Category Archives: Community

Interaction with the community of Falfurrias


Day 4 (field) – An Evening in Roma…

Sun rise at the cemetery
Sun rise at the cemetery

In the past three days, we have exhumed three individuals from Area 2.  This means that we only have two more days to exhume the remaining two individuals buried in this area before we head back to Indiana on Saturday.  With this being said, today’s goal was to find and exhume at least one of the two remaining burials.  While this may seem like a simple goal, we were racing against the sun.  The forecast today was 97 degrees with zero clouds in the sky, meaning that in order to stay safe, we needed to work quickly and efficiently.

Dr. Latham and Haley digging the trench
Dr. Latham and Haley digging the trench

To accomplish our goals, we started by digging a trench from the Northern end of the pit towards the location of burials we removed yesterday.  We decided to dig the trench down the middle of the pit to ensure we find the remaining burials if they exist there.  Because the morning started out relatively cool, our rotations were 15 minutes long.  After a few rotations, we found evidence of another burial so we began to investigate further.  As the day drew on and the temperature continued to rise, we decreased our rotations to four minutes long.  By lunch time, we had the burial completely exposed and ready to remove.  After we removed the burial, we continued the trench Southward to look for the last remaining burial in Area 2.

We ended up leaving the cemetery at around 2pm.  Even though today was shorter than our other days, we still worked really hard to meet our goal and find, uncover, and exhume another individual.  We made the decision to leave at 2pm because it was getting too hot to safely work outside.  Before we left, we strategized about finding and removing our last burial tomorrow morning over some ice-cold Cokes.

Rio Grande overlook in Roma, TX

After we returned to the hotel and cleaned up a little, we traveled to Roma – a city West of Rio Grande City in Starr County.  This city is located along the Rio Grande and has an amazing lookout deck with incredible views of the river and Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico.  While we were at the lookout, we met a very nice border patrol agent who talked with us about his job and about the river border in general.  It was about 97 degrees while we were there, so we took some pictures but quickly returned to the car so as not to get anymore sun than we already had gotten today at the cemetery.  After this visit, we went to the Mezquite Grill in RGC for dinner and the food definitely did not disappoint! We left full and very, very satisfied.

Erica's nachos at Mezquite
Erica’s nachos at Mezquite

I am looking forward to what tomorrow holds for us.  It is bittersweet because tomorrow is our last day at the Rio Grande Cemetery, however, we will leave feeling accomplished and extremely humbled if we are able to exhume all five individuals in our area so they can begin their identification process.  As for now, we are all going to get a good night’s sleep so we are well-rested and ready to take on our last day.




An Anthropological Perspective


Forensic anthropologists not only have a specific set of scientific skills (forensic archeology grave-markerand expertise in the human skeleton) and experience navigating the medicolegal system that allow us to play a vital role in the investigation of migrant deaths along the border, but as broadly trained anthropologists we are also able to approach this work in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way. We utilize the controlled and systematic approach of traditional archeological technique to recover the individuals from the cemetery while preserving the context of the burial information. We are able to analyze the skeletons and assess the living characteristics of each person (like how old they were when they died, were they male or female, how tall were they, etc…). We know that each person represents an open forensic case and approach this work in a way that preserves the chain of custody and produces proper documentation to allow for an investigation into personal identity.

As anthropologists we understand that while we serve an important practical role in the identification of the migrants, we are also situated within a very large and complex set of realities occurring not only in the Texas borderlands but also globally. Locally we must consider the various stakeholders impacted by this process. This includes the families of the missing, law enforcement, as well as the local community members (among others). Since the beginning of this project we have considered the feelings of the families of the missing. We have worked to treat the dead with respect and dignity as we work towards their identification. We are transparent with our findings and provide families of the identified with copies of the field recovery reports that pertain to their loved one as well as copies of the scientific reports, along with an explanation of what they mean and how that lead to an identification.  Invitations for us to work on these identifications come from the local medicolegal community, so our interactions with these stakeholders has been extensive. What we have learned over the years is that the law enforcement community must find ways to balance their resources, focuses and efforts between the living and the dead. They have a community to serve and protect, lives to save when distress calls come from the dessert and bodies to recover. As the number of bodies has increased dramatically over the last few years they have struggled to continue that balance as resources have not similarly increased.  While we are mindful of how we are working within a broader system and we can begin to use this awareness to guide our work, we are aware that we are only beginning to recognize how we fit into this sociopolitical landscape and that we currently have more questions than answers.

Rio Grande City Cemetery
Rio Grande City Cemetery

As we move into a new community it is especially important to consider how we are directly and indirectly impacting the community of Rio Grande City with this work. We must understand that the community, as a border town, has been entangled historically in migration issues that are shaped by larger forces of economic globalization, racial division, and various forms of privilege and disadvantage. At each step of the planning and excavation process we must continue to ask ourselves how we are influencing the community from the larger and more long lasting impacts to the daily interactions and encounters at the cemetery and in the town along the way.




Day 1 (Field) – Mud, Clay, and Rocks

What. A. Day. We went into today knowing that we had our work cut out for us but, true to form, the day was still full of surprises.

The flooded hotel parking lot

Not least of all of these surprises, our first night in Rio Grande City was accompanied by severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. As much as I was enjoying sitting by the window and watching the thunder and lightning, as the parking lot of the hotel began to flood, I knew that this likely did not bode well for our work in the morning. Sure enough, upon arriving at our area of the cemetery, it was mud, mud, mud.


Going into our work in area 2, we were informed that there were five unidentified individuals possibly buried there. According to Silvestre, the man who buried them, all of the individuals were buried 5 feet deep. From prior experience, however, we were doubtful that they were actually buried that deep, as many people often exaggerate or overestimate such dimensions (digging is hard work, after all).

We began the day following the plan that we had set out the night before – clearing trash and debris from the site, measuring and mapping, dsc_0065“shovel-shining” (really just removing the mud and grass, with most of it stuck to our shovels and boots), attempting to probe the ground (somewhat unsuccessfully, due to the very hard cement-like clay that the rain had created), dsc_0108and then proceeding to strategize our approach to uncovering the burials. Digging through the peanut-butter like clay was definitely hard work and we were grateful for the overcast skies during the morning. Later on, we were even more grateful for Silvestre and his back-hoe. He offered to help us out and ended up removing about three feet of dirt. As the sun began to peek from behind the clouds, we resumed digging.


Silvestre, however, was adamant that these burials were 5 feet deep. So he brought the back-hoe back around and ended up creating a very large and very deep pit for us. dsc_0215And sure enough, it appears that the first burial we uncovered may indeed have been buried 5 feet deep, just as Silvestre said. The day ended up going a little longer than we had originally planned because we needed to be there to monitor the heavy machinery. I know we are all quite exhausted but also very eager to get right back at it tomorrow morning!