‘Invisible Graves’ focus of speech
By Andrea Martinez
Bridge contributing writer
Published March 30, 2020
Near the U.S.-Mexico border, there are high numbers of unknown dead migrants. These migrants are buried in trash bags in forgotten unmarked graves.
Professor Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist at Texas State University, presented “Invisible Graves: Migrant Deaths in the Texas Desert” at TAMIU. She quoted Sheriff Martinez of Brooks County, Texas, “For every person found, there are at least five that are not found.”
Spradley said Brooks County is recognized as “Death Valley” for all the migrants passing through. It is a little further from the border; however, it bears the highest migrant death toll for Texas border towns since 2009. They bury the unknown migrants in the Sacred Heart Burial Park. Most were found in trash bags—about 12 migrants in one grave. They were also buried along with personal belongings and trash.
“Until 2013, people were buried and forgotten in unmarked graves in Brooks County,” Spradley said.
She said Arizona’s medical examiner tries to identify the victims and contact each family. In Webb County, there is a medical examiner; however, they also try to help six other counties in this assessment, making the work more difficult.
One of the other counties the medical examiner takes care of is Cameron and Willacy counties. Spradley investigated the site with her students and they found that when they were told they would find 31 buried bodies, they found up to 70 instead.
In Cameron and Willacy counties, they have paupers’ graves, along with migrants, buried in the middle of nowhere. Paupers are people who died and could not afford proper funerals; however, they lived in the U.S. and likely died of natural causes. Spradley said her team could tell the difference because of the way they are buried. Migrants are kind of just thrown into trash bags with their personal belongings and maybe some trash. Paupers’ graves, on the other hand, are buried with a certain position and are placed more carefully.
When she removed personal belongings found in the graves, she and her team washed them and tried to see if there was anything to help identify the body.
“People carry a variety of things with them when they migrate,” Spradley said. “Personal effects are key for family.”
She mentioned a story of a migrant who died and his sister recognized his shoes and that is how she was able to place a name on the recovered body.
“What about the unidentified bodies that were cremated and the ashes were mishandled?” history major Joshua Grajeda asked Spradley during a Q&A, following her presentation.
“Texas Court of Federal Procedures … you are not allowed to cremate unidentified remains but about five years ago in the health and safety code, they put in there that you can … when approved by a county judge,” Spradley responded.