All posts by rizorl

Education for Service

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.

Team member working in the lab.
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.


Five people holding up 4 fingers in front of a palm tree.

Day 4 (field) – An Evening in Roma…

Sun rise at the cemetery.
Sun rise at the cemetery

In the past three days, we have exhumed three individuals from Area 2.  This means that we only have two more days to exhume the remaining two individuals buried in this area before we head back to Indiana on Saturday.  With this being said, today’s goal was to find and exhume at least one of the two remaining burials.  While this may seem like a simple goal, we were racing against the sun.  The forecast today was 97 degrees with zero clouds in the sky, meaning that in order to stay safe, we needed to work quickly and efficiently.

Team members digging a trench.
Dr. Latham and Haley digging the trench

To accomplish our goals, we started by digging a trench from the Northern end of the pit towards the location of burials we removed yesterday.  We decided to dig the trench down the middle of the pit to ensure we find the remaining burials if they exist there.  Because the morning started out relatively cool, our rotations were 15 minutes long.  After a few rotations, we found evidence of another burial so we began to investigate further.  As the day drew on and the temperature continued to rise, we decreased our rotations to four minutes long.  By lunch time, we had the burial completely exposed and ready to remove.  After we removed the burial, we continued the trench Southward to look for the last remaining burial in Area 2.

We ended up leaving the cemetery at around 2pm.  Even though today was shorter than our other days, we still worked really hard to meet our goal and find, uncover, and exhume another individual.  We made the decision to leave at 2pm because it was getting too hot to safely work outside.  Before we left, we strategized about finding and removing our last burial tomorrow morning over some ice-cold Cokes.

Overlooking the Rio Grande in Roma, TX.
Rio Grande overlook in Roma, TX

After we returned to the hotel and cleaned up a little, we traveled to Roma – a city West of Rio Grande City in Starr County.  This city is located along the Rio Grande and has an amazing lookout deck with incredible views of the river and Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico.  While we were at the lookout, we met a very nice border patrol agent who talked with us about his job and about the river border in general.  It was about 97 degrees while we were there, so we took some pictures but quickly returned to the car so as not to get anymore sun than we already had gotten today at the cemetery.  After this visit, we went to the Mezquite Grill in RGC for dinner and the food definitely did not disappoint! We left full and very, very satisfied.

Erica's nachos at Mezquite.
Erica’s nachos at Mezquite

I am looking forward to what tomorrow holds for us.  It is bittersweet because tomorrow is our last day at the Rio Grande Cemetery, however, we will leave feeling accomplished and extremely humbled if we are able to exhume all five individuals in our area so they can begin their identification process.  As for now, we are all going to get a good night’s sleep so we are well-rested and ready to take on our last day.


A street sign reading "Rio Grande City 30" in front of trees.

On The Road Again

Team photo in the minivan.
Ready to go!

Today was our travel day to Rio Grande City.  We started our day with a smorgasbord for breakfast, trying to finish up all of our leftovers before we hit the road.  Our breakfast consisted of breakfast tacos, lunch meat, a leftover Southwest chicken wrap, and leftover taquitos.  After breakfast, at around 10am, we bid farewell to San Marcos and began the five hour trip to the border.

Water station along the highway.
Water station along the highway

The drive went smoothly, and thankfully, our van has a DVD player so we were able to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink to pass the time.  The further South we drove, the more rural it got.  At one point, we went an hour and a half without seeing any towns, houses, or buildings.  In our past seasons in Texas, we have heard stories from different individuals regarding their crossing experiences.  Many of these stories indicate that people travel for hours and miles without any more direction than “head towards that tree for about three miles.” It is one thing to hear these stories, but to see the routes and terrain these individuals travel is truly an eye-opening experience.  If it takes over an hour and a half to drive between towns, it is unimaginable how people can walk these distances in the heat of the Texas sun without direction, food, or water.  Along the way, we saw a few water stations placed along the highway.  It was really wonderful to see these water stations, because not only do they indicate a life-saving resource for these individuals, they were built by Eddie and other volunteers at the South Texas Human Rights Center.  So even at the border, we have reminders of the incredible people we have met and wonderful experiences we have had the past five years in Falfurrias.  I think these little reminders are a good sign for our new beginning in a new county.

Rio Grande City Cemetery entrance.
Rio Grande City Cemetery

After we arrived at the hotel, we unpacked our belongings  and took a shopping trip to HEB to get essentials for lunches in the field.  Afterwards, we headed to the cemetery to meet the Texas State team and see what we are up against in the week to come.  We pulled up to the cemetery and it was HUGE!  It was not only larger than Sacred Heart, but also contained a greater variety of graves, including mausoleums and large fenced-off enclosures.  We did a walk-through of the four different sites that UIndy and Texas State plan to excavate this trip and were told that the UIndy crew will begin in Area 2.   After the Texas State team left, we stuck around the cemetery for a bit to formulate a game plan for tomorrow.  Area 2 is covered in debris, rocks, and broken glass, so the first task we will tackle tomorrow is clearing off the surface.  Next, we plan on taking measurements of surface markers for the maps I will create, and we will then begin the excavation process.  I am anxious to start excavations tomorrow, but after devising these plans, I feel confident in what we will be able accomplish the next five days.

UIndy's first excavation area in the cemetery.
Area 2 – UIndy’s first excavation area