All posts by becks

Day 2: Community Impact

This was our second day searching for migrant burials in Sacred Heart Cemetery, and we truly began to notice how much this volunteer effort means to the Falfurrias community. Word of our presence has surely been spreading since we received many more visitors and curious spectators from the town. We experienced a variety of different reactions to our work. Some people stared as they drove by our site, some waved, some came and offered to bring the team lunch and thanked us for our efforts.

I had the unique opportunity of attending a press conference today that was organized by Eddie Canales at the South Texas Human Rights Center. As a graduate student, it is invaluable to observe professionals in the field as they interact with the public and media. I think it is incredibly important that experts in this topic have the opportunity to speak to the public and provide truthful information about the type of work we are doing and our motivations for doing it. It is so easy to spin things out of context and to politicize the identification of unknown migrant decedents. In reality, the core of this work is that all humans are treated with dignity in life or death and are given an equal chance at identification if we can provide the resources to help
do so.

fullsizerenderDr. Latham sat on a panel with some other forensic experts who play an active role in identifying migrant burials. There was press from at least 4 news stations, and it was nice
that they were able to have a light question and answer session to discuss the roles and techniques employed by the different volunteer organizations.

After we finished the long day of excavating, we stopped at the gas station for some Laredo Tacos. And WOAH, let me tell you: this barbacoa taco I had was one of the best I’ve ever had. While we were there, a few of us were approached by some people in the community who took an interest in our work. They wanted to know what we had found so far and how it was going at the cemetery. Compared to the field season last January, there is already a huge difference being in Falfurrias at a public site. I appreciate the ability to feel how deeply the humanitarian crisis impacts the locals in different ways.

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Sammi

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January 2019: Digging for a Deeper Connection

As we approach this coming field season, I sit here with a house full of people I love and a heart full of conflicting emotions. I am so lucky to have been born into such a privileged family. We are celebrating the holidays in the comfort of a warm home with plenty of food, water, shelter, coats, shoes, and unnecessary luxuries that we are so fortunate to have been able to obtain through hard work and circumstance. Every year when I visit home, I am able to tell the people in my life what wonderful things I have been able to accomplish and experience through my graduate program. I am able to experience the positive correlation of “hard work” that “pays off” in a way that many people in the world may never be able to, simply because I am an American citizen.

I recently read the creative non-fiction, Looking for Esperanza, which tells the stories of various migrant women who the author encountered while searching for Esperanza. She attempts to understand some of the hardships these women encounter in their lives here in America by joining them to work in the strawberry fields in Florida to experience their daily lives firsthand. She struggled to labor under the scolding hot sun, planting hundreds of pounds of strawberries throughout the day for minimal pay. This is one of the many forms of intense manual labor that these women face in exchange for minimal wages that pay for tortillas and trailers to feed and support their families.

Last January, I participated in my first field season with Beyond Borders. To us, moving enormous amounts of rigid, compact soil from the ground was quite difficult. Our bodies became sore, and we were burning through calories which made us hungry throughout the day. When it was cold, we had the clothing we desired. When it was hot, we had the water we thirsted for. When we were hungry, we had the security of a nutritious meal in our foreseeable future. We realized how fortunate we were, so we always carried on with our positive attitudes, hopeful to make a difference in somebody’s life.

This January, I will return to South Texas with Beyond Borders to continue our mission. Being able to participate in the project last year was a career-changing opportunity for me. One of the biggest reasons I wanted to go to the University of Indianapolis was with the intention of volunteering and learning how forensic anthropologists can help with humanitarian issues taking place around the world. Not only did I get a glimpse into the struggles and conditions faced near the U.S.-Mexico border, but I witnessed the difficulty in regulating the treatment and processing of the many individuals who perish on their journey.

I imagine this trip will be quite different from my last. This time, I will have a team member as my mapping apprentice, who I will be teaching the basic principles of field documentation in forensic archaeological contexts. Learning to map at this time last year was critical for my involvement in cases at UIndy and has provided me with many great opportunities that I am excited to share with another student. In addition, exhumations will resume at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, which will be different from my previous experience on the private property we worked on last year. Since we are returning to Falfurrias, we already have plans to meet with some incredible individuals in the community who will have a unique perspective to share with us. Our team with be

Learning to map from the previous mapping expert (January 2018).
Learning to map from the previous mapping expert (January 2018).

immersed in the sociopolitical climate in a way that I have not experienced before. This is why I believe the biggest difference of all will be the depth of understanding that I bring away from the things I witness and people I meet this season. I am excited to continue building my ever-growing emotional connection with this crisis and cannot wait to return.

 

Sammi

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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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