Originally Published in The New York Times.
By Adam Ahmed and Meredith Kohut
January 30, 2019
Drivers queue on the raised surface of a traffic island, waiting for their rigs to clear the booth and for the start of their shifts.
“We need the U.S. and the U.S. needs us, too,” Jonathan Gamboa, a 29-year-old driver from Mexico, said one recent morning.
Mr. Gamboa accepts his place in the order of things: He has a visa that lets him transit through the United States, but not live there. He could make a good living driving on the American side, but that was it.
“Every day the merchandise crosses and I cross with it,” he said with a shrug. “And I’m O.K. with that. I just can’t live in Texas.”
They were buried without names. Now
some, at least, have recovered their identities.Day 5 ∙ January 15, 2019
Anthropology students from Texas State University dig trenches in search of unmarked graves at the public cemetery in Falfurrias, Tex.
FALFURRIAS, Tex. – It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from the nearest border crossing to the town of Falfurrias, the seat of Brooks County, Tex.
From the highway, Texas unfurls in wide sheets of scrubland, dense understories of small trees and thorny brush that rise in gnarled stands along the sandy plains. Patches of mesquite, blackbrush and huisache crowd the horizon.
Like the border itself, which lies some 80 miles away, it is an unwelcoming place for migrants.
More than 700 have perished in transit through Brooks County over the last 15 years, claimed by heat and dehydration while trying to find their way along the parched tracts of ranchland. The real number is surely higher. The local sheriff, Benny Martinez, thinks only one in five is ever found.
Migrants disperse here after crossing into the United States, avoiding a border patrol checkpoint. They trek through the dried-out terrain, seeking shade under the boughs of live oaks. Hunters occasionally stumble across hats, empty water jugs and leathered remains banked against trees.
In spite of the risk, migrants continue to make the journey through the wilds of Brooks County year after year, carried along by hope. And every year, dozens die. No one believes his or her journey will end like this. They can't. Here, the dead do not teach the living.
More than 700 migrants have died passing through Brooks County over the last 15 years, lost among the parched tracts of ranch land.
For years, the remains were conveyed to the county cemetery in Falfurrias, then interred in the open space along its peripheries, often in plots too small or poorly located to sell.
No one is quite sure how many were buried; until 2013, the county kept no records.
But Eddie Canales, the founder of the South Texas Human Rights Center, has forced the remains into the open, hoping to rescue them from anonymity.
Since 2013, anthropologists have been coming with their students to exhume the bodies and extract DNA samples. With no maps or records, they dig narrow trenches guided by the memories of local gravediggers. The samples are then cross-referenced with missing person databases.
Of the more than 150 remains unearthed in this cemetery, 30 have been identified.
“It’s for the families of the missing,” said Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist from Texas State University overseeing the effort.
Dr. Spradley stood nearby as a team of students brushed the dirt away from a set of remains buried several feet deep. A worn trash bag, blistered by age, held the bleached bones stacked neatly inside.
A worn trash bag, blistered by time, revealed bleached bones stacked neatly inside.
Above that, packed into the soil, she spotted the faint traces of calcified bone poking through the grit. Another body. That made 16 exhumed in just under a week.
The bodies tell their own stories, Dr. Spradley explained. One man carried photocopied money in his pockets to throw off robbers. Others are buried with stuffed animals. Some are buried clothed; others as skeletons, having died long before they were found.
Each new discovery brings conflicting emotions, a sense of satisfaction tempered by sorrow. She wonders if they will ever find all of the remains.
“You look around and you just think, ‘There’s an open space, there’s an open space,’” she said, scanning the verdant grounds, where fresh cut flowers lay against polished headstones. “And there could be a migrant buried anywhere there.”
She paused for a moment. The sound of shovels striking dirt filled the cemetery.
“I always think, you know, what if one of my family members went to another country and never came back,” she said. “Would anyone pick up the phone to help me? And if they picked up the phone, would they care enough to help me?”
South Texas Human Rights Center staff and volunteers unload trucks after an afternoon spent resupplying water stations.
Few did care here until 2013, when 130 bodies were found -- the largest number the county has ever recorded. It wasn’t that 130 died that year, only that, whether because drought cleared out more brush or out of plain dumb chance, they found that many remains.
That was when Mr. Canales decided to come out of retirement to found the human rights center, after a career as a union organizer. A 70-year-old Texan with an easy laugh, he applied the same principles to human rights as he did to union organizing.
“Developing a connection, basically,” he said, as he drove the public roads that demarcate thousands of acres of ranch land. “And then, you know, I mean, I'm still the same pushy guy.”
Mr. Canales was on his way to replenish water stations that he maintains for migrants passing through. A little more work for him might mean a little less for the gravediggers. The large blue bins sit along the roadside every half-mile or so, and carry up to six gallons of fresh water. He’s planted a flag near most, to help migrants spot them from the brush.
Arianna Mendoza, left, a staff member at the South Texas Human Rights Center, and volunteers Megan Veltri, center, and Laney Feeser, replenish water stations.
Occasionally, people steal the barrels or puncture them to deter migrants. Canales brushes this off. “You gotta be able to laugh,” he said. “It’s the only way to do this work.”
In the borderlands, of course, not everything is dark and serious. People live their lives as they do anywhere. Whatever the broader political debate, to most, this place is just home. And for some, it feels as though politicians who know little about the area are just trying to gain political points.
“There’s certainly no crisis or state of emergency here,” said Phillip Gómez.
Mr. Gómez was seated at the Jalisco Restaurant along the edge of the highway into town. The television was on over the bar, playing the highlights of President Trump’s speech in McAllen, Tex., about an hour and a half drive away.
But no one was paying attention to that. The D.J. was gearing up for karaoke night. Regulars began filing in, introducing themselves to diners as if they owned the place.
Phillip Gómez, right, sits at the bar in Jalisco Restaurant as, on the TV above, a paid commercial promoted Trump’s border wall.
Mr. Gómez, a 64-year-old technician for DirecTV, sported a white handlebar mustache, plaid shirt and cowboy hat with a pair of sunglasses perched on top. He remained seated while he sang a slightly off-tune rendition of “The Chair” by George Strait.
Afterward, he didn’t much care to talk politics, though he allowed that everyone else seemed to want to talk about the border whether they lived there or not.
Then he talked about the border.
He agrees with Mr. Trump, he said, and though he feels bad for migrants fleeing violence, that’s no reason to let everyone just come into the U.S.
“Why do people have walls in their backyard?” he asked, passing off the microphone for the second time that night, after a second George Strait song. “Because they don’t want people in there. There’s no difference. Explain the difference to me.”
Mr. Gómez, who speaks Spanish and whose great-grandparents immigrated from Mexico, doesn’t feel as if the system can bear much more.
“I’m all for helping people,” he said. “But too many people are going to bring down our system.”
The border can be an
obsession. Or an afterthought.Day 1 ∙ January 10, 2019
There are no fences or border guards where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico, at the eastern endpoint of the border.
BROWNSVILLE — There are no signs, markers or commemorations. Just a languid river passing through, bearing the scent and sediment of its nearly 1,900-mile journey before it expires quietly in the Gulf of Mexico.
There are no fences or border guards, no migrants huddled along its channeled banks. Just a few fishermen on either side casting into the low tide of an early morning, equally stymied by an indifferent catch.
“Nada,” said Juan González of his quarry, echoing the deflated sentiment of his counterparts angling on the American side.
For Mr. González, a gas station attendant from nearby Matamoros, the border was an afterthought.
“I guess from here it’s pretty easy to cross,” said Mr. González, who comes to fish the river’s estuary twice a month and has never made the swim across. Never had any reason to, he said. “Here you don’t have walls and more walls like you do elsewhere.”
As the sun burned away the morning haze, a large white surveillance blimp was visible in the distance.
Migrant men get free haircuts at a shelter near Matamoros, in Mexico by the border with the United States.
For José Jesús Espinoza, who sat at a migrant shelter an hour’s drive away in Matamoros, getting back over the border was all that mattered.
His deportation from the United States earlier this week brought him back to Mexico for the first time in 15 years. The border now bisected his life, with his wife and three children still in North Carolina.
He would cross again, he knew that much. Legally, if possible. If not, given the current impasse over the border and migration, a wall would not stop him.
“We are going to cross one way or another,” he said, offering an incongruous smile. “I mean, we Mexicans have been doing that forever.”
Just over the bridge, in Brownsville, Tex., Narce Gómez sat behind the counter of a hierbería, a store offering tarot card readings, statuettes of saints, herbal remedies and candles.
Narce Gómez offers tarot card readings, herbal remedies and candles at a hierbería in Brownsville. Her clientele is largely Mexican-American.
Her clientele is largely Mexican-American, a population whose predecessors carried their cultures with them across the border generations before.
And perhaps that was the problem. There was a time, more than a decade back, when the lines of customers formed out the door to enter such shops. Nowadays, they are closing, one by one, as interest wanes.
“Practically all of this comes from Mexico,” she said, pointing to the disquieting lines of Santa Muerte effigies that lined her shop. “It crossed along with the people a long time ago.”
Produced by Juliana Barbassa, Meghan Petersen and Andrew Rossback. Maps by Anjali Singhvi.