Thursday, January 17, 2013

Arizona: Naming the migrant dead from the desert

It's the job of a forensics team in Arizona to identify the bodies of migrants found in the desert. Anthropologist Robin Reineke describes how she pieces together the sad jigsaw puzzle of personal attributes and belongings.
BBC News Magazine 
There are many ways to enter the US. The way that's taken by the very poorest is to come through the Sonoran Desert on foot.
It's a very forbidding place - the temperatures in the summertime are regularly in the triple digits Fahrenheit and there's no water.
Groups of people will walk for three to five days, travelling by night and drinking out of cattle troughs or whatever they can find. It's unlikely they will see other people for the duration of the trip.
At present, Tucson, Arizona has almost 800 unidentified bodies of migrants who didn't make it to the other side.
They were found by border patrol, by citizens of the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation, or by ranchers or hikers. I compare these unidentified remains to lists we have of missing persons, collected from families of migrants last known to have been attempting the crossing.
When there is a possible match, I call the family.
Recently, I called the wife of a missing man. "There's someone who could potentially be your husband," I told her. "Can I ask you some questions?
"Did he have any tattoos? You said that he was missing an upper molar. Could you tell me more about that?"
One day in the desert heat is enough to make a body unrecognisable, so the possessions that are found with the remains can be incredibly important to the family.
There's often an interesting combination of objects. Mostly it is the normal stuff that anyone would take with them on a trip - toothpaste, socks, snacks, water.
But then there are these very personal items - photographs of loved ones, handwritten notes from family members, kids' drawings.
The letters are from the children or wives of those we've found dead, wishing them luck and telling them that they're loved, that they should be very careful on the journey, that the family's prayers are with them, that the family's hopes are with them.
And the photos have been touched and pulled out over and over again, then folded up and put back carefully.
Some of the items have unspoken stories.
There was a young kid - he was probably only 15 or 16 years old - and the soles of his shoes were just completely worn off. He had been carrying one orange paper flower.
I remember a man who had a small dead hummingbird in his pocket. I know that for a lot of indigenous North American peoples hummingbirds hold a sacred significance - they represent hope and love and they're a powerful protective symbol.
With certain objects, my familiarity with Mexican and Central American cultures helps me to make a guess about where someone came from.
For example, many migrants carry prayer cards - small cards with a saint or a holy scene printed on them with an accompanying prayer. A prayer card of the Virgin of Juquila is likely to have belonged to a Oaxacan traveller, since it is there that she is venerated.
You can think of it like a puzzle - a puzzle which has a great deal of importance to a lot of people.
While most anthropologists who work in human identification are physical or forensic anthropologists who specialise in skin and bone, I am a cultural anthropologist focused on the social world.
Read the rest here.

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