The UIndy Beyond Borders Team has been participating in this large scale migrant identification initiative for 5 years now. Five years. Five field seasons. Three counties. Nearly 200 exhumations. As you have already read in previous posts: each cemetery presents its own unique challenges to locating and excavating the burials and each country provides a unique setting in which we would find ourselves challenged and learning more about the complicated humanitarian crisis unfolding at the border.
With each field season we have learned to be flexible, to problem solve, to apply our archeological skills in new ways and to expect the unexpected. We have learned the value of planning and teamwork, the type of motivation that can only come with a passion to do what is right and just, and the hope that our hard work will benefit someone who is longing for answers. We have learned to push through the pain of bruises, blisters, muscle aches and sun burns. To let our head coach us to believe we are not physically aching, tired and heartbroken because we cannot slow down until our job is complete. We have made lifelong friendships and we have learned things about life and humanity that only others embarking on a similar mission can fully grasp. We have seen the best and we have seen the worst of humanity in action.
We have learned that our early understanding of this issue was naive and the issues are so deep are so complicated that it is difficult to truly grasp what is happening and why it is happening. We have learned that while we can be advocates, we can never truly understand these issues because of our nationality and privilege. But we can listen, we can contribute our skills and we can use our platform to educate and inform those who have no idea that thousands of people are dying and being buried in the southern US borderlands. As forensic scientists we are able to tell stories and document inequalities that may otherwise go unheard and unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans. We see the imprints of lifelong poverty on the bones and teeth of the dead we uncover, we see the love they have for their families in the photos and notes found in their pockets, we document the places they die and bear witness to the fact that these deaths are happening in staggering numbers. We not only work to give them a name and restore their memory but we make them a part of the indelible medicolegal record that will one day work towards change and social justice.
As another field season comes to an end I again find it difficult to express my feelings. On the one hand I want to say how proud I am of my team and the entire field team in general. I want to feel pride in our work and comfort in that fact that 37 more people now have a chance at identification and repatriation. But on the other hand these feeling seem so inappropriate within such a large and violent crisis. It is a humbling experience and it is eye opening and shocking to see how these migrants are viewed and treated in life and in death. We thank you for following our journey, which is intimately entwined with the journey of those we unearth. We hope you learn, you feel and you share what is happening.
Please let us know if there is something you want to see on the blog in the future and please support our continued work if you have the ability to do so.
We have been back from Texas for three days now (as I write this). For the most part, I have been catching up on sleep, unpacking, and getting ready for my final semester of graduate school to begin, but I have also been reflecting a lot on this last field season. This field season was very different than previous trips to Texas. We didn’t visit the Respite Center and hear personal, harrowing stories about crossing and survival, and we didn’t hear stories from local community members about how this crisis affects them, their community, and their daily lives. In fact, our team didn’t have any interaction with the local community in Willacy Co., aside from Joe and Luis the backhoe operators. While these were the aspects of previous trips that I found most challenging, this trip was emotionally challenging in a new way.
The emotional aspect of this journey really hit me on our last day in the field. Texas State had taken the time to clean up around each of the grave markers, trimming the grass and removing debris from the surface. Both teams then sifted through a debris and backfill pile and found numerous fabric flowers no longer associated with any graves. We decided that we would repurpose these flowers to adorn each of the graves in the cemetery. I took the lead on this project, creating bouquets and securely fastening the flowers to every grave marker and headstone. Along the way, I took the time to read each marker. They ranged from infants to the elderly. When placing the flowers, I couldn’t help but wonder about their life story. Who they were, what their life was like, and who they left behind. I thought about the individuals we exhumed who didn’t have names. I thought about what their lives were like, and what their loved ones must be going through not knowing what happened to them. This was extremely saddening to me, but it also filled me with hope. Hope that through our efforts, we would be able to put names to the numbers. Hope that we will one day be able to return these individuals to their loved ones. Hope that we can change the circumstances for future migrants so that they are not buried without a name. To me, placing these flowers and making the cemetery beautiful again perfectly symbolized the incredible impact that this large-scale identification initiative is making on the lives of countless individuals and families who are missing loved ones.
The UIndy Human Biology graduate program cohort sizes have been increasing over the past few years, meaning that there are more students interested in becoming involved in this humanitarian experience than ever before. Because I am graduating in May and the number of interested students has greatly increased, this could have been my last trip to Texas. While the thought of this being my last trip makes me sad, I can’t help but be so incredibly grateful for having these three opportunities to be involved in such an amazing cause. Over my past three trips, I have learned so much about myself, my view of the world has completely changed, and I have become a passionate humanitarian. I have worked harder than I have ever worked in my life, and I have met so many incredible, dedicated, and selfless people along the way. I will cherish these opportunities and all of the memories I have made during my times in the borderlands. Texas, I hope to see you again soon, and thanks for everything.
After arriving home in Indiana, the same bittersweet feeling always seems to settle in my chest. You have this feeling of accomplishment but at the same time you think about the work that still lays ahead and the accomplishment feeling dissipates and anxiety sets in. I use the word anxiety in a non-negative way, I use the word anxiety because I am anxious to keep going. I hate having to wait for another field season in order to continue participating in this humanitarian effort. This is such an amazing experience to be a part of and each field season I come away feeling that I’m actually helping.
This field season was different from all the others. Although each field season was unique in its own way. Some of the challenges I faced were more weather related than some of the difficulties I had faced in Rio Grande City and Falfurrias. The cemetery that we were working in was located in the middle of an open field with no protection from the wind. The wind would be calm in the morning when we would start our day but in the afternoon there would be wind gusts of up to 20-30 mph. This would cause dirt to blow into our faces and make shoveling nearly impossible. We would come home in the evenings with our faces covered in a layer of dirt. Although this made shoveling and moving dirt harder than it needed to be, we were still able to persevere and get a lot of work done.
This field season was supposed to be an ‘easy’ one because we were told where we could find unidentified migrants. What we didn’t know was that the unidentified migrants were also buried amongst people who were identified but had no grave marker. This made our job more challenging because we had to make sure the individuals we were recovering to take back to Texas State University were unidentified migrants and not positively identified individuals. Thankfully, the persons who were identified had paperwork with them stating that they were identified. If they were identified, then we would not remove them and at the end of the field season gave them a grave marker. One thing that meant the most to me was being able to place flowers at each grave marker. We may not know who these people were but it is important to me and to our group for them to know that they are loved.
This field season could not have been accomplished without our amazing team members along with the amazing Texas State University team. This was my first time working in the field with some of the UIndy group and I was pleasantly surprised at how well we worked together. Our group communicated so well in the field which is probably one of the more important things to have when working in a group setting. I loved how in the evenings we could plan how we were going to tackle our quadrant the next day and then execute that plan without a hitch. This was a really spectacular group that we had this field season; honestly, I’ve never been to Texas without an excellent group to work with so I hope this trend continues.