Muted by the highway traffic behind them, two men recited quiet prayers Saturday at a roadside memorial honoring the memory of immigrants left for dead inside a tractor-trailer in 2003.

Victoria residents Cesar Hernandez, 63, and Jose Godinez, 51, were alone in their visit to the memorial because of concerns that a larger gathering might risk spreading the new coronavirus. For the past 17 years, the annual gatherings have attracted each year dozens of visitors from Victoria, Houston and elsewhere in Texas and even those from as far as California.

“This year, not too many people can come because of COVID-19,” Hernandez said. “We do this to pay respect to them and keep them in mind. We have not forgotten these people.”

Also Saturday, Victoria County public health officials reported a seventh death related to COVID-19 in Victoria County.

That person, a man in his 60s, had been hospitalized in Victoria County.

Without any new cases reported in Victoria County on Saturday, the total number of cases remained at 156.

Of those, 20 were considered to be currently sick with the disease, and 129 had recovered.

Although gatherings, large and small, are not forbidden, they also are not recommended by state and local officials, said Ashley Strevel, City of Victoria spokeswoman.

That’s why this year’s public gathering was canceled, said Domiciano Aldape, a 70-year-old Victoria resident who has organized previous meetups at the memorial.

“We don’t want to put anyone at risk,” Aldape said.

Although Hernandez and Godinez agreed the risk of spreading the new coronavirus was too great to hold a public event, they said it nevertheless was important for someone to honor the memory of the dead.

On May 14, 2003, 70 smuggled immigrants were found abandoned and trapped inside a tractor-trailer parked at a gas station near Fleming Prairie Road and U.S. 77 in Victoria County.

Authorities said the airless trailer may have reached up to 170 degrees, resulting in the deaths of 19 people inside.

The incident is the deadliest human smuggling tragedy in the nation’s history.

A tractor-trailer driver stopping at the nearby gas station Saturday afternoon said others in his industry are well aware of that incident and the parking lot in which it occurred.

Some drivers, he said, are unwilling to spend the night there lot for fear of the spirits they say haunt the place.

That driver described the suffering those 70 immigrants must have experienced inside the tractor-trailer as “torture.”

Over the years, visitors have continued to leave water bottles for those inside the tractor-trailer who died thirsty. They also leave toys for a 5-year-old child who was among the dead.

The memorial, which now includes a trio of flower-adorned crosses, lies along a brush-filled pasture’s fence line.

With busy highway traffic roaring down nearby U.S. 77, Hernandez said he does not consider those who experienced the almost unimaginable suffering 17 years ago to be criminals.

In fact, he said he understood they reason they had illegally entered the country.

Since leaving his hometown of Mexico City and entering the U.S. legally in 1979, Hernandez said he has built a life filled with blessings in the United States.

His decades in Victoria have blessed him with a wife, children and two grandchildren as well as a fruitful career as a painter.

Like him, the immigrants who suffered inside the tractor-trailer were simply looking for a better life just like he was, he said.

For many in Mexico and Central America, opportunity is rare, he said. Widespread violence, political unrest and poor economies are all too common.

“They had to get something better for their families,” Hernandez said.

But these days, Hernandez said Mexico City and Victoria share a common danger – COVID-19.

His family in Mexico City has mainly stayed holed up in their homes and practiced extreme caution, going as far to disinfect their clothes after returning from the outside.

While he admits that danger is far more severe in Mexico City, Hernandez said he is not without concern for the disease in the Crossroads.

Half joking, half serious, Hernandez said he will return to the immigrants’ memorial along U.S. 77 next year for a larger, more public event – unless COVID-19 gets him first.

“If I’m still alive, I’m here,” he said.

COVID-19 cases by county

County Total Recoveries Deaths
Calhoun 41 31 3
Goliad 7 5 0
DeWitt 17 14 1
Jackson 17 14 1
Lavaca 11 5 1
Matagorda 69 42 5
Refugio 3 3 0
Victoria 159 137 7
Wharton 50 38 0
9-County total 374 289 18
•Editor’s note: These counts are updated daily.

Jon Wilcox reports on courts for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached jwilcox@vicad.com or 361-580-6515.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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