All posts by becks

The fire still burns

It has been a strange couple of days since I’ve returned home from Texas. I assumed I would fall asleep immediately on the night we returned and catch up on the hours of sleep I had lost during the trip. I assumed my body would be fatigued and ready to finally quit once I made it home. Yet somehow, to my surprise, I had quite a lot of momentum to unpack my bags and take a nice long shower before bed. Truthfully, I think I was still excited. The fire that burned inside of us all, that had kept us all going as we pushed ourselves to our limits during the last two weeks, was still stirring inside me.

Probing on day 1
Probing the surface on day 1

Now that my life has returned to a normal pace over the past few days, I have had the chance to reflect on the various ways that Beyond Borders has positively affected me for the rest of my life. Based on the presentations I had seen beforehand by previous Beyond Borders teams, there were a number of takeaways I was expecting to gain from this experience. First, I was expecting to gain technical skills. As mapping apprentice, I knew I would be presented with a ton of information in order to solidify the foundation I would need to apply the principles of mapping to future scenarios. I was also hoping to refine some of the essential techniques for successfully surveying and excavating a site. Second, I expected to gain perspective in regard to the sociopolitical issues going on at the Texas-Mexico border. Third, I expected to gain professional relationships with colleagues and volunteers participating in the exhumation of buried migrants. All of these expectations turned out to be true, but I learned so much more than I was originally expecting.

UIndy's team digging trenches to investigate the area
UIndy’s team digging trenches to investigate the area

I was astonished by how well our team worked together. For how little we knew each other, we shared some incredible, collaborative moments from the moment we began working together on our quadrant. The sheer magnitude of individuals that needed to be exhumed from the cemetery surpassed all of our expectations. What was initially assumed to be up to 30 migrants buried at the cemetery became over 70 individuals scattered throughout the cemetery in unmarked graves.  After knowing almost nothing about the site beforehand, we practically went in blind on our first day. We were not able to devise a plan as we hoped, so I learned a lot about thinking on your toes. The quick-thinking, collective, group-effort that took place during this trip was an essential lesson that I will be able to apply to forensic anthropological recoveries in the future.

I was also amazed by how raw and real the South Texas border issues felt on a daily basis. For instance, there was security present at most establishments due to high crime in the area. Even the vehicle checkpoint in Falfurias, with regular and infrared cameras facing every direction, was there to protect against drug and illegal immigrant smuggling into the Northern parts of the state. I also found that some of the attitudes towards unidentified migrants were represented in the treatment of burials. Their lives are clearly not regarded with the same importance as you would expect to see with other citizens and identified individuals. That is why volunteers like us are so important in helping to give their identities back, so their remains can be rightfully returned and their loved ones can receive the closure that they long for.

Checkpoint in Falfurias, TX
Checkpoint in Falfurias, TX

There is genuinely no better educational experience than being placed in a real-life application of the techniques we have been studying out of textbooks for years. I learned so much about my UIndy colleagues and Dr. Latham during the 11 days we spent together. We shared so many laughs, coffees, spicy foods, physical struggles, and inside jokes together. Plus, although we felt slow and loopy at times, we never lost sight of our goals. The fire still burns inside me from this humbling, humanitarian experience and I cannot wait to share it with friends, family, and strangers — to spread awareness about the silent loss of human lives taking place in our country.

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Hope to see you again soon, Texas.

Sammi

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Placing flowers during a dust storm

Day 9: A Day of Closure

Leann, Sammi, Jessica, and Jordan
End of day 9: Leann, Sammi, Jessica, and Jordan

As our last day comes to a close, I cannot help but think about the people I am going to miss. I will miss Dr. Spradley, Dr. Gocha, Deputy Don, and the many others who volunteer their time to assist in identifying the individuals who exist as a mere number in the legal system without this humanitarian effort.  I will miss Joe and Luis, who not only came to the cemetery every day with an eager outlook and a focused mind, but proceeded to bring us donuts, fried chicken, fruit, or pistachios to show their appreciation for the hard work we put in. Today has been full of various emotions. Dr. Latham said this has been considerably different than the final day of most previous field seasons. This time, the groups are not working to quickly, carefully uncover the final few individuals before cleaning up and leaving the site. The UIndy team has finished thoroughly investigating every open area of our quadrant for the remains of the unidentified migrants we are searching for. This time, our final day is a day of closure.

Joe filling our pit with dirt, using the back hoe
Joe filling our pit with dirt, using the back hoe

As Joe and Luis worked on filling in the large pits we had excavated within, everyone else supervised and cleaned up the site. Texas State came back with coffee, so Joe took a break and came over to our group. During this time, he shared some of his experiences living and working close to the border. It was powerful to hear the sincerity in his voice as he reminded us that people walk enormous distances to cross into the United States in search of a safer life and higher paying jobs, yet die of heat exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration as they journey through the state avoiding checkpoints. This was the most I had interacted with Joe during the trip, but it was valuable to receive a local’s perspective about those suffering in this crisis.

Placing flowers around the marked burials
Placing flowers around the marked burials

Once the surface had been entirely leveled out, we gathered plastic flowers, trimmed the grass around grave markers, and stuck the flowers in the ground or tied them in place in front of every burial. Every single burial received at least 3 flowers, thanks to Leann. Leann essentially became the self-established site florist for two hours as we finished marking burials that had been missing a sign. It is so important to Texas State University and University of Indianapolis to show our respect and leave the cemetery even better than we got it. This felt like the perfect final gesture to end the exhumations with a small gift.

dsc_0015I have been very touched by the events of our final day. I was able to see the site in stunning condition before we left to drive back to our hotel for the last time. There is still much to do. Leann and I have some mapping to work on over the weekend, and a long day of travel ahead of us tomorrow. However, I have been absolutely amazed by the amount I have learned from this experience. Texas has been extremely good to the Beyond Borders team this year, and for that we are grateful. We are very fortunate that Dr. Latham’s involvement with this project has allowed us to participate another year and provide students with the opportunity to help provide closure to many families who have lost their loved ones.

Day 9
Day 9

Sammi

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Day 5: Tamales and Trenches and Wind, Oh My!

Every drive to our site starts with the gorgeous Texas sunrise
The gorgeous, Texas sunrise we see every morning

Today was our fifth day at the cemetery. Our team, being a hard-working and motivated group of people, was determined to bring high energy to the site and complete our goals for the day. We compiled a plan the night before, in which we decided to confront a new area of our quadrant. The funeral director had given Dr. Kate Spradley, from Texas State University, an idea of where he thought migrants may have been buried, but it was our duty as anthropologists to be sure to check all possible unmarked areas that could have been containing migrant burials. We felt it was important to start a new trench within the cemetery that contained a long stretch of land where no grave markers were present.

Jordan deepening the trench floor
Jordan deepening the trench floor

Even before clearing surface vegetation to better observe the topography of the area, we could still see and feel some possible depressions beneath our feet. It is likely that we are correct, and there are burials far below the surface in this area. However, we have been facing the challenge that some of these burials do not fit the migrant profile due to the circumstances of their burials. Hopefully the funeral director was correct, and we find the final two individuals in this quadrant we are looking for so they can be analyzed and identified.

According to the iPhone weather application, it was supposed to be one of the hottest days during our trip. The temperature was listed as a low of 56 and a high of 76 degrees Fahrenheit. It seemed like the temperature would be practically perfect. Little did we know, strong, gusting winds reaching 27 mph would throw us for a loop, sending our hats and papers flying as the day went on. As Jordan, Jessica and I mattocked and shoveled our new trench, dirt was flying in our faces and eyes (not the best feeling in the world). Meanwhile, Leann and Dr. Latham were chipping away at a massive wall that was covering one of the burials we discovered by the large pit. By lunch time, the team had accomplished removing a decent portion of our new trench, uncovered the deepest burial we have found so far, photographed and removed the body, and added the precise corners of this burial into our maps.

Leann and Dr. Latham uncovering a burial
Leann and Dr. Latham uncovering a burial

Since it was impossible to do anything in peace with the wind, Dr. Latham suggested eating by the van. We rented a stylish, grey minivan for our transportation needs, so we thought that sitting on the North side of the van might block some of the northbound winds. At this point, everyone was getting pretty physically exhausted. During lunchtime, Dr. Latham suggested taking a short-day, which was probably productive for the overall group morale. We went back to work for another hour or so and then called it a day around 2:15 pm.

Restaurant in San Juan where we ate delicious tamales
Restaurant in San Juan where we ate delicious tamales

Back at the hotel, everyone showered and had some down time. We were super excited for dinner tonight at Delia’s, which is a well-known tamale restaurant with an alluring reputation. It honestly wasn’t difficult for the group to agree upon driving 30 minutes from our hotel to get dinner because everyone here is obsessed with tamales. I can truthfully say it lived up to our expectations.

I think the abbreviated workday helped regenerate our bodies and spirits. As frustrating as the wind turned out to be, we all stayed strong, encouraged each other, and maintained optimism. I am incredibly proud at how hard-working everyone has been. There is still much to get done before Thursday, but it is absolutely attainable. No matter what obstacles are thrown our direction, we will not lose steam!

-Sammi

End of day 5 group photo
End of day 5 group photo
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