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.
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.
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…
The University of Indianapolis’ motto is “education for service.” For some students, these aspects of service include various volunteer opportunities and community involvement projects coordinated through the Volunteers in Service (VIS) program and the Center for Service-Learning and Community Engagement. For the Beyond Borders team, service means helping a community that is experiencing a mass disaster beyond belief. We take the knowledge and experience we have gained in the classroom and apply it in a real-world setting – identifying individuals who perished crossing the US-Mexico border in order to repatriate them back to their families. Applying my education in this type of setting is very different from merely learning and taking tests in school. In the classroom, I am surrounded by teachers and classmates that are at my beck and call for guidance when I have questions or need clarification. While Dr. Latham and my other team members are more than willing to help when I have questions, everyone is working on different tasks simultaneously which really pushes me to trust my knowledge, experience, and skill-set. It also teaches me to be independent while concurrently working as a member of a team that has a common goal.
At the end of each case, Dr. Latham checks all of the work we have done to make sure that our analyses were conducted properly. This allows for us as students to apply our education in a setting that is more independent than a classroom project, but is still checked and under the guidance of Dr. Latham. While this new-found independence is a little scary at first, it has allowed me to gain invaluable skills and experience that one simply cannot get in a classroom setting. I learn something new every time Dr. Latham checks our work, so this trip is an incredible learning experience for all of us and is morphing us into better scientists and forensic anthropologists in the process. I believe that this project truly exemplifies our school’s motto, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to be involved in this humanitarian effort in South Texas. Not only does it expose us to the crisis occurring at the border, it allows us to apply our education in a way that helps others and allows us to grow as individuals and as advocates for human rights.
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.