All that remained of Maria Ofelia Muñoz Valenzuela was her skull.
Her daughter, Elena Gonzalez, had been searching for her mother for 21 years. “I didn’t know if she was dead or alive,” Gonzalez said. “But I lived the illusion that she could still be alive, and that one day I would be able to hug her again. After all she would always be my mother.”
But last year, due to DNA testing and the efforts of a human rights organization, what Gonzalez long had dreaded was confirmed: Her mother had died, most likely trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States. The special pain of not knowing her fate, at least, was over.
“Disappearance is a distinct form of grief,” said Ben Clark, the Family Network Director for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, the group that helped Gonzalez learn what happened to her mother. “There’s an uncertainty and powerlessness that is overwhelming.”
And in the attempted journey to a new life in America, many people disappear, often with little trace left behind.
Elena Gonzalez is 35 now. She came to the United States in 2005, first settling in Florida. She later moved to New York and today she lives in the Morris Heights neighborhood in the Bronx with her husband and two stepchildren. She was 15, though, when she last spoke to her mother in 1997 on the phone. Gonzalez was still in Mexico at the time, but her mother had attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border through Rio Grande, Texas, and was being held in detention by U.S. authorities, according to Gonzalez.
“I feel like that day was her goodbye to me,” Gonzalez said, as she sat in her small Bronx apartment, her eyes welling up with tears. “On the phone, she told me that she loved me very much, and that she was having a really difficult time in detention.”
But her mother didn’t want to go back home to Ignacio de la Llave, in Mexico’s Gulf state of Veracruz. Life there had not been pleasant—and it wasn’t just the lack of opportunity, Gonzalez said. She and her mother had both been victims of domestic violence at the hands of her father. He would often make Gonzalez watch as he sat Valenzuela in a chair and beat her, Gonzalez recalled, with a long cord he would use as a whip.
“She was so tired of being mistreated, that’s why she left,” Gonzalez said of her late mother. “On that phone call she told me she was too afraid to come back home once she had left, because she thought my father would hurt her even more than he already had.”
Gonzalez never spoke to her mother again. Valenzuela remained among the ranks of thousands who have disappeared in the U.S.-Mexico border area in recent years.
But then Gonzalez heard through friends and social media that some groups were using DNA tests to try and identify remains found along the border. One of the groups was the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, based in Tucson, Arizona.
In 2016, Gonzalez gave a DNA sample to the Colibrí Center. The organization, which works with several border-area medical examiner offices, would check for a match with any remains kept in those offices.
In July of 2018, Gonzalez received a call from Colibrí. Gonzalez’s DNA matched that of remains that were in Webb County, Texas, along the Mexican border. Her mother’s skull had been found—in a law enforcement evidence room in Laredo in 2011—but the connection with Gonzalez had not been made until seven years later. Authorities suspect that the skull was discovered on a ranch in Webb County, but it is unclear how the remains were found and how they ended up in a police evidence room.
Also unclear is what happened to Valenzuela after she was put in detention—and how she ultimately died.
“The news was devastating for me,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “But at least, in a way, I accomplished what I promised myself I would do when I came this country: find out what happened to my mother.”
Between 1998-2017, 7,216 separate human remains have been found along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. From 2000 to 2017, the average number of recorded deaths along the border was 372 per year, according to Colibrí. But human rights organizations such as Colibrí say that these figures vastly underestimate the scope of the casualties. The cases of many “missing” at the border are never reported to authorities. “The actual number of remains that are found is likely just a fraction of the people who have died at the border,” Clark said in a phone interview.
While some Americans defend the policies, activists like Clark disagree. “The authorities have a policy of preventing migrants from crossing through the criminalization of migration,” Clark said. “This is what deters people from finding safer ways to cross the border, and it started in 1994 during the Clinton administration.” Clark said these policies continue today, though there is no set way yet to measure the impact on migrants, whose disappearances are often not recorded.
In 2016, Colibrí, a non-profit that is named after the word in Spanish for hummingbird, launched a DNA identification program along the border. To participate in the program, families file a missing persons report with the organization and are interviewed—Colibrí staff ask questions meant to help in identifying the lost, such as: Did the missing family member ever break a bone? Did they have any implants? What were the circumstances of the attempted border crossing?
People from across the globe have filed 3,792 missing persons reports with Colibrí; 25 of these reports were filed from the New York City area. Colibrí collects DNA samples from parents, children, or siblings and partner with various medical examiner offices to see if they match any remains found along the southern border. Clark says that many people find their organization through social media, Spanish-language media, and word of mouth.
But the process, since the moment someone disappears, is plagued with intense ambiguity, Clark said. Colibrí also helps facilitate group therapy and support systems for family members of missing migrants. In New York City, the organization hopes to have one of these groups set up by March, Clark said.
Since the program started in 2016, the non-profit has collected 817 DNA samples. Of these, 66 come from people in the New York City area looking for loved ones believed lost while attempting to cross the border.
Elena Gonzalez confirmed that her mother had indeed perished along the border, though many questions remain about what happened to her. But some families of the missing don’t have Gonzalez’s sense of closure, however limited. They still live in a state of constant uncertainty, without any news of where their loved ones have gone.
Hugo Patricio Tenezaca left Ecuador in 2012 to join his mother, who had years earlier crossed into the United States. He and his mother, Romelia, were in contact by phone and text from the moment he left his home in the Ecuadoran province of Cañar. But suddenly, his mother recalled, she stopped hearing from him.
Tenezaca had left his country to pursue his dream of studying design, and to leave the household where his father would beat him violently, Romelia recounted quietly at her apartment kitchen table in Queens. She, too, had been abused by her husband, she said. Before starting the interview she asked her youngest son, Kevin, to stay in his room with their family chihuahua. He is just ten, Romelia said, and was born in the United States. He gets upset hearing about his brother’s story. And she didn’t want Kevin to see her crying about it again, she explained.
Romelia had payed $14,000 for a coyote [smuggler] to take Tenezaca across the border.
“He had told me that there were a lot of drugs, a lot of violence along the way, and that they were attacked on the way but that he escaped,” Romelia said, recalling their conversations, including his accounts of reaching Guatemala and crossing into Mexico.
On June 17, 2012, she said, her son telephoned and told her he was going to cross into the United States. “I gave him my blessing,” Romelia said. “I told him that he had to be strong, and that soon we would be together.”
That’s when she stopped hearing from him. After ten days with no word from her son, she began to worry. She started calling people whom she knew had been on the journey with him. She learned that Tenezaca had likely disappeared near the border town of San Luis in Pima County, Arizona.
“Some people would tell me one version, and other people would tell me another version,” Romelia said, trembling as she recounted the steps she went through to try and piece together an account of her son’s fate. “I would like to be there on the border looking for him,” Romelia said. “But I don’t have legal status yet in this country, so I can’t travel. But if not, I would be searching for him every day.”
Tenezaca was nineteen years old when he disappeared. Soon after, Romelia said she started receiving ransom calls demanding she pay sums of money—if not, her son would be killed, the voices on the phone told her. She said she sent these unknown callers more than $10,000 through Western Union. But they stole her money and she never heard from them again—or from her son.
Romelia herself crossed the U.S. Mexico border thirteen years ago, through the Rio Grande in Texas along with a group of 150 other people, she says. She has three other children. The youngest, Kevin Macancela, lives with her in an apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Romelia has provided DNA samples to Colibrí to see if they match any catalogued remains, but nothing has yet to come back positive.
“This is such an immense pain to have that I would never wish upon anyone else,” Romelia said.
She took a breath and held her head in her hands, through sobs that pierced through her apartment. “I still have hope that one day I will find my son. I don’t know how, but I have to find him. He told me he was going to be here. So I just know that one day I will see him again.”