Forensic anthropologists not only have a specific set of scientific skills (forensic archeology and 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.
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.
Tomorrow, myself and the rest of our group will be heading to South Texas to start another field season. This will be my second time in Texas and I am excited to be able to participate in this humanitarian effort. This field season will be different from the last because the first part of our trip with be spent at Texas State University to assist with skeletal analysis. This will be a first for me and I am not entirely sure what to expect. I am excited to visit the lab at Texas State University and to see their facilities. As for the skeletal analysis, I suspect this will be especially challenging for many reasons.
The second part of our trip, our group along with Texas State faculty and students, will be traveling to Starr County Texas to start excavations of graves of unidentified border crossers. Although I had the opportunity to go to Texas in January, I feel like these two trips are going to be vastly different for many reasons. In January we certainly lucked out with the weather; in fact, one day it felt like we never left Indiana with how cold it was. Our group also benefited with having been to Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, TX for several years before the most recent trip. This field season we will be going in the middle of May where the temperatures will most likely be in the high 90’s (if not higher) not to mention we will be in a completely new area. New city, new cemetery, new soil- all of these things play into our old saying of ‘expect the unexpected’. I am confident in saying that the title of this trip, like so many in the past, will be centered around the unexpected. The excitement I feel for this trip also comes with a heavy heart knowing that this trip would not be happening if these people had not died in an attempt to flee their home countries. Something that I find comfort in, is knowing that at the end of every field season, we are one step closer to getting identifications and one step closer to returning them to their families. This will be the most challenging field season yet and I’m confident in my group, as well as Texas State, that we will be successful in our endeavors. I can also say that I’m not terribly excited to be faced with my only true enemy, the dreaded sticker burrs. They are literally the worst.
I see this excursion as an adventure of hope, happiness, and hard work. I love the challenge and the inspiration that comes afterwards, it just shows how rewarding this experience is to all of the volunteers. Here’s to a new season of hope and adventure- stay tuned for our blog posts and if you have not already, check out our short video that our team members made! You can also help support our trip by donating here or here.
I am so grateful to be returning to South Texas to continue the humanitarian work on the border! As I anticipate our departure in less than a week, I find myself far calmer than I felt the first time. Surprisingly, I feel that this is at least partly due to some of the differences between this upcoming trip and the last one in January.
We will be starting our time in South Texas working in the lab at Texas State University, helping to analyze some of the remains being curated there. I am especially eager assist with these analyses and to have the opportunity to work with faculty and students from Texas State and observe the way they do things in their lab and how that might differ from our normal procedures. I also know that they have some very nice facilities and equipment, which will be very cool to see! More importantly, however, I feel that the lab portion of this season will be an emotionally impactful experience. Being so close to the remains of the migrants and contributing to the creation of biological profiles that may someday help to identify them will be a very rewarding and, at the same time, heartbreaking experience. I am excited to have the opportunity to help with another step of this very important process.
I suspect the field work portion of this season will also be quite different, in that we are moving to a new city and a new cemetery. With this new area, I believe our motto of “expect the unexpected” will never have been more appropriate.
All of the differences between this season and the last should scare me, but really, I’m excited! I believe that the experience that me and my fellow teammates have gained from our previous season in Texas, as well as from all of our previous training, will help us to overcome any obstacles that may come our way. And I am excited for the challenge.