Category Archives: Snapshots

Random things about us

Back Home Again in Indiana

We went to bed late yesterday after a final debriefing meeting and packing. We felt good about the work we did as a team. We woke up to news that all domestic US flights were grounded due to issues with the FAA computer system. But we packed up Monica and headed toward San Antonio hoping for the best.  I’m responsible for my student team members and getting them home safely, but I’m also painfully aware that our barriers to travel are mere inconveniences compared to the those faced by many.

Our view of the sunrise as we packed the minivan for the last time

We stopped for a last round of Whataburger breakfast taquitos and decided to eat breakfast in a park at the base of the Eagle Pass International Bridge. Here we saw the Rio Grande and a wall constructed of box cars and barbed wire. The river looked clam and peaceful, yet we were facing what caused the death of many of the individuals we had just exhumed from the cemetery. This was our last memory of Eagle Pass before leaving town.

View of the Rio Grande from Shelby Park

While driving to San Antonio we were notified our first flight was delayed but not cancelled. That gave us a few hours of sightseeing and time for lunch. This down time creates a buffer between our work in the Texas Borderlands and returning to Indiana, something that is essential for the mental health of the Beyond Borders team members. There are many coping mechanisms enacted by last responders and forensic scientists who repeatedly confront things that are disturbing and emotionally challenging to interpret and better understand. In Texas and in our daily casework in Indiana I try to instill facing, rather than avoiding, the emotional response of casework.  I teach my team to rely on each other for support and to come to me with any feelings or questions they have. The hope is this will create a healthy pattern of mindfulness but I also have resources for professional help with coping strategies. So our last day of sightseeing is not meant to downplay the mass disaster situation in Eagle Pass, but is always highlighted to show some of the deliberate steps we take in making sure we stay capable of contributing to do this work.

The Alamo
The River Walk

After several delays (of both flights) we were finally headed home. Our last flight experienced a lot of turbulence, so we were all wide awake for the 1am landing in Indianapolis. Please continue to read the blog for the next week as we all post our post-trip reflections.    

Waiting at the airport


Day 1: A Good Day for Digging

Our first day started bright and early – or should I say dark and early. With a meeting time of 7:00 am, we had to get up, dressed, and ready to work before the sun was up. Kaitlyn started her day with some Tai Chi while Jordan, Izzy, and I started with groans. Clearly, only one of us is a morning person. After a quick breakfast at our hotel, we were off in the minivan to meet up with the Texas State team and Deputy Don White at the cemetery.

Dr. Latham and Dr. Spradley

The Texas State team is bigger than ours and consists of master’s and Ph.D. students, but they all seem nice and ready to work. Dr. Ana Carina Marques and two of her students from the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley are also helping with the project. After a quick introductory meeting, we unloaded all of our equipment from the van and got ready to work. The morning started out a little chilly, but by the time the sun came out and we started moving, the Texas heat was making its presence known.

Team members digging at the cemetery

The cemetery workers had used a backhoe to help speed up our excavation process and prevent us from having to manually dig down multiple feet through the hard clay-like soil that is in this part of south Texas. Our team took one area, while the Texas State and UTRGV teams took another. We started out by taking some measurements, so Jordan can create a detailed map of the area (which we learned is harder than expected because we can’t do math). Then, it was time to start excavating.

Team members mapping at the cemetery
Measuring in our data points

During the first excavation, we began to find our groove as a team, removing dirt the consistency of peanut butter, emptying buckets, and reminding each other to take breaks and drink plenty of water. We quickly learned that wet dirt/clay is not fun to work with and will only feel heavier and heavier the more you work with and lift it. When it came time to remove the individual from the grave, we donned our PPE and worked together to lift and remove the individual from the grave. They were then taken to the intake tent

Two team members taking a break and watching others work at the cemetery
Jordan and I taking a break

While Kaitlyn went to the intake tent, Dr. Latham, Izzy, Jordan, and I started to work on our second excavation. The intake process, run by Texas State, is extremely detailed, recording as many features – both biological and material – as possible because you never know what may be the key to a positive identification. By the end of the work day in the field (approximately ten hours!), we had three individuals removed and through the intake process, with several more ready to remove first thing in the morning. We called it a day, had our bottles of ice-cold Coke from glass bottles (because it tastes better from a glass bottle. It’s a fact), annoyed Don a little (he loves us, even if he won’t admit it), and headed back to the hotel.

After quick showers that included a lot of soap and scrubbing, we headed out for a delicious dinner at Parilla de San Miguel. Once back at the hotel, we had our nightly debrief before Jordan started making her map, Izzy created a photography log for all of the photos we took throughout the day, and Kaitlyn watched the movie Stardust. We can already tell we’re going to be sore, but we’re excited to get back to work tomorrow.

The team plus Deputy White on day 1



The Beyond Borders Team at the Indianapolis Airport
Indianapolis Airport

We made it! Our air travel shockingly went off without a hitch. Planes left and arrived on time. We made our connecting flight with ease. Some of us even managed to get some sleep on the planes. It was a little bit of a rush trying to make it to our very first meeting at the cemetery but we still managed to find the time to grab lunch at Whataburger. I had never been to one before so I was ready to see what all the hype was about. I’d say it met all my expectations. Overall our travel seemed to go so fast. It’s almost like I only blinked and we went from the airport in Indy to landing in San Antonio.

The Beyond Borders team in the Whataburger parking lot

After stopping at Whataburger near San Antonio we drove straight to the cemetery in Eagle Pass where we will be working for the next week. I got to meet Deputy Don White for the first time. I have heard so many amazing things from the rest of the team and I’m excited to get to speak to him more as the week goes on. I also got to meet Dr. Spradley as she showed us the cemetery and talked about the situation we will face this week. Being the rookie on the team is a little bit overwhelming. I prepared myself beforehand to focus on listening and learning because I am very aware of how little I know. I’m eager to learn more from my fellow team members. I have already learned so much and we haven’t even begun the excavation yet! 

The area of the cemetery with the migrant burials

Getting to see the cemetery was informative but also incredibly sobering. This is another first for me, I’ve never experienced death at this scale before outside of the news or lectures in a classroom. It’s hard to describe how it felt to stand in the middle of it all but the task ahead of us does feel slightly more daunting than it did before. Even though it’s, mentally difficult, I think it is essential to embrace strong emotions rather than push them aside. It is a powerful reminder of the human cost of the border crisis. If we forget that, a vital perspective is lost.

At the end of the day, we had the opportunity to discuss and plan for tomorrow, the first day of excavation. As we were talking, I couldn’t help but reflect upon how grateful I am for the team I have surrounding me. Despite some general uncertainty, they haven’t failed to find opportunities to laugh (whether it be about the long neck ducks aka “gooses” outside our hotel or just some lighthearted teasing). I’m still nervous but I feel ready to get started. I know it’s still early but my resolve is solid because I feel confident in our ability to do some good while we are here.

The area of the cemetery with the migrant burials