Today I got the chance to do something a little different than what I’m normally used to. Last year I spent most of my time at Texas State University doing skeletal analyses. This week so far, we got the opportunity to participate in body intake, help do dental analyses with a forensic odontologist, and now work with personal effects. When each set of remains is processed, the clothes and other personal items are collected and documented. It’s interesting to see what items the migrants bring with them. They bring pictures of their families, letters from home, money, tooth brushes, and prayer cards. They write phone numbers on the inside of their clothes and tuck messages into their shoes.
Our task today was to process the personal effects. Since we take many of the personal effects directly off of the remains themselves, they need to be washed thoroughly first. Helen and I worked with Courtney, a Texas State student, to wash the effects. We set up a work station outside in the parking lot of the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL). Our tools were two buckets with plungers that worked kind of like little washing machines, scrub brushes, and tons of Tide laundry detergent. We were geared up in scrubs, plastic aprons, gloves, and goggles. We had two bags of personal effects to clean. One bag had a shirt and pants, while the other had socks, shoes, and a few other smaller items. All of it was covered in decomposition fluids and needed a good scrub.
It took us a while to clean the effects. By the end of it, we were soaked in water, sweaty, and tired. When we were done, we hung up the personal effects on a clothes line and let them dry in the sun. Some of the more fragile items were taken inside to dry. Natural fabrics, like cotton, will decompose faster than artificially made fabrics like polyester. We had one cotton item that was beginning to fall apart and needed to be handled carefully.
Working with personal effects helps humanize the individuals we are trying to help identify. As forensic scientists we need to be a little detached in order to do our jobs properly, but seeing these effects reminds us that the bones are people with families that loved them. Once the personal effects are dry, they are then photographed and documented. Eventually they will end up on a missing persons database as part of a missing individual’s profile that may led to their identification and sending them home to family. Hopefully, I will get another chance to work with personal effects.
Today was our first day at Texas State University doing skeletal analyses. Like last year, we were stationed at the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL), working with Dr. Kate Spradley and her graduate students. This laboratory is one of three labs at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS). ORPL is used for forensic anthropology casework and processing bodies that get donated to the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF), an outdoor decomposition research facility at Texas State.
We started off the day with a meeting, where we discussed the progress that had been made since our last visit. The conversation was filled with talk about dead ends, road blocks, and frustration all around, but the progress that they did make over the year kept everyone hopeful and motivated. This time there are less Texas State students around than we thought there would be. Unfortunately, we came during finals week, so many of the Texas State students are busy studying for exams.
Once the meeting was over, we split up into two skeletal analysis teams: the UIndy Team and the Texas State Team. Before we started, we set up a few different workspaces. We had our main table where we laid out the remains for skeletal analysis. We also had a clean table to set up all of our paperwork and another table where we could take measurements on the bones. Finally, we had a photography station to take pictures of the bones. We decided that the best strategy was to divide and conquer. We split up all the tasks that needed to be done for the analysis and went to our separate stations. We used this same strategy last year, so we were able to fall back into our routine pretty easily.
I felt like we did a good amount of work today and hopefully the rest of this week will go just as well. As we ended the day and started packing up our supplies, we noticed something moving just outside the lab. I forgot to mention it before, but ORPL is actually located on a ranch. Outside of the lab, a few cows were walking near the building. Justin and I stopped what we were doing and headed outside to try and say hi to our new friends. Unfortunately, cows walk a lot faster than you think. We lost them and headed back to the lab. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.
Classes are done and I’ve finally handed in my last term paper for the semester, but now it’s time to switch gears and start planning and packing for Texas. In truth, I’ve been waiting all year for this trip. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go again. The work we’ve done in Texas has left a lasting impression on me and I’ve been thinking and reflecting on it all year. In quiet moments, I often find myself thinking about all the border crossers and their journeys to get to somewhere safer than the chaos that they’re leaving. I think about all the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, and so on that are wondering why they haven’t heard from their loved ones and where they are. My heart goes out to them, truly.
What I most look forward to this trip is volunteering at the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC). Although, I love doing laboratory work and the skeletal analyses we conduct at Texas State University, it’s sometimes nice to get out of the lab. At times being in the lab makes me feel isolated from the problem happening at the south Texas-Mexico border. I know that our work in helping to identify border crossers is important, but when we’re out in the community working with other organizations and sometimes the border crossers themselves, I can actually see the direct impact our work is making.
I am excited to help build and maintain the water stations again at STHRC. I look forward to the long rides, down hot dusty roads to fill up each of the water stations dotted along the various routes in Falfurrias. I won’t even mind the prickly little burr plants that sometimes surround the stations. They get stuck on our socks and shoes and as I start to pack, I’m still finding a couple that managed to make it home with me on my field gear. The water stations were tough work last time, but it’s worth it if even one person finds a station and gets the lifesaving water that they need.
I’m also excited about seeing all of our friends in Falfurrias and at Texas State University. I look forward to working with them all again and can’t wait to see how much progress they’ve made since the last time we visited. For now, I will continue to pack and get my life in order before we make our trip to Texas this weekend.