Community mourns Goliad 23 (video)
Jennifer Lee Preyss
July 29, 2012 at 2:29 a.m.
BERCLAIR - About three miles south of Goliad, along U.S. Highway 59, a makeshift wall of flowers, cards and other trinkets line a barbed wire fence.
The colorful memorial - honoring 15 illegal immigrants who died, and eight more who were critically injured in a one-vehicle wreck last Sunday - continues to blossom near the base of an oak tree. It is the same dual-trunked oak where a 2000 Ford F-250 crashed seven days ago, carrying a human cargo of 23 men, women and children from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, known colloquially as the Goliad 23.
The pickup, driven by Ricardo Mendoza-Pineda, 22, of Mexico, was bound for Houston - its passengers hopeful a piece of the American Dream waited at the end of their journey.
"There are no words to describe the amount of overwhelming sadness that you experience" standing "where so much death has happened," said the Rev. Clayton Elder, of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Beeville. "What we have in this country is glorious and we take it for granted considering the efforts of others who are so desperate to get here."
Heartbroken over the tragedy, and concerned for the spiritual wellness of the surrounding community, Elder organized a memorial service to honor the deceased and the first responders to the scene.
"This service is as much for those who passed, as it is for the first responders ... because of the tremendous loss and graphic nature of the accident," Elder said Sunday at Moya's Mexican restaurant. "It is something that none of us should have to see ... we will also be praying for them, for their health and spiritual wellness."
In the days following the wreck, 16 of the passengers have been identified. Of those, seven are alive and nine are dead. A Guatemalan man was released Thursday from DeTar Hospital Navarro into the custody of the Office of Public Affairs-U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A Guatemalan boy was also released from a San Antonio hospital and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The other six remain hospitalized, according to officials.
Following Sunday's church service at Moya's, Goliad Sheriff Kirby Brumby facilitated a processional to the crash site. Partnering with the First United Methodist Churches in Beeville and Goliad, Elder prayed over the passengers of the pickup, and the more than 40 emergency responders who worked the wreck a week ago.
"It's our way of showing our love" to them," said Beeville resident R.M. Stafford, who attended the memorial. "We're not giving our love enough to everyone, and to everything we have in life. We're all Christians, we're all children of God, so yes, this was very essential. It was very important" to have this service.
Rose Moya, owner of Moya's restaurant, was tearful during Elder's blessing of the site. She said the tragedy reminded her how fragile life is.
"It's sad. It could have happened to us ... the whole town was so sad." she said. All I could think was, "What can we do for them?"
Elder's push to lead the memorial service was fueled by a passion to put human faces on those involved in the wreck, he said, rather than focus on their illegal border crossing.
"It became about their documentation and the perils of crossing the border, but the story of their lives was lost ... They are people. And they sacrificed so much of who they are, their whole lives, their very being, their very breaths, even before they lost their life," he said. "Having to go in the dead of night, having to go in such a way that nobody could see, having to hunch down in pickup trucks, having to go without food, I'm certain, for long periods of time. Why? Why are they in such desperate need. Their lives must be so bad that they need to come just to find breath. Just to find a new life."
This is one of many accidents, Elder said, that happens every day because immigrants believe the option of illegal border hopping and possible death is better than staying in their native lands.
"They have hope, even up until their last breath," he said.
As the services ended, a few attendees stayed behind to pray the rosary and offer their final private sentiments near the base of the oak trees.
Elder hopes the immigrants will not be forgotten, and their deaths will not be in vain.
"In a sense we are also memorializing all those who die in the pursuit of trying to find a better life in this country," he said. "This is the least we can do for them. The very least."