Looking back and moving forward

It has been almost two weeks since I have been home from Texas; well one week if you count the time that myself and other students spent in Boulder City, NV attending the Mountain, Desert, and Coastal Forensic Anthropology Conference. The thing with staying busy, is that it does not allow you to think or dwell on certain matters which can be both positive and negative. With traveling and then feeling under the weather (I’m highly allergic to Nevada apparently), I am just now able to process what happened down in Texas this field season. Everything was different compared to my first field season at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, TX in January 2017.

Sunrise over RGC Cemetery
Sunrise over RGC Cemetery

After coming home in January, I was flooded with all sorts of emotions stemming from my time in Falfurrias. I attribute most of those emotions to visiting ‘the wall’ and volunteering at the Respite Center. During my trip, I did not allow myself to really process what was happening and the experience I had at the Respite Center. When I got home, I did not even make it through the drive home from the airport before I was so overcome with emotions that I cried most of the ride. I loved every minute that I spent at the Respite Center and I hope that in the future I can volunteer there again. When conducting field investigations at a cemetery, it is easier to remove yourself emotionally from the situation than when dealing with people who are still alive to tell their stories. In previous blog posts (from Jan), I know it was mentioned about the gentleman and his daughter who crossed the border, who came forward to tell us their story of how they got there. There was also another lady, who was traveling with her three daughters, who also shared her story. I’ll never forget those moments, I don’t think anyone in that room that day will ever forget.

When I came home in January, I felt motivated and inspired. I wanted to spread the news of what is happening and to educate those who may not understand completely the hardships people face below the border. This time, I still feel that same motivation and the need to continue volunteering in this effort. I am also amazed at how much more I have learned regarding the situation going on in South Texas as well as what is happening in Mexico.

Overlook of the Rio Grande River into Mexico
Overlook of the Rio Grande River into Mexico

The Mountain, Desert, and Coastal meeting could not have come at a better time. This year, the second day at the conference was a symposium on the ‘Sociopolitics of Migrant Deaths’ which had speakers from UIndy, the Colibri Center, the PCOME, Texas State University, and a journalist who is currently residing in Mexico. This symposium gave a whole new perspective about the humanitarian crisis in South Texas and what is also happening along the US/Mexico border.

Overlook of Lake Mead in Boulder City, NV
Overlook of Lake Mead in Boulder City, NV

Although I am not flooded with as many emotions as I had after being exposed to this humanitarian crisis for the first time, I feel that this trip has further solidified that this on-going effort isn’t about me or the other parties involved; it is about them. Them being those who have died that are still waiting to be identified and their families who are still waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones. After this trip, I have realized that this humanitarian effort isn’t something that will be completed in 1 year. This is an on-going effort and I would not be surprised if 10 years from now- this volunteer work is still be accomplished. I am forever grateful to have been able to be a part of this humanitarian effort and I hope to have the opportunity to continue volunteering in the future. As of right now, there is already another field season planned for January 2018 and again in May 2018. 

Group photo at MD&C Forensic Anthropology Conference
Group photo at MD&C Forensic Anthropology Conference


Sociopolitics of Migrant Death and Repatriation: Perspectives from Forensic Science

We are pleased to announce a new book, based partly upon our fieldwork in the Texas borderlands, being released this fall!

Sociopolitics of Migrant Death and Repatriation: Perspectives from Forensic Science  Editors: Latham, Krista E., O’Daniel, Alyson J.

© 2017 Springer International Publishing AG

Summary: As scholars have by now long contended, global neoliberalism and the violence associated with state restructuring provide key frameworks for understanding flows of people across national boundaries and, eventually, into the treacherous terrains of the United States borderlands. The proposed volume builds on this tradition of situating migration and migrant death within broad, systems-level frameworks of analysis, but contends that there is another, perhaps somewhat less tidy, but no less important sociopolitical story to be told here.

Through examination of how forensic scientists define, navigate, and enact their work at the frontiers of US policy and economics, this book joins a robust body of literature dedicated to bridging social theory with bioarchaeological applications to modern day problems.

This volume is based on deeply and critically reflective analyses, submitted by individual scholars, wherein they navigate and position themselves as social actors embedded within and, perhaps partially constituted by, relations of power, cultural ideologies, and the social structures characterizing this moment in history.

Each contribution addresses a different variation on themes of power relations, production of knowledge, and reflexivity in practice. In sum, however, the chapters of this book trace relationships between institutions, entities, and individuals comprising the landscapes of migrant death and repatriation and considers their articulation with sociopolitical dynamics of the neoliberal state.

Table of Contents

Forward by Debra Martin

Preface by Robin Reineke

Part I: Beyond Local Jurisdictions: Science in a Global Web of Relations

Chapter 1 – Introduction by Alyson O’Daniel and Krista E. Latham

Chapter 2 – All that Remains by Adriana Paramo

Chapter 3 – Capitalism and Crisis in Central America by Dawn Paley

Chapter 4 – Naming State Crimes, Naming the Dead:  Immigration Policy and “the New Disappeared” in the United States and Mexico by Christine Kovic

Chapter 5 – Loss, Uncertainty and Action: Ethnographic Encounters with Families of the Missing in the Central America-Mexico-US Corridor by Wendy A. Vogt

Chapter 6 – The Geography of Migrant Death: Implications for Policy and Forensic Science by Gabriella Soto and Daniel E. Martínez

Chapter 7 – “Follow the Power Lines Until You Hit a Road:” Contextualizing Humanitarian Forensic Science in South Texas by Alyson O’Daniel

Part II: Producing and Situating Forensic Science Knowledge

Chapter 8 – Digging, Dollars and Drama: The Economics of Forensic Archaeology and Migrant Exhumation by Krista E Latham and Ryan Strand

Chapter 9 – Expanding the Role of Forensic Anthropology in a Humanitarian Crisis: An Example from the United States-Mexico Border by Angela Soler and Jared S. Beatrice

Chapter 10 – Identifying Difference:  Forensic Methods and the Uneven Playing Field of Repatriation by Eric J. Bartelink

Chapter 11 – Bodies in Limbo: Issues in Identification and Repatriation of Migrant Remains in South Texas by Timothy P. Gocha, Kate Spradley and Ryan Strand

Chapter 12 – Dialog across States & Agencies: Juggling Ethical Concerns of Forensic Anthropologists north of the U.S.-Mexico Border by Cate E. Bird and Justin Maiers

Chapter 13 – Charting Future Directions by Krista E. Latham and Alyson O’Daniel

Reflecting on Texas

I have been home from Texas for approximately a week.  In the first three nights, I found myself waking up partially from a restless sleep thinking I was still in Texas digging in the field with my team.  The first night I woke halfway, sat up in my bed and thought I was waiting my turn to mattock.  While I truly do love mattocking, at 2am, I could hardly keep my eyes open while I was “waiting my turn.”  The second night I woke halfway and I again thought I was waiting my turn to dig.  The third night I again awoke thinking that we were digging and this time it was as if there was a pit between me and Erica and I had to get out of the bed and across the pit to help dig.  Each night I have found myself barely able to keep my eyes open and in my stupor, I feel badly because I feel like I am letting my team down as a result of not being able to keep my eyes open.


While in Texas, the UIndy team worked at ORPL, the Osteology, Research and Processing Lab at Texas State University to analyze the remains of 9 individuals who were recovered by the UIndy team in January.  We also traveled to Rio Grande City, where we recovered the remains of 5 individuals from the Rio Grande City County Cemetery.

I am distinctly aware that the work we did in Texas does not put an end to the crisis at the border, but I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been a part of the work.  It was such an incredible experience and an emotional one indeed.  When we drove from San Marcos to Rio Grande City, we drove for roughly 4 hours on a road where we passed 1 or 2 cars our entire trip.  On either side of our vehicle were ranches where the brush, cacti and reddish-brown sandy dirt were overwhelming to onlookers.  Temperatures ranged from high 90s to low 100s.  We passed a border patrol checkpoint, and we saw water stations and paths where tires have been drug by border patrol so they may see any footprints of individuals trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.  During this road trip, it quickly became apparent why individuals often die when attempting to cross the border.  Heat exhaustion sets in quickly and individuals often do not have a clear idea of how long it will take them to cross from Mexico into the United States.  When we were working in the field on our last day in Rio Grande City, it was a heat index of 117 degrees Fahrenheit.  We each worked for 2 minutes mattocking and shoveling, and then we each took an 8 minute break.  To some this will sound absurd.  However, I can assure you that there was no way we could have worked for more than 2 minutes at these tasks without quickly finding ourselves in an emergency room at the nearest hospital.  We each drank incredible amounts of water to keep ourselves hydrated.

Our experience working in the field at the Rio Grande City County Cemetery and driving to Rio Grande City was an incredibly eye opening experience.  On our drive to Rio Grande City, I looked out the window from the back seat of an air conditioned van and my heart was heavy for individuals trying to cross into North America.  The journey seems terrifying from an onlooker perspective.  I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to be a part of this work.  Growing up in Michigan, I was not exposed to any happenings at the border.  This trip has grown my awareness tremendously.  I really enjoyed being able to tour the Texas State University facilities and getting to meet the graduate students and some of the faculty of the university.  Overall, this trip has had an incredible impact on me personally.  There isn’t a day that goes by now that I don’t think of those individuals who are lost or trying to cross the border.  I hope this work will continue for years to come to identify individuals lost in this crisis.