Category Archives: Human Rights, Migrant Death

Talking about the project itself

An Anthropological Perspective

texas

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.

~KEL

 

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Day 3 Group Picture

Day 3 (field)- Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Today was our third day in the field.  Our mission today was to uncover two more burials.  We started bright and early at 6:30am, the coolest part of any day in Starr County, Texas.  We had a slight cloud covering and a cool breeze to start our workday, which was incredibly motivating and refreshing, not to mention the gorgeous sunrise that occurred this morning.

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Starr County rising sun

We began our work by removing the tarp we used to shade the 1st burial from the sun and any passersby.  The tarp worked nicely to protect the burial from the rain last night.  After removing the tarp, we began our exhumation process.  Because it was cool this morning, we each took 10 minute turns working in the pit.  We decreased our turn time to 5 minutes as the day wore on, due to the hot sun.

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Removing the tarp

 

We removed 2 burials from the pit today.  In the morning, the dirt was softened from the rain making it much softer in consistency and easier to remove.  As we dug deeper into the pit, the soil was much drier and more difficult to get through than the top muck layer.  As we got closer to the burial, the stratigraphy took on a clay layer, which was most difficult to get through.  A mattock has proven to be completely essential in this process due to the clay layer.  It is also very fun to use.

The burials we removed today were much easier to remove than the one from yesterday.  Yesterday’s burial (the 1st) went deep into the eastern wall of our pit, making it extremely difficult to remove.  Today’s burials did not extend deep into either the eastern or western walls, making them much easier to exhume.

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Shoveling down

After removing the 3rd burial from the pit, we decided that we needed to move further toward the north end of our area.  We asked Silvestre to come back with his backhoe to fill in the pit most of the way while digging the northern most wall back several inches allowing us to continue our exhumations.  As he filled in the pit with the dirt that had been removed previously, we asked him to create a ramp for us so that we could safely enter and exit the pit since our stairs were destroyed when he took down a portion of the northern-most wall.  After Silvestre finished with our pit, we cleaned up our area and cracked open our bottles of Coke.  We decided yesterday when we were at H-E-B to get one Coke for each of us for each of the next three days.  It has become our tradition to crack open a cold bottle of Coke when we finish our work for the day.  There is something truly wonderful about a glass bottle of Coke at the end of a long day.  We did a quick toast and then our group picture for the day.  Today we decided to do our group picture in the van in the A/C.

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Silvestre filling in the pit

Today was an extremely successful day.  We worked efficiently and very well as a team.  This allowed us to uncover two burials and work safely.  We implemented a 5-minute work time followed by a 5-minute break.  On each break, we would drink a lot of water and reapply sunscreen.  We implemented these rules to avoid anyone having heat stroke.  These rules will be essential in the coming days as the temperature increases steadily.

I am truly amazed by my teammates.  I appreciate so much the communication they have with each other and me.  When something needs to be done, we are not offended by instruction from another person.  When we are in each other’s way, we are not offended by a “move.”  It is amazing what can be accomplished by teamwork.  I am very much looking forward to the next two days of field work.  We have experienced both trials and tribulations, but we continue to move forward, finding new and improved ways to do things along the way.  Tomorrow is a new day and I am looking forward to seeing what it brings.

Haley

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Teamwork

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 2 (field) – We will rock you.

Today we arrived at the cemetery at 6:30 am and were able to start our work under the rising sun. Our first goal this morning, was to create steps leading from the excavated area to the surface for us to be able to work efficiently and safely. As we worked, there would be peaks of sunshine complemented by overcast skies and cool winds.

Creating Steps
Creating Steps.

After completing our steps came our first challenge which was uncovering the first burial. Our group quickly found that a portion of the burial extended under one of the walls, requiring us to cut away a section of the wall and then undercutting the same spot another foot just to reach the end. Our group worked efficiently and tirelessly; taking turns every 4-5 minutes, that way everyone had an opportunity to rest and drink plenty of water.

Group photo on our woman-made steps
Group photo on our woman-made steps.

Tomorrow our goal is to tackle the next two burials. Our area is especially tricky because we must excavate the first three burials in our section (including the one that was excavated today), then rebury the area to excavate the last two burials. All the burials are estimated to be at least 5 ft deep but what we have found thus far in this area is that the burials are closer to 6 feet down. Our entire group is extremely thankful for the assistance of the excavator operator, Silvestre, for his assistance with digging the area. It is slightly terrifying to think about where we would be without him. The next three days are going to be extremely hot with temperatures expected to be in the high 90s to 100s with total sunshine. Even though every evening we have come back exhausted, I have a suspicion that these past two days are going to be considered our ‘easy’ days due to the rising temperatures.

It is hard physical work that we are doing, but it is also hard work emotionally. For me, it always comes back to the reasons why we volunteered on this humanitarian issue. No one should be left unidentified and everyone has a right to know what happened to their loved ones. That is all the motivation we need to continue this mission and that is what is going to help us get through the next couple of days. That and iced cold cokes.

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Jessica

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