All posts by rizorl

Thanks for the Memories

We have been back from Texas for three days now (as I write this).  For the most part, I have been catching up on sleep, unpacking, and getting ready for my final semester of graduate school to begin, but I have also been reflecting a lot on this last field season.  This field season was very different than previous trips  to Texas. We didn’t visit the Respite Center and hear personal, harrowing stories about crossing and survival, and we didn’t hear stories from local community members about how this crisis affects them, their community, and their daily lives.  In fact, our team didn’t have any interaction with the local community in Willacy Co., aside from Joe and Luis the backhoe operators.  While these were the aspects of previous trips that I found most challenging, this trip was emotionally challenging in a new way.

Wood grave marker with flowers.The emotional aspect of this journey really hit me on our last day in the field.  Texas State had taken the time to clean up around each of the grave markers, trimming the grass and removing debris from the surface.  Both teams then sifted through a debris and backfill pile and found numerous fabric flowers no longer associated with any graves.  We decided that we would repurpose these flowers to adorn each of the graves in the cemetery.  I took the lead on this project, creating bouquets and securely fastening the flowers to every grave marker and headstone.  Along the way, I took the time to read each marker. They ranged from infants to the elderly.  When placing the flowers, I couldn’t help but wonder about their life story.  Who they were, what their life was like, and who they left behind.  I thought about the individuals we exhumed who didn’t have names.  I thought about what their lives were like, and what their loved ones must be going through not knowing what happened to them.  This was extremely saddening to me, but it also filled me with hope.  Hope that through our efforts, we would be able to put names to the numbers.  Hope that we will one day be able to return these individuals to their loved ones.  Hope that we can change the circumstances for future migrants so that they are not buried without a name.  To me, placing these flowers and making the cemetery beautiful again perfectly symbolized the incredible impact that this large-scale identification initiative is making on the lives of countless individuals and families who are missing loved ones.

The UIndy Human Biology graduate program cohort sizes have been increasing over the past few years, meaning that there are more students interested in becoming involved in this humanitarian experience than ever before.   Because I am graduating in May and the number of interested students has greatly increased, this could have been my last trip to Texas.   While the thought of this being my last trip makes me sad, I can’t help but be so incredibly grateful for having these three opportunities to be involved in such an amazing cause.  Over my past three trips, I have learned so much about myself, my view of the world has completely changed, and I have become a passionate humanitarian.  I have worked harder than I have ever worked in my life, and I have met so many incredible, dedicated, and selfless people along the way.  I will cherish these opportunities and all of the memories I have made during my times in the borderlands.  Texas, I hope to see you again soon, and thanks for everything.

Sunset over wing of plane.


Day 8: Why We Are Here

We are exhausted.  In fact, we are beyond exhausted.  Today marks eight straight days of pushing our bodies to the brink of our physical strength.  We have had at least ten to twelve hour days every day since we have been here, on top of hours of blogging, mapping, and debriefing each night, and our bodies can tell.  Despite all of the physical exhaustion and emotional challenges we are facing, we never complain and we never forget why we are here.  We are here because the individuals being exhumed faced far worse conditions than us, conditions we can never even begin to imagine.  We are here because these individuals risked their lives and died seeking a better and safer life for themselves and their families.  We are here because these individuals were buried without any attempts at identification, leaving their families to wonder what happened to them.  We are here because we are fighting for justice for the individuals who have had their basic human rights blatantly ignored.  We are here because of the families missing loved ones, hoping to bring them closure and free them from the pain of not knowing.  This keeps our team going.  We never forget why we are here.


Looking through the border wall.

This morning, we visited “The Wall” in Brownsville, TX.  We stopped at a beautiful park downtown that was right along the wall where we were able to sit and reflect on our experiences thus far.  One of the most powerful things that happened today was noticing the presence of a Peace Pole in the park.

A Peace Pole in Brownsville.This peace pole is part of a larger Peace Pole Project, which consists of  hand-crafted monuments displaying the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in multiple languages.  Peace Poles are found in 180 countries worldwide and serve as constant reminders for us to strive for world peace.  The presence of the Peace Pole in Brownsville served to further remind to our team why we are here.  We are helping bring peace to family members who have missing loved ones.  We are fighting for world peace and to end unnecessary suffering.

Team members at the border wall.
UIndy team at the Wall

After we visited the wall, we went back to the cemetery to exhume the two individuals we found yesterday – pretty straightforward, right? Wrong.  After fully uncovering these burials, we found that there were actually three burials.  We weren’t worried about exhuming a third burial because we still had a half-day to complete all of the work we needed to.  After these three individuals were uncovered, Jessica and I probed an open area outside of our quadrant to feel for anomalies.  Jessica and I each felt an anomaly and investigated them by digging test pits.  Jessica located another burial in her test pit, but I was still only feeling loose soil.  We decided to have Joe and Louis come with the backhoe and carefully remove dirt layers in order to locate these two burials and any other potential burials that lay outside of our quadrant.  In the end, we found three additional burials and had each of them excavated by sundown at 6pm.  We started the day thinking we only had to excavate two individuals and ended up excavating six… for a half-day’s work we are pretty proud of those numbers!

Four team members excavating a burial.
Excavating our 6th burial of the day

Tomorrow, our plan is to head to the cemetery one last time to monitor as Joe and Louis refill in our quadrant. Tomorrow will be a bittersweet day – we worked so hard in our quadrant and moved so much dirt by hand, all remnants of which will be removed in a matter of hours by Joe, Louis, and the backhoe.  However, we are proud of the amount of work we were able to accomplish in just eight short days.  We are confident that we investigated every possible location within and outside our quadrant that these individuals could be buried, ensuring that no one is left behind.  Because that’s why we are here – to exhume every unidentified migrant so they can begin their journey home.

Team photo on day 8.
Day 8 group photo


Six individuals holding up four fingers.

Day 4: Teamwork

As I write this, we are all sitting together as a group going over what we did well today, what we need to work on in the future, and strategizing for a productive day tomorrow.  As we reminisce on the day’s work, I feel so proud of how much we were able to accomplish in just one day.  These accomplishments were due to many factors, including effective communication, seamless teamwork, and our determination to begin the identification journey for as many individuals as possible.

Today started out a little later than usual.  While we usually get up at 5:30am and arrive at the cemetery by 6:45am, today, we were able to sleep in until 6:30am and we arrived at the cemetery at 7:30am.  This extra hour of sleep was crucial, because not only do we have three days worth of exhaustion and sore muscles under our belts, we knew that we had a long, hard day ahead of us.

UIndy team working to uncover two burials.
UIndy team working to uncover two burials

Yesterday, in the last few moments before sunset,  we located two burials that would require us to extend our pit and remove a lot of dirt in the process.  These two burials were the first tasks we tackled this morning.  Although we did divide into two teams to uncover these burials simultaneously, we still worked as one cohesive unit – dumping buckets for each other and fetching any tools needed to complete the excavation.   Unfortunately, our efforts were met with some resistance as the soil was extremely compact and almost impossible to get through without the help of the mattock and a lot of manpower.  Thankfully, we had some extra help – Jorge! Jorge was incredibly helpful and we could not have gotten as much done today as we did without him. He used the mattock, carried and emptied buckets, shoveled dirt, and encouraged the team with his positive attitude.  Jorge was an integral member of our team today, and we will surely miss his help in the days  to come. At the end

Dr. Latham and Jessica excavating a burial.
Dr. Latham and Jessica excavating a burial

of the day, we had uncovered a total of seven burials.   From various context clues, we were able to decipher that three of these individuals did not fit the migrant profile; those burials remained in the ground and were recovered with dirt. Three other burials were consistent with the migrant profile and were subsequently removed to begin their journey towards identification.  The seventh burial was located at the end of the day and will be excavated first thing tomorrow morning.  Uncovering this many burials in just one day is a testament to how well our team works together and clearly demonstrates that through teamwork, any task is possible no matter how big!

After a long, hard day in the field, nothing sounded better to us than some gas station tacos!  While it may not seem like a good idea to eat tacos from a gas station, these tacos are actually phenomenal!  I was first introduced to gas station tacos (Laredo Taco Company) in Falfurrias and have loved them ever since.  These tacos are handmade with fresh tortillas and prepared right in front of you by incredibly nice and genuine people.  It was the perfect end to a long, successful day.

Texas sunset behind windmills.Tomorrow, our plan is to excavate the burial we found at the end of the today and create a trench in a large open area of our quadrant.   Because many of the migrant burials do not have associated grave markers, it is possible that this region contains unidentified individuals.   Creating trenches and digging test pits will be the most efficient way to locate any potential burials within this area.  I look forward to what tomorrow brings, and I know that if we can work together as well as we did today, we will be able to accomplish all that we set out to.