AUSTIN – A new baseball in a dirty, a worn-out backpack, a stuffed toy with a bit of the store tag still attached and even a wrestling mask are among the personal belongings that may be clues to the identity of migrants who’ve been dying in South Texas.
The belongings on the website "I Have a Name, Yo Tengo Nombre" show religious artifacts, shoes, clothing, wedding rings and toiletries, the kinds of items that could belong to anyone.
Online since late last year, the bilingual database with photos of personal effects from the remains of unidentified migrants has already has been viewed in 140 countries, according its creator Jen Reel, the multimedia editor at the Texas Observer, the longtime Austin-based, nonprofit news magazine.
“The most traffic is definitely coming from the United States,” Reel said.
Many undocumented families were awaiting loved ones to join them.
Reel said the idea for a database came while working with Dr. Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist whose students have exhumed unidentified remains from Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias.
Brooks County is notorious for the number of undocumented migrants who have perished crossing its desert-like terrain, trying to circumvent the Border Patrol checkpoint.
Reel said that Baker gave her access to photograph the belongings in the hopes that the families of the missing would recognize the items, leading to possible identifications through skeletal and DNA analysis.
“You can’t help but think of the different individual stories,” Reel said. “That was pretty motivating for me to continue.”
Reel said that as a photographer, she wanted to depict another way of looking at the undocumented.
“I wanted to get farther away from the stereotypes that those particular images can create,” she said.
The Texas Observer, in publication since 1954, won an Emmy for its four-part multimedia series, “Beyond the Border,” which was based in Brooks County.
“It’s incredible that this humanitarian crisis is happening, really, in our backyard,” said Forrest Wilder, editor of the Texas Observer.
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Wilder said he thought “I Have a Name, Yo Tengo Nombre” was a great idea from the beginning.
“It seemed that it was something that we were kind of compelled or called on to do as an extension of the story,” Wilder said. “We couldn’t look away. We had to tell these stories and keep telling them.”
Wilder said their database is a good start, but the government or a larger institution needs to do more of the same on an ongoing, larger scale.
Reel said “I Have a Name, Yo Tengo Nombre” is simple to navigate with information on when and where the remains and the items were found. She said of the three families who thought they recognized some of the items, two didn’t pan out, but another is still pending.
However, Reel helped make one identification even before the database was launched, thanks to a name on a child’s drawing.
When she Google searched the name, Reel said she found a newspaper ad looking for the woman from Ecuador. DNA analysis confirmed it was her.
Reel said she is trying to spread the word among consulates and Spanish-language media that the database exists for the sake of desperate families awaiting word on the fate of their missing loved ones.