All posts by odaniela

Thank you

I’m honored to have experienced and witnessed all that I did during our last trip to Texas. It was wonderful to see both the familiar and new faces of those who live and breathe the work of migrant rights and migrant identification on a daily basis. Eddie Canales, Sister Pam, Kate Spradley, and Tim Gocha each, in their own way, do the work of sustaining focus and demanding attention to lives too often dismissed as expendable, unimportant, or beyond help. I am grateful for the access they’ve given me and my students to the workings of this initiative. In one week, we were given the chance to experience a “crash course” in exhumation processes, media representation, migrant rights, and respite care and support. These folks represent silken threads of a much larger web of people who care and believe in our obligation and capacity to work towards a more just society. We have much to learn from them individually and collectively.
I’m thankful, again, to the UIndy forensic science team for continuing to allow, not just one, but three cultural anthropologists in their midst. As a scholar of US culture and society, I often describe my work as a form of analysis that makes the familiar seem strange. My aim, in part, is to explicate taken-for-granted forms of knowledge, practices, and values underlying dynamics and realities of life and the institutions mediating our lived experiences. This is, of course, not possible without the generosity, candor, and patience of research participants. I am grateful to have been immersed such thoughtful and gracious hosts. I am certain that my presence and questions must’ve made their familiar world seem strange in ways not always intended!
Finally, I am honored to have had the opportunity to mentor two bright and articulate students in data collection techniques of participant observation and unstructured ‘interviewing.’ I could not have anticipated how thoroughly proud I am of what they accomplished in such a short amount of time. Their insightful comments and questions, meticulous fieldnotes, and willingness to do the sometimes uncomfortably social (and physical!) work of cultural anthropology is great testament to their character and potential as future leaders in our communities and future scholars in their own rights. I am unbelievably proud and perhaps even more excited to work with them on analysis and presentation.
There are so many more people I encountered, spoke with, and learned from. From local law enforcement and local community members to respite center volunteers, this season’s ‘crash course’ was enriched by each of you and your willingness to engage those of us visiting for this short, but intensive burst of work. I am thankful for the work you do, each and every day, on behalf of migrant rights, migrant families, and compassion and justice for all.

Dr. Alyson O’Daniel

Considering Perspective

I have to admit that between the craziness of semester’s end and my dedication to being wholly present for my family at the holidays, I’ve scarcely had a moment to contemplate our upcoming trip. I sat for a few minutes today and thought about what I needed to do in order to be prepared. I pulled my backpack out of the closet, looked over my packing list, and jotted some notes for the field supplies I would need for myself and the undergraduate students who will assist me in participant observation activities this season. This, of course, is the easy part. For me, preparing myself to be the outsider working within a community is the harder part. The awkward position of insider-outsider is, for me, more daunting than considering how to pack or anticipating what the trip will entail.
Cultural anthropologists are fairly practiced at following the lead of the community members with whom they work. So, the idea of not knowing exactly where we’ll be or exactly what we’ll do is for me familiar terrain. While I know this season I’ll spend time at the cemetery, with the South Texas Human Rights Center, and at the Sacred Heart respite center, much of the trip is to be determined. The thought of this type of improvisation can be more or less exciting to consider of course, but it’s fairly commonplace in the work of a participant observer who is still new to a community and unable to veer far from key participants. What’s harder to prepare for, from my perspective, are the subtle disconnections between my particular expert knowledge base, analytical perspective, and positionality with the team and those of team members.
For example, I don’t share the same scientific expertise or the same situated knowledge of migrant identification as this group of humanitarian scientists. While I believe we all share a common commitment to raising awareness of the crisis, I don’t necessarily share the same sense of the meanings and realities of this facet of the work. For me, everything I do, experience, and observe in South Texas is filtered through the lenses of cultural anthropology and my objectives as a participant observer interested in teasing out social and political complexities of this work. So, before I leave for Texas, I take some time to remind myself of my research goals and questions. Within that, I take some time to remind myself that those awkward moments when the appropriate feelings or responses to a set of circumstances aren’t readily apparent to me can be profoundly illuminating. And, I take some time to consider how the two students who will join me as insider-outsiders in this work might experience the awkward tension of participant observation.


With Gratitude

The Beyond Borders trip was a learning opportunity on many fronts. Observing and participating in this interdisciplinary effort to address the crisis of mass death at the US-Mexico border was, at once, fascinating, heartbreaking, and encouraging. The conditions of poverty, violence, and structural inequality fueling this problem are undeniably complex and have been fairly well documented by academic scholars, investigative journalists, and human rights organizations. Less well documented are on-the-ground efforts aimed at alleviating migrant vulnerability and invisibility of perished migrants and families whose loved ones have gone missing in US borderlands. I have long been fascinated by how non-governmental organizations and the state define and address the needs of the most vulnerable among us. And, working with the UIndy forensic science team has afforded me the opportunity to learn about the different facets of migrant death response in south Texas. What I witnessed was, in part, a moment within a broader process of developing advocacy networks and forging professional alliances between folks with very different skill sets and expertise. This interdisciplinary effort will, no doubt, continue to evolve in response to the very specific conditions of state (non)response to this pressing set of concerns. There is much to be learned from how those on the front line continue to navigate the sociopolitical dynamics of mass death at the boundaries of the state.

I am particularly grateful for the chance to have learned about the (relatively recent) history of the crisis in Brooks County from those working on the front lines as forensic experts, law enforcement, and advocates for coordinated state response. I am also very grateful to have learned from local human rights activists and social justice warriors who work tirelessly to build justice at the border by extending compassion, building alliances, and demanding the realization of rights for migrants and their families. And, of course, the UIndy team extended to me an amazing opportunity to learn about processes and techniques of identification; from skeletal analysis and processing of personal affects to the ins-and-outs of missing persons database registry, UIndy team members were patient and gracious hosts. I am indebted to all those who shared with me, however briefly, their time, knowledge, and expertise.

At the end of the trip, I’ve taken what amounts to a “crash course” in conditions of perished migrant identification and repatriation. The lessons I learned about the complexities of migrants’ routes and the structural and physical conditions of their deaths were uncomfortable and disquieting; death at the border is as tragic as it is needless. The lessons I learned about efforts to alleviate the suffering of families missing loved ones and migrants en route, however, offered incredible testament to the difference we can make when we apply the tools of our varied disciplines in service of social problems and in the spirit of collaboration.

Dr Alyson O’Daniel