Robin Reineke ’04 uncovers the names of migrants who perished in the Sonoran Desert.
By Kathy Boccella
Photos by Jonathan Hollingsworth, Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border, from Dewi Lewis Publishing
The strange writing on the saint card in the dead man’s pocket was the clue that puzzled Robin Reineke ’04 the most and even haunted her dreams.
Reineke’s job, when not studying for her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Arizona, is to help the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office identify some of the hundreds of unidentified and undocumented migrants who have been found dead throughout the past decade in the parched, unforgiving Sonoran Desert bordering Mexico—“cold cases” such as that of the man with the unusual saint card.With her skills in cultural anthropology and a passion for human rights, the 31-year-old has invented an unusual job for herself as a new kind of detective on the front lines of America’s immigration wars. Using clues from such things as frayed clothing, faded photos, or scrawled notes found inside a wallet, she helps worried family members—sometimes hundreds of miles away in isolated rural villages in Mexico or Central America—confirm the fate of missing loved ones.
The medical examiner’s office in Tucson where Reineke works has investigated the deaths of more than 2,000 migrants who died from heat or dehydration trying to cross an increasingly fortified border by trekking through the Arizona desert in triple-digit temperatures. But one case from the summer of 2008 was particularly memorable. A saint card, or prayer card, carried for good luck was found on the corpse of a tall man in his mid-20s.
The picture was of Señor Santiago Apostol, an obscure religious figure venerated in a remote rural area of southwestern Mexico. And there was writing on the back, possibly clues about family members or the man’s hometown, but the ink was faded, and some of the words didn’t make sense. Reineke thought about them day and night.
“I remember for months I saw this writing, and it seemed nonsensical,” she recalls. “He had scribbled parts of words together, the name of his town, but I couldn’t understand it. And he had written his last name, but it all blurred together.”
But it was the man’s tattered clothing that provided the break in the case. In North Carolina, a large extended family of Mexican brothers, their wives, and their children had been waiting all summer for the eighth and youngest brother to make the long, brutal trek north from their poverty-stricken farming town in southern Mexico after the death of their parents, for whom he had been caring.
Carmen Antunez Grande, 26, had called from a pay phone just south of the border but never arrived. His brothers and his wife, who had already made the journey, finally reported the case to an immigrant-advocacy group and described his distinctive clothing: a blue shirt, red Dickies pants, red and black shoes. When Reineke came across the report that October, she immediately recognized the clothing from the man with the odd saint card and called one of the brothers.
“I told him the clothes worn by the man were similar to what you described,” Reineke says. “He also has this really unusual prayer card of Saint Apostol with something written on back, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s definitely our brother. That’s the patron saint of our family; that’s our town.’
“And he just started crying. He knew.”
Such heartbreaking work makes up Reineke’s days.
In the past seven years, she and her boss, forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson, have solved roughly 100 such cases of missing undocumented immigrants, sifting through vague clues such as a dead hummingbird carried for good luck in one man’s pocket or a note with a phone number and the words “mi mama.” Their unique efforts are starting to gain worldwide attention in large part because of this year’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival of the documentary Who Is Dayani Cristal, directed by Marc Silver and starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. The film follows efforts to identify a corpse found in the desert and bearing a distinctive tattoo and features an interview with the Bryn Mawr grad.
For Reineke, the roots of the Arizona project were planted during her adolescence in Seattle, when she befriended refugees from the Vietnam War and the horrors of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Learning about the Cambodian genocide sparked an interest in the issue of human remains. “A lot of the bodies still haven’t been identified; there’s not a lot of accountability for those in charge, and the bodies become incredibly central,” she explains.
After enrolling at Bryn Mawr, her passion for human rights was fueled by an anthropology class on ethnic conflict taught by Haverford College professor Laurie Hart. “It was a really beautifully done course,” Reineke says. “It was basically a human rights course challenging the way the media portrays conflict around the world. I got really interested at that point in how anthropologists have been of assistance in post-conflict settings.”
Hart recalls her student as “a very, very caring and aware and respectful person” whose research was always informed by her concern not only for the casualties of violence and social upheavals but also their survivors in the community. “I think you can see that in the work she’s doing by really trying to help not just the victims but also the families by exposing what happened to them,” Hart says.
In southern Arizona, Reineke found a humanitarian crisis boiling over in her new backyard. A growing political uproar over undocumented immigration to the United States in the late 1990s led to multi-million-dollar efforts to wall off the border with Mexico in California and Texas. As a result, thousands of migrants began to seek entry along the harsh but less defended Sonoran trails.
In the 2000s, migrant deaths from dehydration and heat exposure skyrocketed; the average annual toll went from roughly a dozen to about 170. Although authorities in Pima County, which includes Tucson, are able to quickly identify about 70 percent of the corpses, the number of unsolved cases has risen to a total of 800. Only the metropolises of New York and Los Angeles have more unidentified corpses.
Typically, the grim task of identification falls heavily on forensic anthropologists, who work with bone and other biological features. But both the scope and the unusual nature of the task in Pima County—especially with so many cases lacking traditional IDs but offering cultural clues—provided an opportunity for Reineke because of her background in cultural anthropology and knowledge of Latin American societies. While the forensic anthropologist focuses on the unidentified corpses in the morgue, she combs a separate list of “the missing,” some 1,350 migrants who have been officially reported lost in the desert since 2000, and tries to make a match. Any evidence that Reineke can glean from speaking with relatives of the missing about clothing, dental work, or other artifacts can be matched up against police reports and photos of the dead.
“If the family said he was carrying a prayer card for patron saint St. Benadicto, I would then look for bodies that had that item,” she says.
That type of information has helped Reineke and Anderson make a positive ID even in cases for which the only biological trace of the victim was a skull discovered along a desert trail.
Reineke is slated to finish her doctoral dissertation next year but has no plans to leave the border zone. Instead, she wants to expand the project to other U.S. border regions and to work on compiling a more comprehensive database with the goal of achieving more matches in a shorter time. In the meantime, her current cases constantly remind her that much more than mere data is at stake.
In the case of Carmen Antunez Grande, she could not bring herself to tell his family the full truth of why his clothes were tattered. “I was looking at it from a scientific viewpoint as objective data: blue shirt, black pants, red and white shoes,” she recalls. “That’s not how it looked to the family. They wanted to know, ‘What happened? Did he get hurt? It looks like he was injured.’ I realized how horrible it was because he had been preyed upon by animals.” Reineke told the family that the clothes had been damaged by exposure to the hot sun.
Then she found out something else—that Grande had a 3-month-old daughter, born after his corpse had already been found in the desert. Stories of such unimaginable loss only fuel her activism, and she has spoken out against the escalation of border enforcement that is a part of immigration reform proposals such as the one currently being put forth by the “Gang of Eight” and President Obama.
In a Huffington Post article published in March, Reineke and co-author Hannah Hafter (a coordinator with the nonprofit group No More Deaths) write, “Is this the security we want? What is ‘secure’ about a border where people are losing their lives? And what is ‘comprehensive’ about immigration reform that not only fails to address the humanitarian crisis on the border, but also reproduces the same policies that led to it in the first place?”
Reineke says: “Carmen was trying to make a better life for his family, but he was left in the desert to rot. The scale is so disproportionate to what these migrants are doing. Yes, they’ve broken the law; they tried to come into the country illegally. But they did so for their families. Let’s take a look at what is happening as human beings.”