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Commentary: Day Of The Dead And Dead Migrants

In the United States, the majority of migrant deaths occur in Texas.

In 2017, of all the 294 deaths recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol, 104 happened in the Rio Grande Valley. In recent years, many of those who died were unceremoniously and summarily buried in unmarked graves in places like the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias, Texas. If Dia de Los Muertos celebrates the lives of the dead, who will remember these migrants?

Texas Public Radio contributor Yvette Benavides shares this commentary.

Students and faculty from the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Center have been on a quest since 2013 to exhume and identify the bodies of migrants at the Falfurrias Sacred Heart Burial Park.

The work is deliberate and painstaking. Next steps include a protracted process of DNA testing and detective work that will eventually take those who have perished back to their country of origin.

The first thing you notice driving through the narrow entrance of the cemetery is uneven rows of headstones festooned with gold, orange, and brown decorations. “Happy Fall” says one small placard hanging from a wire arbor trellis.  Statues of Mary and Jesus flank either side of a large family headstone, their open arms inviting a closer look at the dusty artificial flowers ubiquitous here.

Empty beer bottles, coffee mugs, and sports team tchotchkes indicate what the departed loved in life. It is the Day of the Dead every day here it seems. Some cemeteries have strict rules about what one can leave at a grave.  Not here.  The Facebook page of the cemetery shows photos of families out for picnics at the graves. Children smile at the camera sitting atop a headstone or embracing it.  “The Day of the Dead is for the living,” one Falfurrias resident there to visit her parents’ grave tells me. “We celebrate their lives, she says, but it’s for us, too.”

There is just one section of the park where there are no gravestones with Spanish surnames, the segregated space from another era frozen in time.  The common denominator is the American flag — intact or in tatters before the grave of a Mendoza or a Murphy and others of all stripes who served in various wars.

Most striking among the graves of those gone too soon is one marked by a rough-hewn, homemade headstone. In a shaky hand, someone wrote, “Our Angel” and the day-old child’s name. Strewn around the grave, a panoply of sun-faded toys, two plastic blue birds in flight, a Garfield cat, a wind-up bunny, a smiling snowman, a dinosaur with arms akimbo, tiny porcelain angels. Plastic flowers have been firmly set in the ground.  They seem as permanent as death itself.

This is where the forensic anthropology team has labored for an entire day to excavate two spaces adjacent to the baby’s headstone. They dig and sweep and brush.  They shovel dirt into bucket after bucket.  They see the evidence of a body bag and the work slows down even more as they measure coordinates, record data. The work becomes surgical, not an aimless dig. They are relentless and focused, removing layers of clothes as the day wears on and donning face masks and gloves to pull the body bag it has taken over nine hours to fully expose.

A half-block down a woman gets out of her truck. She solemnly adjusts the plastic orange flowers in a vase and runs her hand along the name on the headstone. She stands in the silence for a moment, makes the sign of the cross, returns to her truck and drives along toward the exit of the park, crepe paper ribbons, wind chimes and mylar balloons waving behind her.

DNA tests will be done on the skeletal remains that have just been pulled out of the ground. Eventually there will be a name, and a family that will mourn and remember and celebrate the life of this person, too.

David Martin Davies can be reached at DMDavies@TPR.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi.