Colibrí: A Messenger Between the Living and the Dead

Story by Robin Reineke and Chelsea Halstead, Colibri Center for Human Rights

At this very moment, what things are you carrying? Think about the contents of your pockets, purse, or wallet: maybe some credit cards, a photo or two, lip balm, keys, a phone. What about your clothing? Maybe some jeans, a blouse or a T-shirt, and some jewelry, glasses, shoes, and socks.  What if these items that you happened to have on you today were the only things your family had left to recognize you by?

For the families of migrants who have lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border, the items carried by their loved ones have special significance. The items take on an excess of meaning beyond their original materiality. They weigh more. Often, they are the only recognizable trace of the person they loved.

A map produced by humanitarian group Humane Borders. Each red dot represents a migrant who has died attempting to cross, this map shows the data for 2,471 recovered remains found in Arizona between 1999 and 2013

A map produced by humanitarian group Humane Borders. Each red dot represents a migrant who has died attempting to cross, this map shows the data for 2,471 recovered remains found in Arizona between 1999 and 2013

From 1990- August 2014, 2,528, men, women, and children have died in the harsh deserts of Southern Arizona, many of them seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. (1) They die in the Sonoran Desert, a region known for its harsh climate. Temperatures regularly reach the triple digits in the summer, and fall below zero in the winter. It is a formidable landscape, and it is where thousands risk their lives each year to come to the United States.

The same conditions that are deadly to the living are destructive to the dead. As Saint Jerome said in a letter to Heliodorus, “The desert loves to strip bare.” (2) The Sonoran desert can quickly render a dead body unrecognizable, sometimes within a day. The items migrants carry are often the only tangible connections between who the person was in life and the anonymity their unidentified remains take on in death. These items not only carry an emotional, almost sacred existence, but, for the thousands of grieving families searching for answers, these items could be the link that finally brings the remains of their loved one home to rest.

At The Colibrí Center for Human Rights, our goal is to find that link in an attempt to reunite thousands of unidentified dead with their families. Colibrí is a Non-Profit, Non- Governmental Organization that is located within the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, in Tucson, Arizona.  Colibrí is the Spanish word for hummingbird, and is seen in many cultures throughout the Americas as messenger between the living and the dead. Our organization is  named in honor of a man who died in 2009 and was found with a hummingbird in his pocket.

Colibrí was founded to support the efforts of the forensic scientists at this office, who work diligently to identify and repatriate hundreds of unidentified human remains found in the desert each year. Colibrí also follows the example set by these professionals, who, in an often hostile political climate, adhere to an “ethics of unconditional hospitality.” (3) In the words of former Chief Medical Examiner and Colibrí board member Bruce Parks, “We treat people like we would want our family members to be treated.” (4)

This medical examiner’s office has examined more migrant remains than any other office of its kind in the country. For more than a decade, the office received an average of 165 migrant remains per year. (5) These human remains are exceedingly difficult to identify, and Arizona is now third in the nation for unidentified records entered into the national system following New York and California.

While the desert poses its own challenges to human identification, the nature of this mass migration poses even more. Family members, for a variety of reasons, are often unable to report their case to the police. In addition, most of the migrants crossing the border are extremely poor, migrating with hope for a better future. Their lived experience of poverty often means that they do not have medical or dental records. In trying to cross the border clandestinely, they are often carrying no identification media. They often die alone.

Guatemalan mother holding a photo of her son who has been missing since 2010

Guatemalan mother holding a photo of her son who has been missing since 2010

The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is creating a centralized response system for the human crisis of unidentified and missing migrants. Regardless of citizenship status or nationality, families can, without fear, report a missing loved one last known to be crossing the border in any of the four border states. Colibrí’s database relies on whatever data the family is able to provide, along with data forensic scientists are able to provide about the unidentified dead. The goal is to create identification hypotheses which can then be confirmed or denied scientifically through DNA, fingerprints, or the comparison of records.

Because there is still no comprehensive DNA database capable of producing blind matches, Colibrí is often hunting for a clue—something that links the description of the missing person to a detail noted on unidentified remains. Surprisingly often, that link comes in the form of something the person was carrying that the family described in detail.

With about 900 unidentified remains just in Arizona, and 2,000 missing persons for the entire border so far, Colibrí’s task is daunting, but one we take on with determination. From years of speaking with the loved ones of the missing, we know what it means to the families to have answers. As one young woman said of searching for her mother, “I only feel alive when I’m looking for her.” Colibrí hopes to end the pain of not knowing, and to inform the public of the reality of our current border.

Dying alone in the desert is something no human being should endure. The daily suffering experienced by the families of the missing is something no one should go through. Forgetting the humanity of migrants is something we cannot continue to allow.

We ask you to consider the items carried by those who died in search of a better life. For us, these items stand defiant to the dehumanization migrants face, because they remind us of the things we ourselves carry in our pockets and purses. We remember these items because they stand as physical testaments to the lives of the people who owned them. Through their inconsequentiality, their everydayness, these things remind us that they belonged to real people.

To honor the memory of the lives lost in our borderlands, Colibri worked together with artist John Stobbe to create a poster entitled “The Things They Carried.” The poster is an exhaustive count and representation of items found with the 2,306 bodies of migrants discovered in the desert from 2000 to 2013. (6)

We see these items and we remember that desert may have ended their lives, but it did little to define who they were in life.

1) Data compiled from Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and Martínez, Daniel E., Reineke, Robin C., Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Bruce Anderson, Gregory Hess, and Bruce A. Parks. 2013. “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Deceased and Missing Migrants Recorded by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012.” Binational Migration Institute, Department of Mexican American Studies, University of Arizona.

2) Lane, Belden C." The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality". Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

3) Doty, R. L. "Fronteras Compasivas and the Ethics of Unconditional Hospitality." Millennium - Journal of International Studies (2006): 53-74.

4) McCombs, Brady. "County Medical Examiner Is Retiring." Arizona Daily Star 30 Apr. 2011. Web. 29 Aug. 2014. <http://tucson.com/news/local/border/county- medical-examiner-is-retiring/article_7f924c92-8f4e-5304-a2bb- d38b856b4911.html>

5) Martínez, Daniel E., Reineke, Robin C., Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Bruce Anderson, Gregory Hess, and Bruce A. Parks. 2013. “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Deceased and Missing Migrants Recorded by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012.” Binational Migration Institute, Department of Mexican American Studies, University of Arizona.

6) The poster can be ordered at http://colibricenter.org/things-carried/