My role down in South Texas is mapping expert.   This means that I am responsible for constructing to-scale maps of Area 3, Area 1, and tying in Areas 2 South and 2 West to the original 2014 map of Area 2.  Before coming to Texas, I met with the former mapping expert, Erica, to go over the best ways to collect data and construct the maps.  She gave me many great pointers that I have found very helpful while down in Texas. One of the most important tips she gave me was to make clear to all teams that measurements should originate from the baseline and not the gridlines.  I have found this piece of advice particularly helpful because it makes clear where the measurements originate from even when I am not familiar with the particular excavation area.

Justing taking measurements
Justing taking depth measurements

Before this trip, I was told that we would be excavating Area 3 and that I would be constructing the maps for this area. However, because this area was finished in three days, both UIndy and Texas State moved to new areas within the cemetery.  UIndy revisted Area 1 to re-check the quadrants now that it’s better understood that there are no patterns to how and where these burials were placed.  Texas State moved to two new areas, Area 2 West and Area 2 South, to investigate land marked with Unknown Remains burial markers.  These additional areas mean that I have gone from constructing maps of one area to constructing maps of three different areas.

There are a number of challenges that I have faced when constructing my maps.  Because so much dirt is being moved in Area 1, the pile is growing too large and is covering the baseline I am supposed to be taking measurements from.  Because of this, I have to use different points of reference and quadrant boundaries to map in the burials and trenches.  Despite taking measurements from different points of reference, in the final map, I need to convert these measurements to as if they are coming from the baseline itself in order to standardize my data.  Math is not my strong suit, so doing the calculations and converting the numbers is challenging for me.  Thankfully, the other members of my team are there for moral support and mathematical help.

Jessica taking measurements for the map

Another challenge I have faced while mapping is that I am only present for the collection of measurements from the areas being excavated by UIndy.  Because I am familiar with the orientation of the burials, determine what points to take, and am present during the collection of all data, it is easy to recognize mistakes and construct accurate maps.  Because we are so busy and are working in different areas of the cemetery, I do not have the chance to see all of the areas that Texas State is excavating, the orientation of their burials, or the way in which they are collecting their data points.  This has proven very difficult for me, as I do not have a mental image to match the measurements to which makes it difficult to recognize mistakes.  Thankfully, I have started to catch on to the methods they are using and am better able to quickly check for and correct mistakes.

Despite these challenges, I am so glad that I am able to fill the role of mapping expert for this field season in South Texas.  I believe that I am emerging a stronger mapper, which will continue to help me during forensic cases when mapping a scene is necessary.  The problem solving and mistake-catching associated with mapping, although frustrating at times, is teaching me how to think critically about what I am doing and how to look at data and recognize discrepancies right off the bat.  I am so grateful for this opportunity and am excited to finish the final products!



Our “Day Off”

Several days ago, our team took a day off from the physical exertion in the field to volunteer at the Sacred Heart Respite Center in McAllen Texas. We arrived at the center sometime in the morning on a very rainy and cold day (especially for Texas), where we were greeted by our friend Sister Pam. She led us inside and gave us a sort of orientation about the history of the Respite Center, the role the center plays in the migrant crisis, and instructions on how we would be able to help out while we were there. The purpose of the center is to provide migrants who are being released into our country with food, toiletries, clothing, and the first shower that they have likely had in days. These individuals were previously being detained by Border Patrol after crossing the border and seeking asylum and this center is really the first place since arriving where they are shown any type of humanity.

Before setting us off on our volunteer work, Sister Pam conversed with a migrant and his daughter who had recently arrived at the center, asking them questions about where they were from, their family, etc. Without going into too many details, this conversation was very eye-opening on just what these individuals had to go through to get to the US, and the calmness with which they regaled this information highlighted just how typical their situation was for all of the migrants attempting to cross the border – and let me tell you, their situation was far from what anyone would consider ideal.

Surprisingly, out of our group of at least 30 volunteers, there were only a few of us who spoke any Spanish. Jorge, who traveled with our group from Indianapolis, is fluent in Spanish and so he acted as our main translator. Otherwise, Justin and I were the only others who were able to converse in Spanish. Because of this, Sister Pam enlisted us in kind of floating around to help translate for anyone who may need it, as well as to talk to some of the families as they went through the process at the center. We were also asked to walk with Sister Pam and others from the group to greet the migrants being dropped off at the bus station. While there, Sister Pam had Justin and I usher families to the waiting area, explaining to them that we would take them to the center shortly. After explaining this to one family, a young boy, who had previously been quite rambunctious playing with his friend in the station, surprised me by giving me a big hug, which I was not at all prepared for but it was extremely heartwarming and reminded me how relieved these families must be knowing they are finally on their way to their families in the US.

Back at the center, things became very chaotic very quickly, with about 30 migrants being moved through to receive their supplies, clothing, and food, as well as to allow them time to wash up and shower. Acting as a translator, I very quickly became overwhelmed by people asking me for specific clothing items, as well as by other volunteers asking me to help translate. It was a good kind of overwhelming, however. In fact, it was wonderful. I felt like I was really able to help these people and that, even though our communication was limited, I was able to connect with them on some level. These individuals were going through a very tough situation, and probably had not experienced much kindness in the past couple of weeks, so it felt good simply being able to smile and say “Hola, Bienvenidos” to all of them. Even better was being able to ask “¿Qué necesitas?” or “What do you need?” I don’t think they had heard that from many people since entering our country and it was amazing being able to help, even in a small way.

This experience at the center was much more intense and eye-opening than I could have ever imagined it would be. I heard stories from people that were heartbreaking and shocking and seeing their resilience was awe-inspiring. I am so grateful for this opportunity to have been able to be of some small help to these individuals and their families. I only hope that the amazing work that the Sacred Heart Respite Center is doing will continue on until there is no longer a need for it. If you would like to help out as well by donating items or by making a financial donation, check out their webpage here.


A day in McAllen, Texas

Today was not a field day; instead, today was spent volunteering at the Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. The Respite Center is a place where people seeking asylum can visit and obtain a shower, food, and clean clothes prior to hopping a bus that will take them to the place they will stay until their court hearing. The Respite Center was started by a nun at a local catholic church that observed migrants waiting at a bus station typically without food and wearing the same clothes they had been traveling in.

This is where the Respite Center comes into the picture. At the bus station, volunteers are waiting to take the migrants that are dropped off, back to the Respite Center to await their departure. Arriving at the Respite Center, migrants are greeted with a round of applause and a joyous greeting of ‘Bien Venitos’! This welcoming is a small part of trying to make these people feel human again, to feel ‘welcomed’. After arriving at the center, migrants are checked in and given clean clothes, a shower, tooth brush, and food. After this is completed, migrants are helped with making phone calls and are given a place to stay and relax.

Prior to arriving at the Center, our group was given a brief introduction as to how the Center functions and what to expect. After arriving at the center, I was incredibly grateful for the introduction, but I am not entirely sure if anything could have really prepared me for what I actually saw and experienced. Upon arriving at the center, we met with Sister Pam and we were taken into a large room where different areas are divided up to form an assembly line type process. Our group sat down and we were given a quick tour by Sister Pam of the different sections and where we would be able to assist. Afterwards, we were very fortunate to have two people who wanted to tell us their story. Sister Pam was able to interpret the stories for us and needless to say, it was incredibly emotional to hear first hand the incredibly tough journey they had to endure. 

My task was ‘shower duty’ meaning I assisted with making sure there were clean towels and the showers were stocked with shampoo and soap. Once the migrants arrived at the center, my task quickly changed. I had walked back from the showers into the main room for a reason I cannot remember, when a woman and her two children approached me. She clearly needed assistance with helping to find clothes for herself and her children. Everything seemed to happen so fast; the next thing I know, I’m holding her 8month old son and going through racks of clothing ‘guesstimating’ sizes for the woman and her 5-6 year old daughter and son. I should also mention that there was a huge language barrier between us, so we communicated through hand motions and lots of head nodding/smiles.

On the surface, it appeared that I spent the entire time holding an adorable baby boy and watched an especially well behaved little girl. What I actually did was so much more; for once, this woman was able to relax knowing her children were safe. They were warm, had clean clothes, full bellies, and were safe. I am still amazed at how accepting the baby boy was; I will always remember cuddling him until he fell asleep, exhausted from his long journey. I will never forget helping this woman whom I don’t even know her name. All I know is that she traveled with her son and daughter all the way from Honduras. Just thinking about this experience makes me very emotional. I cannot fathom what this woman had to go through up until we met and I will never know. This unknown woman is one of the strongest women I have ever met and her driving force is wanting a better life for her and her children. This experience, this trip has changed my perspective on everything and moving forward, it makes me want to advocate for these people and volunteer my time as much possible. This was a life changing moment and I am forever grateful to have experienced it.