This was our 5th trip to TX. In 2013 we were invited to do exhumations in the Sacred Heart Burial Park side by side Dr. Lori Baker and her students from Baylor University. Like every long term project, there are lessons learned as progress occurs. Towards the end of that first field season we had a concern that the excavations were not going deep enough and were not being systematically conducted in all quadrants. But we moved to a different area of the cemetery in 2014. That year we were able to work more collaboratively with Baylor University and were allowed a leadership role in the cemetery where we supervised the exhumations. We made sure each quadrant was systematically excavated and explored to a standard depth below the ground surface. In 2015 and 2016, we were invited to conduct skeletal analyses on the individuals who had been removed from the cemetery and were being housed at Texas State University until identification and repatriation. As leadership of the project was transferred to Dr. Kate Spradley at Texas State University under Operation identification, we were honored to once again be invited to assist in exhuming the remaining unidentified burials in Sacred Heart.
For five years we have been working to exhume and identify migrants who perished in Brooks County, TX. For five years individuals from a variety of university, governmental and nongovernmental agencies have been working to reduce the number of deaths and identify those who lost their lives in Brooks County. Countless people, volunteers, hours, days, weeks, years and dollars have gone towards assisting one county during this humanitarian crisis (and there are more).
We thought this would be our last year of exhumations in Brooks County. We started in a third area of the cemetery that contained six markers for unidentified individuals. There was one more marker near the area exhumed in our second field season (area 2). As we began to work we were soon informed by community members who worked in or frequented the cemetery that there were more areas that needed our attention. After the 6 from area 3 were completed we split up into three groups: two Texas State groups working on area 2 and a new area (4) and one UIndy group going back to area 1. When we got to area 1 we were greeted by Wilmer’s marker. Wilmer was buried in a quadrant worked on by the UIndy team in 2013. Even back then we wondered about Wilmer: Was he a migrant? How was he identified? Where is he from? Was there any attempt to notify his family? Does anyone know he is here? Now we find ourselves back in that same area of the cemetery 4 years later and are still wondering about Wilmer. We proceeded to re-excavate the area but were careful to not disturb Wilmer. We did found additional burials in this area, as well as bundles of personal effects. Four more individuals will now be able to start their journeys towards identification. But I can’t help but wonder about Wilmer. As we were leaving we made sure to put new flowers at Wilmer’s marker.
We went to Sacred Heart with the hopes of recovering 7 individuals and we ended up recovering 24. And there are more. The work continues on a daily basis by many people across TX and beyond. Their dedication to identifying these individuals is extraordinary. I am proud that the UIndy team was able to contribute to the efforts and hope we are invited to continue working towards these identification and repatriation efforts.
I’m honored to have experienced and witnessed all that I did during our last trip to Texas. It was wonderful to see both the familiar and new faces of those who live and breathe the work of migrant rights and migrant identification on a daily basis. Eddie Canales, Sister Pam, Kate Spradley, and Tim Gocha each, in their own way, do the work of sustaining focus and demanding attention to lives too often dismissed as expendable, unimportant, or beyond help. I am grateful for the access they’ve given me and my students to the workings of this initiative. In one week, we were given the chance to experience a “crash course” in exhumation processes, media representation, migrant rights, and respite care and support. These folks represent silken threads of a much larger web of people who care and believe in our obligation and capacity to work towards a more just society. We have much to learn from them individually and collectively.
I’m thankful, again, to the UIndy forensic science team for continuing to allow, not just one, but three cultural anthropologists in their midst. As a scholar of US culture and society, I often describe my work as a form of analysis that makes the familiar seem strange. My aim, in part, is to explicate taken-for-granted forms of knowledge, practices, and values underlying dynamics and realities of life and the institutions mediating our lived experiences. This is, of course, not possible without the generosity, candor, and patience of research participants. I am grateful to have been immersed such thoughtful and gracious hosts. I am certain that my presence and questions must’ve made their familiar world seem strange in ways not always intended!
Finally, I am honored to have had the opportunity to mentor two bright and articulate students in data collection techniques of participant observation and unstructured ‘interviewing.’ I could not have anticipated how thoroughly proud I am of what they accomplished in such a short amount of time. Their insightful comments and questions, meticulous fieldnotes, and willingness to do the sometimes uncomfortably social (and physical!) work of cultural anthropology is great testament to their character and potential as future leaders in our communities and future scholars in their own rights. I am unbelievably proud and perhaps even more excited to work with them on analysis and presentation.
There are so many more people I encountered, spoke with, and learned from. From local law enforcement and local community members to respite center volunteers, this season’s ‘crash course’ was enriched by each of you and your willingness to engage those of us visiting for this short, but intensive burst of work. I am thankful for the work you do, each and every day, on behalf of migrant rights, migrant families, and compassion and justice for all.
My name is Katharine and I received my master’s degree in forensic anthropology from Texas State in 2007. I’ve done a variety of jobs in the forensic science field, including crime scene investigator, WWII Casualty Analyst for the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA office, and currently, medicolegal death investigator. As a death investigator, I act as the eyes and ears for the forensic pathologist. I investigate all deaths in the state and determine if it falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner’s office. I see homicides, suicides, accidents, drug overdoses, and many other scenes and situations. Skeletonized cases or cases where identification is questioned, I use my training in anthropology to help confirm the decedent’s age, sex, ancestry, stature, and anything pathological or traumatic important to the case.
I volunteered for the exhumations at Sacred Heart for two different reasons. Primarily, the mission itself is very important to me. The idea of dying in anonymity seems utterly desperate, like tangible Limbo. Your family never knows what happened to you. They can’t go visit your grave when they miss you. And they never see justice or closure. I believe that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, living or dead, no matter what. Is that crazy?! My second reason for volunteering is less altruistic. I have my own unidentified population at my home office (30 cases since 1965) and I wanted to see how TX State and UIndy handled intake, processing, and curation of their case load. I also need to keep up my archaeology and mapping skills.
Working with death on a daily basis hardened me – in order to get through the tasks required of the job, I numb myself to the emotions surrounding each case. When I arrived in South Texas, as a death investigator, I was still hard and numb. But I emerged from this experience as an anthropologist again, who considers the cultural and emotional story alongside of the human remains, the trauma, and the potential identification. The total picture of this mission is crushing, humbling, immense, and exhausting. I am so thankful to have participated in the process of helping resolve one tiny, but crucial portion of the problem. The families of these people deserve it.