All posts by Jessica

A new year and a new field season

In less than a week (as I’m writing this), our group leaves for another trip down to South Texas to assist in the humanitarian effort of identifying the remains of migrants who perished along the US-Mexico border. The first step in this process is the field season (exhuming the remains) and is sometimes the hardest step. This will be my third trip to Texas and even though I’ve been before, I cannot help but to feel a little anxious. My first trip to Texas, our group was at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas which is place where several field seasons had occurred prior to my visit. In our group, we had members that had been to Falfurrias before which made it less apprehensive because I at least knew what to expect in terms of soil consistency and weather. Although, my very first trip to Texas in January 2017 saw record low temperatures in the 30s which none of us were prepared for. It all plays to our motto of ‘expect the unexpected’ and there was no way to know we would be bringing the cold, Indiana weather with us to Texas.

Jan 2017 - Record low temperatures
Jan 2017 – Record low temperatures

My second trip to Texas brought our group to a whole new city and cemetery. Although our group spent weeks carefully packing and deciding what tools to bring, nothing prepared us for the soil consistency that we found in Rio Grande City Cemetery. The soil consistency was more similar to cement; hard, compact, rocky soil that could only be penetrated by heavy machinery or a mattic. One of the many differences between Falfurrias and Rio Grande City was that in Rio Grande City, the graves were marked and the cemetery employee who actually made the graves years’ prior, was on scene to help us. The cemetery employee, Sylvestre, was a huge help in locating and systematically excavating the dirt until we were close enough to the actual burial that we could proceed with using our hand tools. As it turned out, the burials were closer to 5-6ft deep in Rio Grande City Cemetery versus only being 3-4ft deep in sandy soil like the graves in Falfurrias.

May 2017 - Sylvestre
May 2017 – Sylvestre

For my third trip to Texas, I am not sure what to expect because I feel that the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias and the Rio Grande City Cemetery were at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of soil consistency and knowing the exact places were migrants were buried. What I do know, is that our team has a knack for adapting to our environments and always tackling surprises head on. Expect the unexpected is a motto we work by and it has helped us a great deal. I may be feeling apprehensive and a little anxious right now, but I know once we get to Texas, those feelings with dissipate. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to go back to Texas and help in this humanitarian effort. This experience changes you as a person and to be able to go back for a third season gives you a bittersweet feeling. Right now, I am going to spend the holidays with my family and thinking about the adventure that lies ahead in South Texas. I am unbelievably excited to be a part of this humanitarian effort and I am ready to start another field season with our amazing group from UIndy and Texas State University.

Jessica

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Looking back and moving forward

It has been almost two weeks since I have been home from Texas; well one week if you count the time that myself and other students spent in Boulder City, NV attending the Mountain, Desert, and Coastal Forensic Anthropology Conference. The thing with staying busy, is that it does not allow you to think or dwell on certain matters which can be both positive and negative. With traveling and then feeling under the weather (I’m highly allergic to Nevada apparently), I am just now able to process what happened down in Texas this field season. Everything was different compared to my first field season at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, TX in January 2017.

Sunrise over RGC Cemetery
Sunrise over RGC Cemetery

After coming home in January, I was flooded with all sorts of emotions stemming from my time in Falfurrias. I attribute most of those emotions to visiting ‘the wall’ and volunteering at the Respite Center. During my trip, I did not allow myself to really process what was happening and the experience I had at the Respite Center. When I got home, I did not even make it through the drive home from the airport before I was so overcome with emotions that I cried most of the ride. I loved every minute that I spent at the Respite Center and I hope that in the future I can volunteer there again. When conducting field investigations at a cemetery, it is easier to remove yourself emotionally from the situation than when dealing with people who are still alive to tell their stories. In previous blog posts (from Jan), I know it was mentioned about the gentleman and his daughter who crossed the border, who came forward to tell us their story of how they got there. There was also another lady, who was traveling with her three daughters, who also shared her story. I’ll never forget those moments, I don’t think anyone in that room that day will ever forget.

When I came home in January, I felt motivated and inspired. I wanted to spread the news of what is happening and to educate those who may not understand completely the hardships people face below the border. This time, I still feel that same motivation and the need to continue volunteering in this effort. I am also amazed at how much more I have learned regarding the situation going on in South Texas as well as what is happening in Mexico.

Overlook of the Rio Grande River into Mexico
Overlook of the Rio Grande River into Mexico

The Mountain, Desert, and Coastal meeting could not have come at a better time. This year, the second day at the conference was a symposium on the ‘Sociopolitics of Migrant Deaths’ which had speakers from UIndy, the Colibri Center, the PCOME, Texas State University, and a journalist who is currently residing in Mexico. This symposium gave a whole new perspective about the humanitarian crisis in South Texas and what is also happening along the US/Mexico border.

Overlook of Lake Mead in Boulder City, NV
Overlook of Lake Mead in Boulder City, NV

Although I am not flooded with as many emotions as I had after being exposed to this humanitarian crisis for the first time, I feel that this trip has further solidified that this on-going effort isn’t about me or the other parties involved; it is about them. Them being those who have died that are still waiting to be identified and their families who are still waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones. After this trip, I have realized that this humanitarian effort isn’t something that will be completed in 1 year. This is an on-going effort and I would not be surprised if 10 years from now- this volunteer work is still be accomplished. I am forever grateful to have been able to be a part of this humanitarian effort and I hope to have the opportunity to continue volunteering in the future. As of right now, there is already another field season planned for January 2018 and again in May 2018. 

Group photo at MD&C Forensic Anthropology Conference
Group photo at MD&C Forensic Anthropology Conference

Jessica

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Just a small town girl

 

This past year, my classmates at UIndy and I have spent countless hours in our osteology lab going over different methodologies including skeletal analysis. During my first field season in Brooks County in January, the majority of the time was spent conducting field work and seeing first hand why this mission was started. Fast forward a whole semester, here I am back in Texas and everything is different. The first half of this trip was spent at Texas State University’s ORPL conducting skeletal analysis. During those three days, our team conducted a total of 9 skeletal analyses as well as taking an interesting tour of their decomposition research facility, FARF. I enjoyed the skeletal analysis half of this trip for many reasons. This was the first time that our group was able to apply what we had learned in the classroom in an actual case setting.

A view of Freeman Ranch while driving to FARF.
A view of Freeman Ranch while driving to FARF.

After spending 3 days at ORPL, our group and a group from Texas State, traveled to Rio Grande City to start excavations of more unidentified individuals at the local cemetery. Although we are still on the same mission, conducting the same type of excavations of individuals who were never identified; there are several differences between the trip in January and this trip. Temperature was a big one- when we came in January, we also brought the cold Indiana weather with us. This time, we have been faced with both rain and sunny skies with temperatures in the 90s-100s.

The UIndy team was stationed at area 2 and we knew ahead of time that there were reportedly five individuals buried in our area. In Falfurrias, everything was haphazard when it came to finding unknown burials. In Rio Grande City, Texas State was given information from one of the funeral homes as to how many individuals to expect in each area. In area 2, we recovered the five individuals and then made sure there were no other burials in that area before calling it quits. The soil consistency in Falfurrias was sandy and much easier to dig; however, that also meant that we had issues with walls caving in as we dug down deeper. In Rio Grande City, the walls were hard, packed clay with large rocks. If it was not for Silvestre and his excavator, I am not sure how we would have excavated down to the level that we needed and survived the heat.

Silvestre and the backhoe.
Silvestre and the backhoe.

This trip was quit the experience and it feels bittersweet to have it end. Although I am incredibly happy to be able to go home and sleep in my own bed, I am going to miss the comradery and awesome team work that was displayed during this trip. Until next time…

End of the day group photo.
End of the day group photo.

Jessica

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