Naming the Dead

May 13, 2013

It’s known as the “corridor of death” – that parched stretch of desert in Southern Arizona where migrants from Central and Latin America attempt to cross in freezing winters and searing summers.

Since 2001 more than 2,000 bodies of illegal border crossers have been found and brought to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. University of Arizona graduate Dr. Bruce Anderson is the forensic anthropologist there.

In the spring of 2006 Robin Christine Reineke, a cultural anthropologist and graduate of Bryn Mawr College, contacted Anderson and offered to apply her expertise as a cultural anthropologist to help identify the dead – by studying items found with the body for clues about who they were, from whence they came and if their relatives could be found.

Anderson liked the idea, so Reineke moved to Tucson, started graduate studies in the UASchool of Anthropology and began as a volunteer working with Anderson to identify missing persons who died.

Pima County Missing Migrant Project

That led them to establish the Pima County Missing Migrant Project, collecting names from all over the Americas of people who may have died in the Arizona desert. It is very rare for a medical examiner’s office to run such a project. Though missing persons reports are traditionally filed with police, in these circumstances the people are calling from other countries or living within the United States as undocumented immigrants.

Reineke is a National Sciences Foundation graduate research and doctoral fellow and the only forensic minor in the cultural anthropology department.

The work is haunting and heartbreaking. She studies the personal items the migrants carried with them – handwritten notes, a child’s drawing, faded photographs, laminated prayer cards of venerated saints, a slip of paper with an address and the words “mi mama.”

One day in the desert heat is enough to make a body unrecognizable, so the possessions that are found with the remains can be incredibly important to the family, Reineke said. The bodies keep coming. They’re found by border patrol, tribal members, ranchers and hikers.

When she talks with relatives she asks for details that may help – like age, height, dental condition. Even the sex cannot always be determined.

Sometimes the crosser’s story is revealed quickly. In 2009 a 22-year-old woman died of exposure in the high desert’s frigid winter temperatures. Her body was found within a few days. In her backpack were family photos, a Spanish-English dictionary, lip gloss, four pens, pink and white socks, and an ID from Oaxaca that described her as a preschool teacher.

Other times it can take years. About a dozen Guatemalans traveled thousands of miles from the same village, crossing into Arizona in the summer of 2010. One man was able to call his wife and say they were lost, had been walking 7 days, were out of food and water and they were going to die. Three sets of bodies were found in different locations months apart. Five were identified. “These people knew each other, had grown up together. They were friends and were watching each other die,” Reineke said.

Meeting Families of the Dead and Missing

For her dissertation research, she traveled to Guatemala to meet the families of the dead and the missing. “I was struck by the difference between those whose loved ones had been identified and those who were still waiting. Even with the knowledge that the whole group had been lost in the desert, and that some had come home in coffins, the families of the missing were distraught – sickened by the condition of not knowing. You cannot grieve without a body, without certainty that the person is gone. Their faces are burned into my memory.”

This is a trans-national issue spanning the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and beyond. Missing person reports for migrants may be called directly to Reineke’s office, or come from consulates, immigrant rights groups and or other medical examiner’s offices. Although the project works to organize all cases of missing migrants for Southern Arizona, there is no nationally centralized system for these types of cases. As a result, information about the missing person is not arriving where information about the dead is housed, Reineke said.

“I’m focused on the missing. I go out and meet with families.” It’s part of her grant-supported work with the medical examiner’s office and part of her dissertation research.

“He Wouldn’t Want Us to Give Up”

She traveled to North Carolina for one of the hardest interviews she’s ever done. In this case, the body had been found the day after his wife learned he was left behind in the desert. Yet it took two years to identify him and give her closure.

The undocumented woman and two young children lived in a dilapidated trailer next to the poultry processing plant where she worked day and night. The smell was intense and feathers were everywhere. She sends some of her meager earnings to two older children still in Guatemala.

“She was totally exhausted and terrified, but wanted to tell her story. We went over all the details. There actually were two missing person reports – one with his real name, the other an alias,” Reineke said.

Back in Arizona, she recognized the husband from the photos of the body, later cremated. She sent pictures for identification by email to a shopkeeper friend of the wife, who later asked that his cremains be sent to her there. “It was where he wanted to be. He wouldn’t want us to give up. He wanted his kids to grow up in America,” the woman told Reineke.

Focus of BBC, LA Times, Sundance Film Festival

Pima County’s Missing Migrant Project recently became the only entity in the nation allowed to enter known missing migrants into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Reineke has trained a number of UA student volunteers who are interested in anthropology and human rights. “We’re building a bigger collaboration with the UA,” she said.

In addition to news coverage by the BBC and the Los Angeles Times, a documentary on their work identifying missing migrants won a 2013 cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival. Both Reineke and Anderson are featured. She attended to speak about the film and their work.

British filmmaker Marc Silver and crew were in Arizona to film when the border police discovered a decomposing male body. Lifting a tattered T-shirt revealed a tattoo that read “Dayani Cristal.” This led Silver to ask, “Who is Dayani Cristal?” That’s the title of the film, which will be screened in Tucson soon.   

“It’s a beautiful film and an amazing (and true) story of one person who died and was identified at our office,” Reineke said.

“I am honored to do this work. The unidentified are here in Tucson. I feel an obligation to them,” Reineke said. “Knowing this is happening an hour or two hours’ drive from your home is unsettling. It is happening right here, right now. I wish more people felt disturbed by this crisis of humanity.” 

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View links to Reineke's accomplishments at the School of Anthropology website.