Monday, January 28, 2013

Bridging the Gap: Stories of the Sonoran Dead

Posted By on Mon, Jan 28, 2013 at 11:40 AM

There are few more dangerous ways to get to the United States than to travel, by foot, along the Sonoran Desert. Of the many who begin the trek, there are those who don't finish it — and, as UA anthropology doctoral candidate Robin Reineke writes in an article for the BBC, "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."

Reineke's article tells her story as an anthropologist who helps identify those who have died during their journey through the desert through the use of the objects they had on their person at the time of their death.


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.

For more, include the story of a trip to Guatemala to meet with families of the missing and the dead, read "Arizona: Naming the dead from the desert" at

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