Category Archives: Community

Interaction with the community of Falfurrias

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!



Our “Day Off”

Several days ago, our team took a day off from the physical exertion in the field to volunteer at the Sacred Heart Respite Center in McAllen Texas. We arrived at the center sometime in the morning on a very rainy and cold day (especially for Texas), where we were greeted by our friend Sister Pam. She led us inside and gave us a sort of orientation about the history of the Respite Center, the role the center plays in the migrant crisis, and instructions on how we would be able to help out while we were there. The purpose of the center is to provide migrants who are being released into our country with food, toiletries, clothing, and the first shower that they have likely had in days. These individuals were previously being detained by Border Patrol after crossing the border and seeking asylum and this center is really the first place since arriving where they are shown any type of humanity.

Before setting us off on our volunteer work, Sister Pam conversed with a migrant and his daughter who had recently arrived at the center, asking them questions about where they were from, their family, etc. Without going into too many details, this conversation was very eye-opening on just what these individuals had to go through to get to the US, and the calmness with which they regaled this information highlighted just how typical their situation was for all of the migrants attempting to cross the border – and let me tell you, their situation was far from what anyone would consider ideal.

Surprisingly, out of our group of at least 30 volunteers, there were only a few of us who spoke any Spanish. Jorge, who traveled with our group from Indianapolis, is fluent in Spanish and so he acted as our main translator. Otherwise, Justin and I were the only others who were able to converse in Spanish. Because of this, Sister Pam enlisted us in kind of floating around to help translate for anyone who may need it, as well as to talk to some of the families as they went through the process at the center. We were also asked to walk with Sister Pam and others from the group to greet the migrants being dropped off at the bus station. While there, Sister Pam had Justin and I usher families to the waiting area, explaining to them that we would take them to the center shortly. After explaining this to one family, a young boy, who had previously been quite rambunctious playing with his friend in the station, surprised me by giving me a big hug, which I was not at all prepared for but it was extremely heartwarming and reminded me how relieved these families must be knowing they are finally on their way to their families in the US.

Back at the center, things became very chaotic very quickly, with about 30 migrants being moved through to receive their supplies, clothing, and food, as well as to allow them time to wash up and shower. Acting as a translator, I very quickly became overwhelmed by people asking me for specific clothing items, as well as by other volunteers asking me to help translate. It was a good kind of overwhelming, however. In fact, it was wonderful. I felt like I was really able to help these people and that, even though our communication was limited, I was able to connect with them on some level. These individuals were going through a very tough situation, and probably had not experienced much kindness in the past couple of weeks, so it felt good simply being able to smile and say “Hola, Bienvenidos” to all of them. Even better was being able to ask “¿Qué necesitas?” or “What do you need?” I don’t think they had heard that from many people since entering our country and it was amazing being able to help, even in a small way.

This experience at the center was much more intense and eye-opening than I could have ever imagined it would be. I heard stories from people that were heartbreaking and shocking and seeing their resilience was awe-inspiring. I am so grateful for this opportunity to have been able to be of some small help to these individuals and their families. I only hope that the amazing work that the Sacred Heart Respite Center is doing will continue on until there is no longer a need for it. If you would like to help out as well by donating items or by making a financial donation, check out their webpage here.