citybeat (2006-23)

Death of a Border Crosser

Forensic anthropology brings humanity to the immigration controversy

Tyson Skate Park

Behind schedule, but finally legit

Wednesday, May 31

Death of a Border Crosser

Francisco Baires, a Knoxvillian who recently graduated from UT in anthropology, is fully aware of those consequences. On the smoking side of Java in the Old City, though he doesn’t appear to smoke, Baires sips coffee from a mug printed with a fading touristy beach scene. He’s one of those people who manages to convey a sense of urgency in speech, while being completely soft-spoken. The tattoo on his forearm that reads, “spirit has no cage,” gives prelude to his ideological stance.

El Salvadoran by ethnicity, Baires was raised in Texas in the border town of Brownsville, but he doesn’t recall immigration issues being a big deal while he was growing up. Now, though, Baires finds himself entrenched in those issues.

After a few months of osteological training under Dr. Richard Jantz and Ph.D. student Kate Spradley, Baires will soon ship off to Pima County, Ariz., to help collect data on deceased border crossers as a part of a paid internship through UT. Dubbing it the Antigone Project, Baires parallels the process of identification with Antigone’s passionate, forbidden burial of her brother, who had been sentenced to die and be left out in the elements in Sophocles’ tragedy. “What’s drawn me into this project and to forensics in general is its power of memory,” he says. “All of these people that die out there on the border, if they don’t get identified, they are just buried that way and they’re not sent back to their families.”

The main thrust of the project, in addition to identification, is to collect data for UT’s Forensic Anthropology Database. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, that database is used by forensic anthropologists nationwide for the purpose of collecting demographic data on victims. It’s basically a mass collection of osteological measurements from many bodies which, through a process of comparison, helps anthropologists determine clues about unidentified victims. “We essentially try to build a profile, determining age, sex, ancestry, and stature to try and get an ID,” says Spradley. “Forensic anthropologists are seeing a lot of Hispanics in their caseloads, but all of our data is based on people of African-American and European descent.” The lack of Hispanic data frequently hinders the identification process.

Termed “human rights anthropology,” such recovery and identification methods have been common in the aftermath of genocide occurring in places like Sudan, Rwanda and Columbia—the primary purpose being to let loved ones know the fate of the deceased. Here, of course, the situation is not genocide, but it is similar in the sense of being a politically-related increase in deaths. Such visceral work brings the intangible “problem” of undocumented immigrants into an altogether different perspective than the ones we hear from the talking heads.

“My personal politics can get linked to the work, and I’m not necessarily trying to keep them separate,” says Baires. “But at the end of the day, people are dying and I don’t even think politics enter into that. There’s a time to put up a picket sign and I will do that too, but there’s a time to wear a different hat, or maybe just turn it around. But in the end, it is my politics that draw me to this.”

While many of us wonder what should be done about immigration, Baires has a clear-cut view. “I say they need to open up the gates or shut it down completely, so people aren’t risking their lives trying to cross the desert. I don’t want to see them shut down, but we’re talking about human lives.”

Spradley also spent time in Pima County, working with medical examiner Dr. Bruce Anderson to identify border crossers. “They’ve had to rent a couple of refrigerated tractor-trailers in the summer to keep all the bodies,” she recalls.

It’s estimated that about 1,000 border crossers die per year—and that number’s on the rise—but Baires suspects the federal government isn’t losing sleep. “They are basically letting the desert be our border control… kill off some, and we need the rest for labor. Because who wants to pay $10 for a head of lettuce?”

The irony, Baires says, is that it is American-backed policies like NAFTA and CAFTA that essentially push indigenous people off their land, and so they naturally float to the “land of opportunity” for work.

But, realizing he’s digressed, Baires quickly puts back on his anthropologist cap, and launches into the interconnectedness of the realms of the study. While UT’s department is widely known for its stellar physical studies (i.e. the Body Farm), Baires also points out the importance and caliber of the cultural and archaeological studies.

While there was a period of time when anthropology was moving away from the hands-on participant observation methods toward more academic sterility, now there’s a push for activism in the field. “We can use our science, and not just be this cold observer,” says Baires. “To me, it’s reclaiming the power of anthropology—putting the bones down for a minute and engaging in dialogue.”

Still, through his work in Arizona, Baires will mostly be in a lab, taking measurements and entering them into a database. But that database has already and will continue to help solve any number of crimes and misidentification cases. Through the clinical work, then, science becomes relevant to real life.

Such work helps, too, in shedding a different light on the immigration controversy—which society all too often ceases to see on a human level. “To the American public, it seems, the rhetoric is that they are just ‘illegal aliens,’” says Baires. “To me, they’re just fellow human beings.”

Tyson Skate Park

Mayor Bill Haslam’s spokesperson Amy Nolan says they expect work, to be done by well-known park designer and builder Wally Hallyday of California Skate Park, to commence in October, to be completed, depending on weather, in early ‘07.

The project signals a sea change in the city’s attitude toward what some claim is America’s fastest-growing sport. About a decade ago, a prominent civic leader upon retirement offered a grim warning to his assembled peers about the danger of tolerating skateboarders, who he said were destructive of downtown buildings and a hazard to the elderly. Around the same time, city council voted to ban skateboarding from Market Square. Later, some noted ruefully that before the massively refurbished World’s Fair Park was properly open, its marble features were already showing the wear of skateboarding.

To non-skateboarders, the idea of the city paying to build a skate park might have had the feel of paying ransom. Or, at least, a way to keep kids off the street and out of bigger trouble.

City Councilman Chris Woodhull, leader of the inner-city youth group Tribe One, sees it more as a positive amenity for the city.

“It’s important symbolically, where we’re going as a community,” he says. “To me, Knoxville building a skate park is one of the signs that we are growing up as a city.” Woodhull, a middle-aged guy who has learned to skateboard seemingly to understand the phenomenon, is convinced of the civic value of a skate park.

“It’s one of the safest sports,” he says. That may seem counterintuitive to those who’ve seen skateboarders sailing through the air high above hard concrete surfaces. Woodhull insists, “Risk-management assessments say it’s safer than baseball and football.”

“But right now there’s no legal place to skate.” Larger cities like Nashville and Louisville have public skate parks; smaller cities like Chattanooga and Asheville do, too. Knoxville doesn’t.

He has heard estimates that there may be as many as 20,000 skateboarders in Knox County. That may be high, but they certainly number in the thousands. “What I find is all this enthusiasm from people, rich, poor, masters in planning and guys who want to work on refrigerators for the rest of their lives, all interested in building this skate park.”

Some have raised concerns about the location chosen by a city-sponsored task force co-chaired by Woodhull. The well-kept diamond at Tyson Park works well as a softball field. Woodhull says they mulled over other sites, especially a ruined industrial area along the banks of Second Creek below the interstates known to downtown artists as the Spaghetti Bowl and to illegal skateboarders as “the Spot.” The existing concrete there, Woodhull says, is “silky smooth.” It also offers a certain amount of urban/subversive credibility.

But Woodhull says the railroad that owns most of that area wouldn’t sell. “We wanted a site already owned by the city—and known to people in Knoxville.” The softball field about to be abandoned by the Lady Vols at Tyson Park seemed to fit the bill.

Providing local skaters with a place to practice their sport is an urban amenity, but the economic benefit to the city may come from the skaters it draws from outside of the region.

The fact that it’s near an interstate exit was also important, Woodhull says. “People think of Knoxville as the city you go through ,” he says. Nashville’s skate park currently draws about 2,000 visitors a week. (Such a skate park in Knoxville would outperform the convention center much of the time, and might seem a relative bargain.)

So far, the city and county have each chipped in $200,000; Lamar Outdoor Advertising has contributed another $100,000. Woodhull says with about $400,000 more, the skate park could be one of the biggest skating draws in the Southeast. The task force is working on raising that amount from private sources.

“We’re learning from their mistakes,” says Woodhull. “Ours will be better than Chattanooga, Nashville, Asheville. It will be a very well-designed skate park.

“Every community needs a bow tie,” Woodhull says, an extra that completes the picture. “This skate park can be our bow tie.”

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, May 31

Thursday, June 1

Friday, June 2

Saturday, June 3

Sunday, June 4

Monday, June 5

Tuesday, June 6