South Texas Human Rights Center

In Search of the Lost

South Texas Human Rights Center | August 2023

A Constant Ringing

Every morning, before the Texas heat sets in, Eduardo “Eddie” Canales takes a 90-minute drive from Corpus Christi to a small brick building in Falfurrias. A white banner across the front announces the space as the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC). Eddie is the founder and director of the center, a place that has become a second home.

In his mid-seventies, he rarely sits still. His face always holds the beginnings of a smile that belies the work ahead.

There are plenty of tasks to complete, but they all start with a phone call. Really, many calls. Each one is a variation of the same scenario: a family member is searching for a loved one.

These loved ones are migrants who crossed the US-Mexico border some 70 miles south of Falfurrias. En route to larger cities—like Houston, Dallas, and others across state lines—they are believed to have disappeared in the sprawling brushland of South Texas. Since its founding in 2013, the STHRC has gained a reputation for helping people locate their missing kin. The center seeks an end to the death and suffering at the border, and its presence in Brooks County is by design. “The South Texas Human Rights Center continues to be in the right place even though it’s the wrong time for other people,” says Eddie.

They make good on that promise through long-term and immediate aid, like the empty blue bins stacked in the building, ready to be filled with gallon water jugs. In between answering calls, Eddie loads them both on his pick-up truck. These will become water stations for lost migrants, set out along the town’s highways and dirt roads. They keep migrants from drinking contaminated water from the livestock troughs or going without any at all. Eddie hopes that the water will write a new narrative for families who are searching, one where their loved ones are found alive.

South Texas is checkered with a myriad of landscapes, from inland saltwater lagoons to thick, thorny shrubland to oil fields.

Jake Rutherford and Steve Jeter

Some days, volunteers help make these rounds—the water stations are heavy in the hot sun, on sandy soil, and can require cutting back tall grass to make them visible. Other times, Eddie goes out alone. He is the only full-time staff member at the STHRC.

Back in the office, the phone continues to ring.

Nora Salinas, a former Justice of the Peace and the current Forensic Coordinator for the STHRC, helps Eddie answer the calls. She has extensive experience speaking with families desperate to find their missing kin. Before becoming Justice of the Peace, Nora served as an administrator in the county sheriff’s office, where similar calls were transferred to her beginning in 2009. As the only person in the office who spoke Spanish, she became a precious resource to callers with few—if any—other options.

Fifteen years later, she remains a calm voice and attentive ear on the other end. Families find the center through word-of-mouth and internet searches, believing the STHRC can do the miraculous. Nora is compassionate and patient, but the process is not simple. “They think we can get on the computer and tell [them] where [their] son, daughter…where their individuals are,” Nora explains. “And what we have to explain is that we are a non-profit organization. We take down the information of the missing and get details—date of birth, what country they come from. What’s most important is what point of entry did they enter through."

(Left) Eddie Canales exits his proudly well-worn truck to set out water on a ranch near the Falfurrias border patrol checkpoint. (Right) At the STHRC office, Nora Salinas answers incessant phone calls and fills out client intake forms.

Jake Rutherford

Time is an essential aspect. Details are quickly shared with contacts in the sheriff’s office and border patrol to see if any encounters have been made. Families text Eddie pictures of loved ones for further context. The GPS coordinates can be used to conduct search and rescue missions throughout the county; the faces are compared with binders of deceased bodies found in the area.

Eddie and Nora know the land well and seem to know everyone in it. Housed in a rural town of less than three square miles, the center is close-knit and operates with familiarity. This approach has helped them form lasting connections with partners throughout the local community and Texas at large. It’s this grassroots technique that makes the center so effective.

Among the dry, brushy landscape of South Texas, STHRC’s Eddie Canales refills water stations in between assisting families in locating loved ones who have gone missing while crossing the border.

Steve Jeter

“La tierra se lo tragó”

The drive towards Falfurrias, a town two and a half hours outside San Antonio, flashes by like a flip book. Except this picture mostly stays the same. Oak trees loom large in the distance, and loose patches of sandy soil sink with each footstep. Few land markers exist and it is hard to imagine navigating the topography. Without prior knowledge or wayfinding, disorientation is inevitable. Yet, the rugged terrain has seen many footprints of disappeared travelers.

A migrant’s path has been exhausting up to this point and their reasons for making the trip are personal. For some, the journey began in Central and South America, where a chance to escape the realities of domestic violence, a country’s economic insecurity, or the effects of climate change fuels the search for work and stability elsewhere. Migrants who reside nearby in Mexico, with family in southern Texas, have a shorter distance to cross. At certain points on the border, the countries are a 20-minute drive apart, separated only by a rusted, winding wall.

(Left) A border crossing in Laredo, Texas, is one of many well-guarded ports of entry on the US-Mexico border. (Right) The border wall snakes its way through South Texas, near Santa Maria.

Jake Rutherford

Migrants are often led by coyotes, or smugglers, who promise to take large groups of people across the border for a fee. The groups have already anticipated an arduous journey, having to traverse land and bodies of water to cross into the U.S. But as they are driven north on Highway 281 into Falfurrias, migrants are often left unprepared for what comes next.

Customs and Border Protection maintains one of the busiest checkpoints in Texas at the Falfurrias Station. While not directly on the U.S. border, this sprawling land serves as a second boundary line for undocumented migrants. To circumvent the checkpoint, they are let out a few miles from the station and directed by coyotes to cut through the Texas brush. The directive extends a final stretch into a multi-day trek, even as personal supplies and strength run out.

Nature wrestles with all travelers, making the risks of wandering in the brush quite high. Temperatures are sweltering during the day, reaching over 105℉. Scattered backpacks and trampled sweatshirts attest to the physical weariness that strips a person of all but their most essential items. With no one aware they are there, migrants can disappear into the landscape. Some are found still breathing, but many do not survive and are overtaken by dehydration, heat exhaustion, separation from travel companions, or losing their way entirely. Eddie describes the fate of a migrant whose family called recently following an unsuccessful search: “La tierra se lo tragó.” The earth swallowed him up.

The US-Mexico border has been characterized as the deadliest land crossing worldwide: more than 8,000 people have perished attempting to cross undetected between 1998 and 2020. The magnitude of the loss is particularly high in South Texas. Falfurrias is the largest town in Brooks County, a region known as the “Corridor of Death.” It holds the highest record of migrant deaths in this part of Texas, with an estimated 2,000 migrant bodies found here since 2008.

Brooks County is home to a privately managed detention center (left) that houses detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is also the site of the Falfurrias border patrol checkpoint (right), which forces migrants hoping to avoid detection to venture onto the surrounding ranch land, contributing to the county’s high migrant death toll.

Steve Jeter

The South Texas Human Rights Center opened its doors in response to this spike in deaths and disappearances. A friend of Eddie’s took up similar humanitarian aid in Arizona and California border towns but started to get more calls from Texas. “In six months, he received over a hundred calls of people going missing,” Eddie explains. “And he was unaware of the terrain.” With a background in community organizing for farmers and third-party movements, Eddie started making calls to understand the scope of the work. What he found shocked him.

“The year before, 129 bodies and remains were recovered in Brooks County. And it was very surprising to me, not knowing how this could happen. That’s one hour from where I live, and there’s a major humanitarian crisis taking place,” he reflects. Something needed to be done to seek out the lost and prevent further deaths.

So, Eddie came out of retirement and rented space for the center across the street from the Brooks County courthouse in Falfurrias. He began to make water stations, stenciling airbrushed labels on their sides and the center’s contact information inside the lids.

Through it all, Eddie’s phone was never far from him.

The STHRC maintains over 40 water stations around Falfurrias. These bright blue buckets, filled with several one-gallon water jugs, dot the landscape—in thickets of live oaks, on the side of dry gravel ranch roads, on the edges of rural cemeteries.

Jake Rutherford

In Memory of Lupe

Esther and her sister Lupe grew up in Ciudad Frontera, Mexico, in a large family. They were close as adolescents and known for their laughter; people often mistook them for one another. Today, at her home in Houston, Esther holds out family portraits of her sister; Lupe’s smiling face closely resembles her own.

The pictures capture Lupe as a stylish woman with dark hair and a penchant for bright colors. Esther tells us that Lupe was a skilled beautician in Mexico; it’s what she left behind in coming to the U.S. She had already tried once to cross into the Texas border town of McAllen on her way to New Mexico but was deported. Still, she decided to make the journey again.

It was 2012 when Esther and her family discovered that her sister Lupe was missing.

The details surrounding this second attempt—whether or not Lupe crossed with a group, how she ended up in Brooks County—are fuzzy. “I don’t understand that part of the story still,” says Esther. “We didn’t communicate a lot about that.” Lupe prepared for the trip on her own and never told her family she was coming—she was in a relationship they disapproved of. Looking back, they now believe the relationship motivated her return.

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Esther holds a photo of her sister Lupe—a framed photograph that typically rests at the feet of the Virgin Mary on a shrine in her Houston home.

Jake Rutherford

About a month into learning that Lupe was missing, Esther’s daughter received a cryptic call from her aunt’s phone: a voice said that she no longer exists. “It sounded like she was there, but silence,” remembers Esther’s daughter. It was as if Lupe were being watched and told not to speak. The behavior is in line with the operations of coyotes, who may confiscate migrants’ phones. Esther and her family still wonder if, with help, they would have been able to find Lupe. But they didn’t have contacts at the time for that kind of search and didn’t know where to start.

As time went on, there were still no answers, no way of knowing, for sure, Lupe’s fate. Families seeking their kin are forced into scenarios of uncertainty. It is possible that their loved one may be alive in a detention center as they await return to their home country. Migrants may also be found in the brushland if someone knows where to search for them. It is hard to know what to believe without a definitive answer. Disappearances leave families suspended between hope and despair.

Esther’s grandmother had passed away just before she learned that Lupe was missing. “I was half dead when my grandmother died… and then I died again with my sister.”

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Esther shares stories of Lupe through family photos.

Jake Rutherford

In 2014, Esther’s daughter saw an advertisement on local television encouraging families of missing migrants to take part in a one-day initiative. Missing in Harris County Day was organized by Houston Unidos, a group of volunteers that ran in the same circles as Eddie. They supported families in filing missing person reports and collecting DNA samples, jumpstarting their chances of finding relatives through national DNA repositories. Some seekers are unaware that the complicated process to compare samples of the missing with that of unidentified skeletal remains exists—that a small chance of resolution is even possible. Esther’s daughter believed it was worth a try to learn the truth about Lupe because, as she told her mom, “You’re not gonna cry anymore.” Esther decided to participate.

Another two years passed before a phone call came from the Mexican consulate in May 2016: there was a match. Lupe’s skeletal remains had been tested for DNA and stored in a facility at Texas State University; they could now be returned to her family.

That one phone call resolved a nearly five-year-long question: “It was like a miracle for me,” Esther remembered. But for many families, that call never comes.

Personhood for the Unknown

The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University sits on a verdant field of donated land in San Marcos, Texas. Several locked doors secure the entrance of the lab. The first thing to notice is the distinct odor. A room of freezers is off to one side while skulls and personal effects are carefully laid out in a separate room; a severed thumb lay in a petri dish nearby. The bones have undergone an intense cleaning to remove all flesh before DNA extraction. Storage space in the back is stacked from floor to ceiling with carefully cataloged cardboard boxes of these migrant remains, hoping they will eventually match with a relative’s DNA sample.

Esther can recall the exact date she drove out to visit the forensic center: January 10, 2017. Lupe’s remains were identified here, and Eddie accompanied her for support. There, Esther and her family were once again confronted with their grief. “I was afraid to learn that she wasn’t alive anymore,” says Esther of seeing Lupe’s remains. But her own handwriting on a prayer, kept among other effects found with Lupe’s body, was confirmation. They carried the box of remains back to Houston to hold a wake with close relatives; a proper burial followed in Mexico.

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At Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center, Dr. Spradley conducts forensic investigations of recovered remains and personal effects, like this handwritten psalm.

Jake Rutherford

The Mexican consulate in Austin coordinated the meeting through a project called Operation Identification (OpID), a community partner of the STHRC. The project identifies and repatriates unidentified human remains, believing that families deserve to know the fate of their loved ones.

As a forensic anthropologist, professor, and founder of OpID, Dr. Kate Spradley began working with Eddie on migrant recoveries based on similar findings. “We…realized that DNA samples weren’t being taken, that there was no possibility of identification,” Dr. Spradley points out. A survey of cemeteries revealed that DNA sampling of unidentified bodies taxes a system already at capacity, leaving migrant bodies in the shadows. “There’s this differential treatment between U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens that are found dead.”

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Dr. Kate Spradley stands next to a migrant’s remains at the forensic center. “This is our immigration policy. And this should not be our policy. This was a person, with a story, with loved ones.”

Jake Rutherford

Texas is unique in its handling of death declarations. In smaller counties with fewer resources, the Justice of the Peace assumes the same jurisdictional authority as a medical examiner. As Justice of the Peace for Brooks County from 2018 to 2022, Nora Salinas was the one called to the scene when a migrant body was discovered—the one tasked with completing the death certificate. It was heavy work to do.

They also absorb the costs of DNA testing, which can reach close to $2,000 per case. Their budgets cover about five autopsies per year. In 2021, Brooks County recorded 119 migrant deaths. “It’s impacting these counties to where they don’t want to deal with it,” Nora explains.

She now educates judges about the benefits of partnering with OpID to alleviate some of the burden. With funding through federal grants, OpID keeps migrant bodies from being buried atop one another, marked only by temporary grave markers. For Nora, the benefits go beyond administrative support as she emphasizes OpID’s main goal: “It changes case numbers to names.”

(Left) A photo of a previous exhumation in South Texas hangs on the wall of the forensic lab. (Right) Migrant bodies are placed outside the forensic center in a waiting area before being ready for examination and cataloging in the lab.

Jake Rutherford

Forty-five body bags were brought to the Forensic Anthropology Center when OpID first started. “The first thing we noticed was a backpack that was full of chips and ramen noodles,” Dr. Spradley says of the contents uncovered by her team of Ph.D. students. The food felt eerily familiar to their own lives. As part of the process, Dr. Spradley and her team checked for false pockets inside clothing and items hidden in shoes. They found a license tucked into the insole, identifying the body as a woman from Honduras. She was the same age as Dr. Spradley.

Personal effects like handwritten letters, jewelry, and even remnants of a last meal, acknowledge the reality of a migrant’s life—who they were, what they cherished, and how they best prepared for an excruciating journey. Belongings and remains are part of a person’s whole being, given rest once identified by their family. The process allows the unidentified to be remembered instead as a loved individual.

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After cleaning and DNA extraction, migrant remains are carefully cataloged and placed into long rectangular boxes stacked in the forensic center’s storage room, waiting to be identified.

Jake Rutherford

The Pieces of the Puzzle

Esther refers to the search for Lupe as a “puzzle.” Putting it together has taken her across Texas and Mexico. She has also had to assume the role of investigator, overcoming fear to gain closure by seeking out resources that may have answers. “Not speaking English is a thing that frustrates me more than anything,” she admits. “[But] it doesn’t stop me.” Gesturing towards our translator, she explains, “A lot of people can help me speak.”

“The most important thing about the center is that we become a voice for them in the whole process,” says Eddie. Families like Esther’s independently navigate an unfamiliar system and setting under dire circumstances. The South Texas Human Rights Center becomes a conduit for connection. “They may be in Guatemala, El Salvador, up in DC, or somewhere in North Carolina,” Eddie explains. “They’re desperate because they know they don’t know anybody, and we’re down here in the thick of it.”

The STHRC is part of a broader effort to remedy the treatment of migrants in life and death at the southern border. The connections Eddie and partners like Dr. Spradley have formed are both fluid and vital. “If you don't have the relationships, then you can't put people together,” Eddie explains. “And it is about putting people together for affecting some change.”

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STHRC board member Rolegio Nuñez stands by one of his favorite cultural heritage murals near the Proyecto Libertad office in Harlingen.

Jake Rutherford

One person he often turns to is Rogelio Nuñez, founder of the advocacy organization Proyecto Libertad and a board member of the STHRC. Having lived his entire life in San Benito, a city less than 10 miles from the Rio Grande, Rogelio shares the cultural history of migration in the region with the skill of a storyteller. He has great pride in the people of this place and has worked for years championing their livelihood.

From 1981 to 2001, his non-profit offered legal services to migrants held in a local detention center, one case at a time. “Our job was to go Monday through Friday to interview individuals who might have a claim for asylum,” he says. “In those 20 years, asylum claims were denied at rates of 98%.” The system has not gotten any better for asylum seekers, but the STHRC still calls on him for assistance when a migrant is found alive. He is also helping Dr. Kate Spradley gain access to a cemetery near San Benito for exhumations. After helping to open up more than 25,000 asylum applications and supporting migrant recovery work, Rogelio echoes Esther, “It’s a huge puzzle.”

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Unmarked graves of migrants lay bare and grassless at the Guillen Community Cemetery, a site Dr. Spradley is working to gain access to, with the help of Rogelio and the STHRC.

Jake Rutherford

Sister Norma Pimentel is another in the network of individuals offering holistic care to migrants on the border. She is the Executive Director for the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which oversees a respite center in McAllen, Texas. Her demeanor is calm and steady amidst the hum of daily life. Children participate in volunteer-led crafts, making new friends despite the circumstances. Their parents charge phones, hoping to reach family members after being released from a detention center. Families receive food, clothing, and medical attention as they seek asylum and work through next steps.

Sister Norma and Eddie first connected in 2014. Sister Norma keeps her ear to the ground, a vital source of information for Eddie and others searching for answers along the border. Given her visibility to the public, families often reach out to Sister Norma looking for information on their missing loved ones. She refers them to the South Texas Human Rights Center. “Bringing closure to families, the ritual of closure, is very important,” she says. She continues to create spaces of rest for the weary: “We [the Catholic church] are working at establishing a burial site specifically for migrants.”

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Sister Norma embracing a child housed at the Catholic Charities Respite Center in the heart of McAllen, Texas.

Jake Rutherford

When Dr. Gregory Cuéllar and his wife first visited the Catholic Charities Respite Center, they witnessed a visible change in children’s expressions when asked a seemingly simple question: what are your dreams?

It led them to found Arte de Lágrimas (The Art of Tears), a healing vehicle for unaccompanied youth to share their journeys and future hopes through art. What emerged is an archive of stories that offer the public a different view of the migration experience. “I don’t want to diminish the encounters with these artists,” says Dr. Cuéllar. “They’re asylum seekers for the moment, but they are creators of worlds in the long term.”

As an associate professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Dr. Cuéllar prepares his students for religious leadership through an annual seminar, which includes a pilgrimage to South Texas. Falfurrias is their first stop, “a strategic point of entry for understanding what’s happening in our part of the world,” he says. “This [Falfurrias] is where it ends for a lot of people.”

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Dr. Gregory Cuéllar in the chapel of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where he facilitates border dialogues and experiences for future religious leaders—who carry those stories with them to parishes across the country.

Jake Rutherford

That awareness of loss anchors the partners’ collaboration. It also fuels their pursuit of healing for families on a broader scale. One roadblock to identification is the lack of data sharing across international borders. Dr. Spradley and Eddie are part of a coalition that has spent the last six years petitioning the FBI to broaden its DNA database to include transnational samples. In 2023, the policy was effectively changed after two families, who lost all their children in border crossings, testified to their need for answers. Their plea proves what Sister Norma has come to know: “Honoring the spiritual nature of a person is very important.”

An organization like the STHRC is able to respond to families because of this web of actors in which they are enmeshed. Collectively, these individuals have rooted themselves on the southern U.S. border to ensure migrants are not known as a number or solely by tragedy. It is slow work that seeks to honor these lives by name—in breath and bone.

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Unaccompanied minors illustrate their journey during sessions facilitated by Arte de Lagrimas—a visual testament to the human toll of migration.

Arte de Lágrimas

The Work of Closure

A burial shrine sits hidden outside Falfurrias, erected in honor of Don Pedro Jamarillo. A revered curandero, a folk medicine healer, was buried here in 1907. He often traveled on foot or by donkey to cure those experiencing pain at the margins of the land: ranch laborers of Mexican descent who were unable to receive healthcare elsewhere. His prescribed remedies of eating particular vegetables, drinking more water, or bathing may seem simple in today’s modern research. But his sincere attention to those rendered unseen made him a saint in the eyes of the healed.

The site continues to draw large numbers of people searching for the miraculous. Inside the shrine, the walls are covered in beaded rosaries, family photos, and thumbtacks securing torn prayers—expressions that put names and a face to the communal suffering in the area. Don Pedro’s small patch of land still gives eyes to the unseen and ears to the unheard.

Dr. Cuéllar begins his border experience trips to Falfurrias because of the shrine’s history and location. The route to it passes by the first built detention center in South Texas. The trip to the shrine felt different after becoming familiar with Eddie and the STHRC. “Passing by that [detention center] onto the shrine creates a paradox between two different modes of care,” Dr. Cuéllar observes. He views Eddie’s efforts towards repatriation as holistic healing, in the same vein as Don Pedro.

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The burial shrine of Don Pedro Jamarillo, a sacred site where many seek healing and guidance. For many migrants the shrine is also a safe place to find clean drinking water—an STHRC water station sits directly behind the shrine.

Jake Rutherford

“The work of recovering remains, of connecting with family members, and trying to find ways to bring some form of closure—which does include a burial—these are modes that summon the sacred for families,” Dr. Cuéllar shares.

The search for the missing is an act of remembrance, one that still carries tension for families who have suffered such enduring losses.

After Esther received Lupe’s remains, there was still a desire to know where her sister spent her final moments. She and her husband, Oscar, spoke with the local officials and discovered that Lupe’s body was first found on a well-known ranch. “We wanted to go out like we do in Mexico, to go out and put a cross [there],” shares Oscar. But a majority of the land in South Texas is private property; they were not allowed to place a memorial there. The highway was suggested as an alternative location, but one that felt like an erasure. “It’s like we are gonna put a stain in these lands,” he says.

Esther has created her own memorial for Lupe in her living room in Houston. She honors her sister here by placing her photo among candles and rosaries. Now that she and her family have an answer to Lupe’s disappearance, they live daily with the reality of loss. Esther explains it as “a wound in the heart that stays with the family.”

Cognizant of the weight of this loss, Eddie continues to spend each day in his weathered Chevy 4x4, maintaining water stations, breaking to answer phone calls and reach out to anyone who might know something. The STHRC labors on, advocating for families like Esther’s who are separated from closure by a snaking border wall. Eddie—who himself was raised in a border town—wipes the sweat from his forehead, “[We’re] attempting to give people hope that there’s somebody out there for us.”

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A line of white crosses sits across the street from the STHRC office, in front of the Brooks County courthouse. The center plants a cross for each migrant death reported—a visual reminder of an active humanitarian crisis. Each year the count restarts.

Jake Rutherford

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Editor's Note

This was a story that, from the moment it was nominated, our entire team was committed to producing. It is emblematic of the kind of organization BitterSweet seeks to amplify, always. Even so, I was amazed to read about Eddie and Dr. Spradley. Human dignity and the peace of family members after death is not something we often cover, yet it is a profound way to recognize humanity. The water of life and the remains of death mark remote points on a cycle that the South Texas Human Right Center and Operation Identification serve equally.

Thank you to Eddie, Nora, and Dr. Spradley for opening up their work to our team and to our readers. Their work is a full expression of noble diligence. Thank you to Esther for telling the story of Lupe to us. Though Lupe represents many hundreds or thousands of missing migrant travelers, we value her and her family's story individually.

Thank you to Avery, Jake, Britnie, and Steve for the incredible amount of work they did in putting this story together and to Dave Baker who put in no small amount of work to make this story shine.

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Robert Winship


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