of Sheriff Deputy Don White’s truck. Needless to say it was a bumpy, but memorable ride that involved a lot of cow sightings and tight grips to whatever was sturdy.

(My view from the back of the pick-up truck: Alba, Rafael, and his team member)
(My view from the back of the pick-up truck: Alba, Rafael, and his team member)

Once we got to the location we conducted a line search. The line searches that are done on these ranches in Texas are not what you would expect, not really a perfect straight line because of the desert terrain. It  actually involves a lot of crouching under brush with thorny branches. It is my fourth day in the field and it seems as though everything in Texas has thorns on it.  Again, our team was successful in executing a good search. We are constantly vigilant of our surroundings and each other. If we are not within sight of one other team member, we stop and use walkie talkies to ensure everyone is okay, no team member left behind! Even Sheriff Don Deputy White complemented our nice formation.

(Thorny branches)
(Thorny branches)

During our searches, we find a lot of material items left behind by migrants. Anytime we find an artifact, I am taken back because it feels unreal to be walking the same paths they once did. It leaves me reflective, asking many questions like: “Did they make it okay without this backpack that they once had with them?”. Pictured below is one of many backpacks that have been found during our searches. 

(Sheriff Deputy Don White holding backpack)
(Sheriff Deputy Don White holding backpack)

The search ended early when the ranch owner warned that there was a big rattle snake sighting, a decision I was not upset about. We made our way back to the hotel to get ready for a nice dinner hosted by Bill & Peggy Clark (Lasater), relatives of the individual who founded the city of Falfurrias, Texas. Every year they invite the Beyond Borders team to have dinner at their house. This evening, salad, pasta, and different kinds of pie were on the menu. I felt so welcomed as soon as we walked into those doors. The rest of the night was filled with many great conversations, laughs, and belly rubs!

(Cash Lasater, friendly dog and new friend)
(Cash Lasater, friendly dog and new friend)

Day four is over which means tomorrow is our last day in the field, I cannot believe how quickly this week has gone by. I am sad that we will be headed to Indianapolis so soon because I will miss all the kind and wonderful people I have met along the way. I am extremely grateful and humbled to have been a part of this team, and look forward to sharing my experiences with fellow friends and colleagues to raise awareness on this humanitarian crisis.

(Rafael, Beyond Borders team, Sheriff Deputy Don White)
(Rafael, Beyond Borders team, Sheriff Deputy Don White)




Day 3: Betwixt and Between

In his 1967 book The Forest of Symbols, Victor Turner wrote a chapter titled “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage” (Turner 1967). Here, he describes a “liminal” period in which the subject of interest is in between different steps of their rite of passage, and are no longer held in the same regard as they were before their rite stated, but have not yet reached their post-rite status. While Turner was describing the Ndembu people in Zambia, I feel the idea of liminality can be aptly applied to the crisis at the border.

One could consider many stages of liminality in the physical and mental movement from one’s home country into the US, or any other county: in between their homeland and the border of the next, in between the border and their destination, in between their destination and freedom. This liminality is only compounded when an individual perishes in their in-between, which is what is happening here in Brooks County. Individuals are attempting to reach their destination, often with little or no contact to either their before (home) or after (destination). They are between, and their deaths force them into an added dimension of liminality: found or not found, identified or unidentified.  Thankfully, our work here in Falfurrias allows us to aid both the living as well as the deceased.

dsc_0015This morning, we met early at the
STHRC, loaded up a prototype water station built by Trinity University students and faculty, water, and supplies and headed to a local ranch. We replaced a regular water station with the prototype, hoping that the additional water it is able to hold will be of aid to those walking along the power lines attempting to
reach the interstate. On this ranch, we met a foreman whom none of us had met before. He lead us to the water station and helped us build the prototype. After talking more with Eddie, he offered to take water and fill the rest of the water stations on the ranch.  I
downloaded an app on his phone that would give him fairly accurate GPS coordinates to
send on either to Eddie or in case of emergency. He told us about his experiences providing
dsc_0090 aid to those crossing through the ranch, and truly seemed interested in helping any way he could. 

This is how our work is able to impact the living. Through Eddie’s guidance and with Deputy White and the foreman’s help, we got the prototype up and filled it with 14 gallons of water (most only hold 6). Aid in the form of water helps increase the chance of survival, and thus the movement from one phase to the next. 

Our team with Eddie and Deputy White setting up the water station.

After we finished and made sure all of the electronic elements were set up, we continued on further into the ranch to conduct a line search. Deputy White had receiveddsc_0104 some coordinates of interest along a path, so we lined up as usual and did our search. We did not go far out into the brush, like yesterday, but mainly stayed on the path. This was largely due to the fact that the coordinates were right on the path, not off into the brush very far. We walked to and past the coordinates, then doubled back. We walked mostly in silence, our eyes trained on the shrubbery, looking for anything that our brains would perceive as bone before we did. 

Our searches, as well as our exhumations, are what makes our work able to impact the dead. By locating those who have perished, we start them on their way to identification, and thus out of their between. It is important to note that none of this would be possible without Eddie and the STHRC, or without Deputy White. They are the ones who continue the work once we are back to our “normal lives”.

After our fieldwork was finished for the day, we drove to McAllen, TX to speak to students from Emory University (visiting from Atlanta, GA). We listened to Eddie talk about his work and the STHRC, then to Dr. Latham talk about the history of our team’s involvement at the border. The students and their professors asked thoughtful questions, We finished our day by eating a lot of tamales at Delia’s. 

My hope is that our work continues to aid in the movement of individuals out of liminal phases, into something more definite. This applies both to those crossing the border, as well as those of us who are still figuring out what we are doing with our lives. I’m so thankful for this experience, and even though it’s my third trip, I learn something new everyday.




Turner, V. (1967). The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.