Radical empathy in the U.S. – Mexico border

On the 3th of October of 2013, a boat carrying migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana sank on the island of Lampedusa in Italy. After these tragic events, the International Organization for Migration started a project in order to track and keep a record of migrant deaths. Today, the Missing Migrants Project estimates that around 28,000 migrants around the world have lost their lives since 2014.

The odyssey that these migrants have to endure takes them through unimaginable areas. Across deserts, jungles and oceans, thousands go missing. The word “missing” here can be applied to multiple scenarios:

  • Missing because they are unable to establish contact with their families, even though they may be alive
  • Missing because they have been detained without access to means of communication
  • Missing because they (or their families) choose not to seek help because they can get deported
  • Missing because their remains may never be found, or get properly documented or identified.

One of the most difficult challenges we face in the world is helping the families of these migrants. If we fail to do so, we are condemning thousands of people to oblivion.

During her intervention at the Failures of Care keynote, Doreen St. Felix references the essay “Venus in Two Acts” by Saidiya Hartman, where she tackles the subject of impossible speech — speech that, according to St. Felix’s interpretation, “occurred in history but was never able to have been recorded”. Hartman urges us to think about how can we recover those voices.

This question, framed within the context of missing migrants in the U.S. – Mexico border, adds new levels of complexity as it incorporates multiple local, state and federal administrative bodies. Each actor with their own rules, their own databases and their own records. How is it possible for these families to navigate this never-ending bureaucratic maze?

On October 2017 the International Committee of the Red Cross published a policy paper where they enumerated a series of recommendations in order to facilitate the search for and identification of missing migrants. In said paper the Red Cross suggests, among many other things, the following: standardize data collection “for the sole humanitarian purpose of searching for and identifying the missing person”, setting up effective channels of communication that support the families during their search, provide them with access to services, and lift “any specific and legal barriers” that the families may face in the exercise of their rights.

There is no question that the goal of the Red Cross is a noble one. Reading the policy paper one can see that there is a clear concern and commitment to respect and defend the families’ dignity. Access to information and records of missing and deceased migrants is fundamental for these families. Nevertheless, the solutions by such international organizations, more often than not, adhere to a rights-based framework. This lens is necessary and it can certainly help, but in order to be fulfilled, we need to set in motion a larger set of bureaucratic procedures that involve multiple branches of Government. This process can take years and can be drastically altered depending specific electoral results or the funding that certain agencies get so they can help this families.

Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor warn us of the shortcomings of such an approach, they state that a rights-based methodology “ignores the realities of more subtle, intangible, and shifting forms of oppression that are also pressing social justice concerns”. Although, one can argue that the forms of oppression that certain migrant communities endure in the country are far from subtle.

A clear example happened a month ago during a meeting in Boulder, Colorado, between the Forensic Border Coalition (an organization comprised by forensic scientists, scholars and human rights activists); Paula Wolff, a lawyer representing the FBI; and representatives of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. After six years of trying to make this reunion possible, the FBC asked the U.S. Government to grant them access to the National DNA Index System (NDIS) in order to help identify the remains of the migrants that have died or disappeared across the U.S.-Mexico border. Paula Wolff replied that, even though she sympathized with the families, and there was no disagreement on what must be done, “the only issues are working on how it is to be accomplished”.

Not only is the FBI limited by the law on what database information can be made public, the law also states that, in order to have access to the NDIS, “all DNA samples submitted to the database must be taken in the presence of law enforcement”. Nevertheless, the majority of these families do not want to approach the authorities because of their own legal status and fear of violations of privacy and surveillance. Unfortunately, given the harsh conditions of the desert, a DNA sample means that it is often the only viable way of identify a body. This rights-based framing of the problem jeopardizes the safety of this community, therefore, we must ask ourselves if there is an alternative solution that can help us establish dynamics of affective responsibility in order to help these families.

In the early 2000’s, forensic anthropologists Bruce Anderson and Robin Reineke started collecting information of the relatives who called the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, Arizona. This was not part of their job description but they realized that it was something important that they had to do. Reineke joined the office as part of her research for her dissertation but she continued with this work. In her words, once they talk with one of these family members, “it’s impossible to not feel responsible to carry on the search”. In 2013 she founded Colibrí Center, an institution that believes in radical empathy and is creating alternative channels to help these families.

During their first years of operation, Colibrí Center created a large database and helped families in their search, but a year ago, after receiving a grant from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, they started collecting DNA from family members that needed their help. The new capabilities of the organization brought with them the necessity to elaborate systems that guarantee the safety and protection of the community they are trying to help. The Center keeps its database private, they do not inquire about the legal status of anyone that works them, they schedule appointments to collect DNA samples at locations that they do not disclose publicly, the tests are free and the names of those who are tested are not shared with the police.

In order to find if there is a DNA match, Colibrí works closely with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. The County’s Office has created a DNA database of more than 1,000 cases of unidentified individuals. The DNA samples collected are shared with a private lab where Colibrí also sends their samples “in the hope of producing blind matches between the unidentified and the families, matches that the medical examiner then confirms. Once someone is identified, Colibrí works to notify the family and to facilitate the next steps in the process.”

Colibrí Center has traveled to multiple states in the U.S. and even to Mexico in order to help these families. They have now created a solid network that is based on social justice. With their archival work they have become, in the words of Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, “record-keepers…caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users”, and the community they serve.


Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives,” Archivaria 81 (Spring 2016): 23-43.

Bergis Jules, Simone Browne, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Doreen St. Felix, “Failures of Care” Panel, Digital Social Memory: Ethics, Privacy, and Representation in Digital Preservation conference, The New Museum, February 4, 2017 {video} (1:08)

Hay Andrew, “Group seeks U.S. DNA to identify missing migrants”, Reuters. October 5, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-missing/group-seeks-u-s-dna-to-identify-missing-migrants-idUSKCN1MF2QI

International Committee of the Red Cross, “Missing Migrants and their Families”, ICRC. August, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/document/file_list/missing-migrants-and-their-families.pdf

Colibrí Center, “DNA Program”, Colibrí Center. Accessed November 12, 2018. http://www.colibricenter.org/programa-de-adn/

Colibrí Center, “Colibrí’s Commitment to Protecting Privacy & Security”, Colibrí Center. May 25, 2017 {video} (3:00). Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BKkRpm1wbk&t=13s




Voice to the voiceless

I thoroughly enjoyed the readings for this week and I was particularly inspired by the words of Diana Taylor. Taylor’s work made me reflect on Mexico’s relationship with its Pre-Hispanic history and how we relate to it. In dealing with out past we tend to have a conflicting and contradictory relationship: oftenly rushed and diminished in our primary education; part of our language, cuisine and traditions; exalted by our Government internationally, yet ignored and oppressed by it internally.

And what about the archives and museums? A good part of them were built and conceived with a Colonial mindset that still permeates and reaches many aspects of our lives. How can we reimagine our archives? Is it possible to rebuild these structures in a more organic way where we give the indigenous communities the power to tell their stories?

The Mexican Government owes a great debt to its indigenous communities. Giving them the resources they need in order to reclaim their identity free from Colonial infrastructures is of extreme importance. We should reinvent our archives and we should do it by giving voice and agency to those who have been silenced.



Recognizing bias in data visualizations

After reading Drabinski’s ideas and listening to Kate Crawford I started wondering about how bias manifest itself in data visualization and what are the solutions being presented in order to tackle this problem. Media organizations, businesses and large public institutions resort to data visualizations in order to provide people with access to data, but it is important to remember and understand that data visualization remains a storytelling practice influenced by the perspective of the people who create and design them.

A simple presentation of a graph can drastically change and affect our perception of important public issues depending on how it is designed. An example can be the analysis of monthly change in jobs created by the NYT on 2012 where the authors give us the opportunity to scan the graph with Democrat and Republican lenses.

There are other cases where there is risk of unintentional bias. The usage of certain colors and shapes can alter the ways in which we visualize and understand certain social groups. Take as an example this map of concentrated poverty in Minnesota where the people living in these areas considered that they were being portrayed as an infestation.

The readings for this week reminded me of the importance of leaving room for discovery even when we may have a preconceived notion of how we wish to visualize the data and, above all, the need to develop techniques that promote transparency in our work as designers.

Preservation, access and exploration

In this week’s readings I was particularly interested in how the disposition of the Warbrug and Prelinger libraries invites the visitors to explore and, almost in an accidental way, stumble upon intellectual associations that can expand our curiosity and cultivate a deeper and more complex way of understanding knowledge.

I can also see how this particular format can appeal younger readers if we take into account how algorithms, cookies and query-based searches are making our interactions with digital technologies more predictable and boring. On the other hand, interacting with analog technologies give us the power to decide and experiment.

Finally, regarding the video of the Corbis collection, I would like to address it through the lens of access and availability. While one could argue that the efforts made by Bill Gates are going to extend the life of the Bettmann archive, his actions spurred a controversial debate given the fact that many view them as a burial ceremony for analog photography. It is particularly interesting to me how, regardless of the fact that we were able to meet some of the people that work there, I felt that the built environment of the archive dehumanizes (Mattern) its content. A feeling that was corroborated by the fact that we are unable to access it even online (1, 2).

Gates here is removing images from the public sphere in the name of “safekeeping”, hindering our capacity to promote and preserve historical memory. An idea wonderfully explored by Alejandro Jaar in his piece Lament of the Images.

The many facets of libraries

I was particularly pleased with this week’s readings, specially since we don’t have a strong link with public libraries in Mexico.

In Battles’s text, one of the things that caught my attention was how Panizzi, through the design of the library catalog, aimed to develop a more independent reader. I was wondering how that spirit has changed throughout the years, specially since we are used to receive information that is tailored to us depending on our online behavior. In that sense, it was no surprise to see this initiative by the Brooklyn Public Library.

After reading the strategic plan of the library and the expansion of the capabilities public libraries have across the country (Mattern), I started wondering about labor, budgets and what it means to be a librarian nowadays.

It seems to me that the role of libraries is to work as bastions of Democracy and truth, at the same time, they are being challenged with limited budgets in a time were they need to incorporate new technologies and people who know how to work with them.

  • Are academic programs tackling the needs of public libraries?
  • Has the role of library foundations and group of trustees become more important?
  • Is the collecting of data going to affect the distribution of books and activities that are available for the public?