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General Postings

Day 4: Teamwork and Trowels

I once again started the day with some Tai Chi exercises. I find it helpful to get up early to prepare my mind and body for the work ahead of us that day. I have offered to teach the rest of the team but I think they’d all rather have the extra sleep. We had another early morning breakfast at Whataburger before heading to the cemetery.

We hit the ground running by taking more measurements for the site map. We finished excavating the burial that we started the previous day. Getting it out was a little tricky due to the positioning. We always want to act with as much care as possible out of respect for the individual. We worked effectively when it came to figuring out a plan and communicated well as a team. Our communication and teamwork skills are constantly improving. We have been working very well together.

Team member Izzy in full PPE preparing for an Intake
Izzy in full PPE preparing for an Intake

Izzy then went to the intake tent to assist the Texas State team with two individuals. The rest of our team used the mattock to create an exploratory trench. The trench allows us to find the exact location of the burial before doing a full excavation of the area. The consistency of the soil is very wet and clay-like, making any digging difficult. We had a system where each person only worked for 3-5 minutes. This kept us from overworking and it kept us efficient. The temperature was a little hotter than the previous days so we kept a close eye on each other making sure we all drank water and took breaks when needed. Deputy Don White was very diligent in checking everyone’s heart rates to see who needed to rest. We made a lot of progress in the afternoon on the second burial. We weren’t able to remove the individual today but plan to continue working on it tomorrow. 

Deputy White watching Olivia work on the trench
Don watching Olivia work on the trench

Earlier in the day we got some South Texas Human Rights Center swag from Eddie and wore our new t-shirts to HEB so we all matched. We all wanted something a little healthier so we got salads and sandwiches from HEB for dinner. But then we ate a bunch of ice cream and cake afterward so I’m not sure we succeeded. After dinner we had our nightly debrief where we discussed our plan for the next day and how we can work even better as a team for the last two days. Jordan updated the map with all the measurements we took and Olivia added the new photos to our log. Overall, I am proud of what we have accomplished as a team today and think we will be able to do a lot more before we head back home on Wednesday.

The team wearing South Texas Human Righst Center shirts
Team members on day 4


Day 3: Expect the Unexpected

Day three began with an early start and Whataburger breakfast. We packed up Monica (our rental minivan) before breakfast, so we could head to the cemetery to continue our work right after eating. We had general plans laid out from the night before to execute today. Once we arrived, we were given a new area of the section of the cemetery we have been working in to begin excavating. Before we started, we did some preliminary mapping to tie the new area to the one we worked on the last two days.

UIndy Team and Texas State Team Members Working on uncovering burials
Our Team and Texas State Team Members Working

With a larger amount of space to work in, we were able to work in teams of two. Olivia and I began working on one burial, removing the larger chunks of dirt to expose as much of the surface as possible. Once that was done, we began troweling around the edges of the burial in order to define them. At the same time, Izzy and Kaitlyn were removing dirt from another burial we were assigned to and creating stairs that our team could use to get in and out of the areas we were working in. Our team exposed the first burial, took important measurements, and removed the individual in the morning. This took a lot of coordinating between all of us, due to the depth of the burial and other physical obstacles.

 Deputy Don White and Eddie Canales assisting with the exhumations
Eddie and Don Helping Out the Team

Once the first individual was moved to the intake area, we were able to all focus on the next burial. The position of this burial was not as expected, making the excavation more complicated. The consistency of the soil also makes excavation more difficult. We had a lot of assistance from Deputy Don White and Eddie Canales from the South Texas Human Rights Center. We continued to work on uncovering this burial until the end of the day.

Deputy White grilling burgers
Don Grilling Burgers

For the evening, we were invited by Dr. Spradley and her team to dinner at their Airbnb. We were celebrating Eddie’s birthday. Don grilled burgers for us (and they were really good!). After dinner, we headed back to the hotel for our daily debrief. During these meetings, we are able to discuss what we accomplished that day and what we can do to improve the next day’s work. Personally, I like to hear the other team member’s perceptions of our day and what they think we did well and what needs improvement. The different viewpoints are helpful to gain a complete look at our day.

Our team’s trip to Eagle Pass allows us to apply our technical knowledge and skills to real world circumstances. This is important, however, we also strive to do everything we can to treat these individuals with care and respect. We will have another long day tomorrow and we are ready to continue working on our section of the cemetery.

Team members on Day 3
End of Day 3!


Day 2: Plans & Pickaxes

Dr. Latham getting a stress test from Deputy White
Dr. Latham getting a stress test from Don

Day 2 started with Kaitlyn’s tai chi and the rest of us rolling out of bed to the hotel breakfast. Once we had finished eating, we packed up the minivan [still yet to be named] and headed to the cemetery to continue our work. At the end of the day yesterday, we had fully prepared the second individual in our area to be removed first thing this morning.

As we prepared for this task, the Texas State team continued the work in their area as well. We removed a bit more of the dirt to better expose the individual on all sides and mapped in the four corners of the burial. After, we devised a plan to safely remove the individual. This ended up including the use of the mattock [my new favorite tool!] to create better stairs and footholds for us to use to step out of the burial while carrying the individual. We then implemented our plan and successfully moved the individual to a new body bag on the surface level then to the intake tent. By the end of the day, we had all together exhumated 3 additional individuals.

The backhoe working at the cemetery
Our burial site from yesterday + New sites being dug

Many of these graves are marked with a white cross and some with a marker stating their associated case number and dates. We proceeded to map in the other grave markers where we plan on continuing to work for the next few days. Although we have some information from the workers at the cemetery and Dr. Spradley about where many individuals are buried, there is no guarantee about where they actually are inside the burial shaft. Once all the burials exposed yesterday had been exhumed, the cemetery workers refilled the holes with the dirt we took out and began excavating the dirt above more suspected burials with a backhoe. This is a very slow process as it is very important to just remove dirt down to the layer above the burials as to protect the individual inside the burial from any excavation damage. Our tools gradually get smaller the closer to the individual we get, from mattocks to shovels to trowels to our hands.

Team members learning about the RES
Learning about the RES

While this was going on, some members from Texas State‘s team taught us about their electromagnetic resistivity device [RES], a device used to survey disturbances in the soil underground. In this context, the RES can be used to identify burials underground. We also got a special knife safety lesson from Deputy Don White [The more you know … with Don!]. Don’s wisdom never fails as he knows just about everything [any anything] we throw at him!

We called it a day early to prepare our plan for the newly uncovered areas. After showers, we went to Laredo Tacos and HEB and came back to our evening debrief. We always go around in a circle and each say one thing we did well and one thing we believe we can improve on, followed by any thoughts and concerns then the plan for tomorrow. This is one of the things I personally believe really helps us as a team. Our communication here travels into the field so we can better work together. Even though it’s day two, it was obvious our meeting yesterday translated to today as the removal of the individual from our site this morning went even better than our removal yesterday.

Team members mapping at the cemetery
Measuring our burial for mapping

Our team focuses a lot on efficiency and procedure of excavation and exhumation, but we are not blind to the circumstances that brought us here. I, personally, have never dealt with death at this scale, even after two trips of searching the Texas borderlands previously. We hear stories about how these individuals came to be in our care. It can be very overwhelming to be literally face-to-face with this tragedy. The urge to do our absolute best for every individual we can is strong and is the biggest motivator any time we feel sore, fatigued, etc. A great example is each member of the team being told once a day [at least] that we must take a break because we only want to keep pushing forward.

Tomorrow will be a long and physically demanding day, but we are all ready to get back to work. Good things will happen!


(also hi Ray)

Team members on day 2
Day 2 Picture!