Five years after what remains the nation’s worst human trafficking tragedy, our community wanted to forget. The nation already had.

Nineteen illegal immigrants baked to death in the back of a tractor-trailer headed from the Mexican border to Houston on May 14, 2003. When the driver finally stopped to see what was happening to his human cargo, he was outside a truck stop called Chubby’s near Victoria, Texas.

A slow-paced and friendly city of about 65,000, Victoria struggled to respond to the human toll dumped in its backyard. Victoria lay along a well-traveled route from Mexico to the nation’s fourth-largest city, but the community had largely ignored immigration issues. Mexican Americans, including many who have lived in Victoria for generations, like to observe that the border crossed them, not the other way around.

The city’s roots trace back to the Spanish expedition of Cabeza DeVaca in 1530. In 1685, French explorer La Salle established what became known as Fort Saint Louis near what is now Victoria, and a European battle for control played out across the Texas Gulf Coast. Only after Victoria was officially founded in 1836 as part of the Republic of Texas did Anglos begin to dominate the culture and power structure.

At the Victoria (Tex.) Advocate, the state’s second-oldest daily newspaper, we decided to explore the lessons learned, if any, from the immigrants’ deaths. In 16 installments published monthly, we first looked at how the community responded to the tragedy and then dug deeper into the many unresolved questions posed by illegal immigration.

Public service editor Gabe Semenza led the “Fatal Funnel” project, which the Society of Professional Journalists awarded the Sigma Delta Chi prize for non-deadline reporting by newspapers with circulations of less than 50,000. Some members of the community, however, offered a much lower opinion of the series, accusing the Advocate of dredging up bad memories and promoting illegal immigration.

We went to great lengths in the series to do original reporting never done or not possible when the tragedy occurred in 2003. With each installment, our multimedia team produced a video to complement the multi-page print piece, which included an opinion page devoted to that month’s topic. On the opinion page, we attempted to span the political spectrum, inviting columnists ranging from spokespeople for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to Mexican Americans Joined in Community Affairs.

Semenza’s reporting took him to the border town where the human smugglers first packed up to 100 immigrants into the back of the trailer and locked the door. He traveled into Nuevo Laredo to learn how powerful drug cartels have seized control of all trafficking, making the border even more dangerous than it was in 2003. He captured the voices of ranchers along the border who recalled the days when immigrants came to work without all of the crime and violence that now scar their border homes. He went along the border wall, which many Texans oppose because they see it as a multi-billion-dollar boondoggle. Many want the border secured, but the economic, cultural and geographic complexities of illegal immigration defy easy answers. Texas Governor Rick Perry and other state politicians blame the federal government for failing to enforce its laws, but generally back away from endorsing an Arizona-style approach.

Heated Debates

The subject of illegal immigration proved to be as polarizing in South Texas as in the rest of the nation. The series earned the newspaper both new and more diverse sources and critics who remain vocal even after the project has ended. The chorus of critics rose again when we reported on the small ceremony marking the seventh anniversary of these deaths at the makeshift memorial that remains alongside the truck stop. Unseen visitors leave bottled water, stuffed animals, and crosses on the side of the gravel road, but the community provides no official memorial of the painful day.

That’s not to suggest that the community doesn’t care. Victorians packed two community events the newspaper organized to discuss illegal immigration. At the event marking the end of the series, Tim Hudson, then president of University of Houston-Victoria (UHV), debuted a song he wrote honoring the 19 dead called “Souls from Victoria.”

The community event also featured Macarena Hernández, the Victoria Advocate endowed professor for humanities at UHV. An award-winning journalist, Hernández is managing director of Centro Victoria, a literary center based in UHV’s School of Arts and Sciences. One of her first projects with author Dagoberto Gilb, the center’s executive director, was to develop “Made in Texas,” a bound guide to help teachers incorporate more Mexican-American authors into their lessons.

The music video for Coastal Bend’s “Souls From Victoria” is available on YouTube»At the community event, Hernández spoke of growing up in the Rio Grande Valley as a child of Mexican immigrants and encouraged the community to maintain the civil conversation started through the forum. One of the audience members put it this way: “I think it’s a really good idea for it to start locally because we are profoundly affected by immigration where we are. I think we have been having a national conversation, but it’s become rather abstract. Here it’s very concrete, very specific. It touches people’s lives.”

Hudson’s band, Coastal Bend, still performs around the city at venues like Greek Brothers restaurant and in De Leon Plaza, named for the empresario who established a colony under Spanish rule and named it Victoria after the Mexican president. In Coastal Bend’s song, Hudson’s plaintive cry still rings out:

Open up the gates
Give them water
Souls from Victoria
Shouldn’t have to wait …

Chris Cobler, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, has been editor of the Victoria Advocate since April 2007. In 2009, he received the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s Editorial Achievement Award recognizing “courage and commitment to the newsroom and leadership in the community in advocating and pursuing openness and accessibility to government.”

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