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The Things They Left Behind

When migrants die in South Texas, the objects they leave behind hold clues to their identities.

In the fall of 2013, Observer reporter Melissa del Bosque and I visited Baylor University’s forensics lab, one of several Texas labs that handles the remains of unidentified migrants who die in Texas after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The forensic anthropologists at Baylor and elsewhere perform skeletal analysis and/or DNA testing in the hopes of gleaning enough information to identify people and return them to their families.

We watched as Dr. Lori Baker and her team at the lab inspected a blue backpack that had been buried with remains exhumed from a Brooks County cemetery earlier that year. They carefully placed its contents on the examining table. Most of the items were ordinary toiletries: a comb, razor, tweezers and deodorant. But there were more personal belongings too — a rosary, a diamond ring, a clean, unused baseball — that prompted questions from the group. Who was this man? Where was he going and why? Was there a family waiting for him? Was he taking the baseball to his daughter or son? The ring to his love? Such objects hint at a story about the person they were connected to, but they can also be keys to unlocking the individual’s identity.

The lab visit was one of numerous trips I made with Melissa for “Beyond the Border,” a four-part series that utilized multiple viewpoints to describe the depths of the humanitarian crisis in Brooks County. After crossing into Texas, migrants are transported north until they approach a Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias, 70 miles from the border. From there, smugglers lead groups for several days through harsh, remote ranchland to avoid the checkpoint. If people can’t keep up, they’re left behind. Old, young, female, male, pregnant, sick, injured: The punishing journey can end in tragedy for anyone. In the last 15 years, since the checkpoint was made permanent, hundreds have died, their identities often unknown to those who find them.

But to their families, they are loved ones who’ve gone missing. In 2013, 31-year-old Exelina Hernandez fled El Salvador and the gang members who were threatening her. Hernandez traveled for three weeks to reach the Texas border and then found herself on that same dangerous walk around the checkpoint. Along the way, she befriended an older woman in their group. Once the group reached Houston, the woman called Hernandez’s mother, Elsy, with devastating news. “The men carried her on their backs,” the woman said. “Even one of the smugglers carried her for a while. They didn’t want to leave her, but they just couldn’t carry her anymore, and she couldn’t walk. … We prayed with your daughter. I told her, ‘Don’t give up. Think of your children. They are waiting for you.’” Two years later, Elsy is still waiting for someone to tell her where her daughter is.

Such stories inspired this photo essay. These objects belonged to real people — people who wanted to play baseball with their kids, or propose to their love, or see their parents again, and were willing to risk their lives to do so. We should feel compelled to ask why.

We also realized that these photos could do more than build awareness; they could help families identify and recover their loved ones. This realization has inspired another project: We are building a database that includes images of personal belongings and information gleaned from the forensic work of Baker’s team. Although we can’t include all of the cases under review in Texas, we’ve committed to photo documentation of items found with remains currently under Baylor’s supervision. The online tool will be searchable by keyword in both Spanish and English. We hope the project, which we’re calling “I Have a Name/Yo Tengo Nombre,” will contribute to efforts to restore identity to the deceased and bring closure to their families. For more information on this project and to learn how you can help support it, please visit texasobserver.org/TengoNombre.

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CASE 0354
The remains are presumed to be female. The femur shows a massive break that was surgically repaired with a metal rod inserted into the bone. The body was found in a sundress and slippers. Homemade slings, used to carry water, are commonly found on the ranches traversed by migrants.

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CASE 0435
The remains are presumed to be male and were found February 9, 2012, on the Laborcitas Creek Ranch, 1.2 miles from the nearest road. They were exhumed from the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias on May 23, 2013. All items were found in the blue backpack.

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The remains, exhumed from the Sacred Heart Cemetery in 2014, have not yet been identified as male or female. Found with them were this key chain and necklace, as well as a bag of buttons.

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CASE 0408
The remains are presumed to be male, aged 35 to 56, and were found on November 3, 2009, on the Coldwell Ranch. They were exhumed from the Sacred Heart Cemetery on May 26, 2013. The ring was sewn into the waistband of a pair of pants, and a brand tag was still attached to the stuffed lion.

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CASE 0462
The remains are presumed to be male, aged 30 to 50, and were found January 7, 2013, on the Laborcitas Creek Ranch about 2 miles from the nearest road. The ball of the femur shows severe damage, possibly related to an untreated hip break or fracture. The Baylor lab team noted that walking with this injury would be extremely painful.

*If you’d like to donate to this project, please visit texasobserver.org/TengoNombre.

Jen Reel was an Observer intern before joining the staff in July 2010, first as Web Editor, and most recently as Multimedia Editor.

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