Deconstructing Politics and Memorial Practice in the Borderlands

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Robin Reineke, co-founder of Colibrí

Robin Reineke, co-founder of Colibrí; photo courtesy Colibrí website

As the advocacy work of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights so powerfully displays, politics and memory woven into clues analyzed by forensic anthropologists vividly document devastating loss… but they also impact the public perception of missing and unidentified migrants found trying to cross the US-Mexico borderlands.

Based in Tucson, the Colibrí nonprofit works with families, forensic scientists and humanitarians to “end migrant death and related suffering on the US-Mexico border.” The organizations does this through its documentation but also through its advocacy programs that connect families of someone lost on the border. At the same time, Colibrí tells individual human stories to an often embittered outside world. Ultimately, Colibrí seeks to use its data to show the consequence of expanding border enforcement and militarization, while educating the public about immigration policy reform.

Cold Cases

Robin Reineke, co-founder of Colibrí and now its executive director, began her cultural anthropology work as a UA undergrad in 2006, setting up the Missing Migrant Project at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner with Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Bruce Anderson. Now a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology, Robin and her team help create forensically-detailed, specialized missing persons reports — using often-overlooked clues (tattoos or very personal items like children’s notes or prayer cards found on the individual) to identify the dead. Her intention to honor each individual memory couples with science as a most unique forensic and cultural component. This work bridges the gap between science and families of the missing, who are mostly indigenous people from communities in Mexico or Central America.

Colibri shadowbox at TMY

Shadowbox of recovered but unclaimed immigrant’s personal belongings, as shown at TMY’s exhibit “100 Years of Anthropology at UA,” from Colibri Center for Human Rights.

In Arizona, an average of close to 200 men, women and children lose their lives crossing the US-Mexico border every year. It is Colibrí’s mission to increase the rate of identification of human remains believed to be of those migrants who died crossing the Arizona portion of the Sonoran desert. It also is Colibrí’s mission to then to use the information about missing migrants to increase collaboration among foreign consulates, advocacy organizations and media in ways that assist families in their search of missing loved ones last seen crossing the border.

Colibrí’s work has advanced to include the first comprehensive tracking system and database of thousands of missing individuals. This database connects to the US Department of Justice as well as to international research, and it is facilitating identifications, providing answers to families, and informing policy.

Robin discussed with BorderLore how Colibrí’s work pieces together a dramatic puzzle of clues to identify bodies of migrants found in the desert by border patrol, members of the Tohono O’odham nation, ranchers and hikers. She also reviewed how this work honors the memory of individuals who experience trauma and have not had the ability to exercise “voice” in their lives:

Colibrí’s illustration of the power of anthropology in recall

“Colibrí is named in honor of remains of a man found in 2009 — he was found with remains of a hummingbird nestled in his pocket. For indigenous people, the hummingbird is a symbol of hope and resilience, a messenger between the living and the dead. Colibrí’s mission is to be a messenger and a facilitator for the families, the public and the individuals found — we can lift up their stories to the world. The man we found in 2009 was eventually identified — he was someone who had been deported back to Mexico, and then died trying to return through the desert to join his family. As his story illustrates — There is great sadness in some of the stories found in our desert. Often, when I run in the mornings, I can feel the stories of the dead all around us. Our desert holds pieces of these dead, and it must be honored as a graveyard. Also in the same way, our desert can help us recall and honor the stories of the dead.”

The contribution of forensic science to the significance of memory and the dialog of social justice

“Although we have both forensic science and anthropology training, we of Colibrí do not examine the dead… that is the role of the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, who are the unsung heroes of this work of social justice in the desert. These government employees make a priceless and unique contribution to justice, reconciliation and memory — carrying out their work with the physical remains of quite vulnerable people with the deepest respect.

Colibrí form for reporting a missing border crosser

Colibrí form for reporting a missing border crosser; photo courtesy Colibrí website

“As anthropologists we know that the people making it across the border, and those attempting the journey, come from deeply marginalized regions. The bones and materials found with the remains are very capable of revealing this — illuminating the ways the dead have experienced violence in their lives. As anthropologists we see this in their bones, which tell a story of lived suffering and poverty, but also resilience.

“The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has the highest caseload of foreign nationals of any single jurisdiction in the nation. Yet every day they carefully document and honor the memories of each set of remains found.

“Holding dear the memory of each irreplaceable individual is probably one of the most important parts of our work. It’s also a radical act in these times when statistics dominate our conversations, and when migrants are considered numbers and replaceable objects. Our work is science, but it involves an intensely personal and deeply human issue.”

From the Pima County Medical Examiner 2014 annual report: As of December 31, 2014, 826 decedents (individuals who have died) remain unidentified.


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