All posts by lathamke

Tres Cementerios

The UIndy Beyond Borders Team has been participating in this large scale migrant identification initiative for 5 years now.  Five years. Five field seasons. Three counties. Nearly 200 exhumations. As you have already read in previous posts: each cemetery presents its own unique challenges to locating and excavating the burials and each country provides a unique setting in which we would find ourselves challenged and learning more about the complicated humanitarian crisis unfolding at the border.

Brooks Co
Brooks County

With each field season we have learned to be flexible, to problem solve, to apply our archeological skills in new ways and to expect the unexpected. We have learned the value of planning and teamwork,  the type of motivation that can only come with a passion to do what is right and just, and the hope that our hard work will benefit someone who is longing for answers.  We have learned to push through the pain of bruises, blisters, muscle aches and sun burns.  To let our head coach us to believe we are not physically aching, tired and heartbroken because we cannot slow down until our job is complete. We have made lifelong friendships and we have learned things about life and humanity that only others embarking on a similar mission can fully grasp. We have seen the best and we have seen the worst of humanity in action.

Rio Grande City Cemetery
Starr County

We have learned that our early understanding of this issue was naive and the issues are so deep are so complicated that it is difficult to truly grasp what is happening and why it is happening. We have learned that while we can be advocates, we can never truly understand these issues because of our nationality and privilege.  But we can listen, we can contribute our skills and we can use our platform to educate and inform those who have no idea that thousands of people are dying and being buried in the southern US borderlands.  As forensic scientists we are able to tell stories and document inequalities that may otherwise go unheard and unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans. We see the imprints of lifelong poverty on the bones and teeth of the dead we uncover, we see the love they have for their families in the photos and notes found in their pockets, we document the places they die and bear witness to the fact that these deaths are happening in staggering numbers. We not only work to give them a name and restore their memory but we make them a part of the indelible medicolegal record that will one day work towards change and social justice.

Willacy County
Willacy County

As another field season comes to an end I again find it difficult to express my feelings. On the one hand I want to say how proud I am of my team and the entire field team in general. I want to feel pride in our work and comfort in that fact that 37 more people now have a chance at identification and repatriation.  But on the other hand these feeling seem so inappropriate within such a large and violent crisis. It is a humbling experience and it is eye opening and shocking to see how these migrants are viewed and treated in life and in death.  We thank you for following our journey, which is intimately entwined with the journey of those we unearth. We hope you learn,  you feel and you share what is happening.

Please let us know if there is something you want to see on the blog in the future and please support our continued work if you have the ability to do so.

~KEL

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Together We Can Do Great Things

The Beyond Borders blog focuses mostly on the achievements of the UIndy forensics team as they work on a large scale migrant identification initiative. However, our team is just a small part of a large group working on issues surrounding this massive humanitarian crisis.  We would like to use today’s blog post to highlight some of the other amazing people that spent the first half of January working on exhumations in Willacy county.

Dr. Kate Spradley is a biological anthropologist from Texas State University and the Director of Operation Identification (OpID).  OpID was created in 2013 to to facilitate the identification and repatriation of unidentified human remains found along or in close proximity to the South Texas border through community outreach, scientific analysis, and collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations. She coordinated the exhumation efforts in Willacy County.

Dr. Spradley
Dr. Spradley

Dr. Tim Gocha is a biological anthropologist from University of Nevada, Las Vegas who volunteered to work on the exhumation efforts in south Texas.  Last year he was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, where he helped manage Operation Identification. This year he is volunteering to continue working on these identification efforts.

Dr. Gocha
Dr. Gocha

Dr. Nicholas Herrmann is a biological anthropologist from Texas State University who conducted ground penetrating radar prior to the excavations to locate the burials. He also spent several days at the site working on a digital map using RTK satellite navigation.

Dr. Herrmann
Dr. Herrmann

Robert Shults is a photographer who has spent the last few years photographing the various laboratories and projects associated with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University.  He not only photographed the work happening at the cemetery but also spent a lot of time digging himself.

Rob Shults
Rob Shults

Dr. James Fancher is a dentist and Air Force Colonel who has practiced dentistry, worked in dental education and assisted with forensic identification efforts. He volunteered to work on the exhumation efforts in Willacy County.

Dr. Fancher
Dr. Fancher

Deputy Don White is a Volunteer Deputy for the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office and experiences the migrant death crisis personally through his search and rescue efforts.  He volunteered not only to be site security but also got his hands dirty on many occasions assisting with the exhumations.

Deputy Don White
Deputy Don White

Eddie Canales is the Director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, which is dedicated to the promotion, protection, defense and exercise of human rights and dignity in South Texas. Their mission is to end death and suffering on the Texas/Mexico border through community initiatives. He spent a few days with us in the field working on the exhumations and gathering important documentation regarding the burials.

Eddie Canales
Eddie Canales

There were a large number of students and volunteers from Texas State University, University of Indianapolis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas,  Tulane and The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, among others.  Additionally there were several Texas State University alums who served essential roles as team leaders in the field.

The Field Team
The Field Team

The ability to locate and exhume over 30 individuals who will now begin the identification and repatriation process was a team effort that relies largely upon volunteers and generous donors. Please support these organizations and spread awareness of this work as you can. Thank you!

 

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Education for Service

The work our team does towards migrant identification has many benefits and many applications. The most obvious of which is to identify and repatriate persons that perished in the Texas Borderlands by volunteering a specialty forensic science to communities that are unable to afford investigations into identity. Additionally it provides a learning experience that is not attainable in any textbook.  UIndy students are applying the forensic science skills they’ve learned in the classroom to this humanitarian crisis. This work exemplifies UIndy’s motto: Education for Service. In addition they are applying problem solving skills and critical thinking, working as members of a team, learning to navigate a socially and politically charged environment, expanding their professional development as they work with professionals and peers from other institutions, delving into border issues and becoming humanitarians and global citizens.

I asked each of the UIndy Beyond Borders team members to tell me something new they have learned while working on these exhumations or a unique application of something they learned at UIndy.

Jessica: One of the things that I have learned is not necessarily something that I learned in the classroom but more experience based. It is so important to be able to adapt to your surroundings, especially when any given situation can change. Every field season we constantly stress to expect the unexpected because with every day, each field season, and every new cemetery, nothing is the same.Its stressful but over time you learn to adapt to those unexpected changes. Sometimes, you come away feeling that you should have been more prepared or spent more time prepping; but in reality, it doesn’t always matter how much prep or planning goes into something because in the end, you may end up taking a whole new path. Texas has taught me a lot on how to adapt in stressful situations. It has given me strength that I didn’t know I had. Feelings of empathy and sadness gives every field season a bitter sweet ending and I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity.

Jessica
Jessica

Leann:  Through my experiences in South Texas, I have learned more about the value of human life and how these values are grossly neglected for certain populations within the United States – a reality rarely realized and/or fully understood in the Midwest.  It has taught me how to be an advocate for human rights and for dignity in both life and death, regardless of who you are or where you come from.

Leanne
Leanne

Jordan: Thanks to my participation in this field season in South Texas, I have come to appreciate that the methods taught in the classroom are not fixed laws and must be applied flexibly to any particular situation.

Jordan
Jordan

Sammi: It is entirely impossible to explain the change of heart that I have experienced while serving in this large-scale identification effort. This project is for the people who lost their lives in search of a safer, better life for themselves and their families than they would be able to achieve in their corrupt and poverty-ridden homelands. I have gained a deepened perspective on the value of human life, no matter where you come from, and how trivial many my struggles are in comparison to so many others once you truly open your eyes.

Sammi
Sammi
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