Gabriela Meléndez, uncovering history through bones
In 2004, Gabriela Meléndez, began an 8-month volunteering at FAFG, without imagining that it would turn into more than 15 years of forensic work. Meet Gaby in our new issue of #StaffSpotlight.
Hi! I am a forensic anthropologist. I like the photography. One of my favorite quotes is “The mind is like a parachute. It only works if we keep it open.” – Albert Einstein
Hello Gaby. To begin, tell us, what is your position in the FAFG and what tasks do you perform?
I’m a forensic anthropologist at the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory. As forensic anthropologists we are dedicated to reconstructing the biological profile (sex, age, height, etc.) of a person, through the study of human skeletal remains. We look for specific individual characteristics, such as fractures or cavities and / or very significant oral diseases. Also, we determine the injuries that may have caused their death, depending on the state of the bones.
How did your interest in forensic anthropology arise?
I remember as a child I went on a trip and the tour guide told us many lies about the Mayans. He even spoke of spaceships, which perhaps do exist; however, there is no physical evidence to prove it. I felt like he was cheating us. I was outraged at the age of 12 (laughs). I said, “I have to study something like archeology and history to check.”
Later, I studied archeology at the School of History at the University of San Carlos Guatemala. I was excited to imagine that there was the possibility of learning from past populations through the study of human skeletal remains; and indeed, within the career there was a class in physical anthropology, which was very short because it only lasted one semester. So I decided to volunteer at the FAFG for 8 months, without imagining that it would turn into approximately 15 years of work.
“Sometimes I think that bones are like a book. That going from bone to bone is like going from page to page, and knowing how to interpret what you find helps to identify someone.” – Gabriela Meléndez
Could you tell us about a forensic case that has impacted you?
One of the cases occurred in Xecax, a village in Nebaj, Quiché. During the Armed Conflict, one of the attacks against this community occurred one morning, in which they shot and set fire to people, mostly the elderly, women, and children. In the afternoon, when those who had gone to work returned, they found everything burned, including their families. Behind a house for grinding corn they made a grave and there they buried everyone.
The exhumation was very complex, let alone the analysis of everything. In the laboratory I was tasked to see that. I worked in constant communication with the archaeologists, because the archaeological record is very important, and with my colleagues in the laboratory, they supported me in finding the best approach in investigating the case.
It has been the most symbolic case that I have worked on so far. It taught me a lot and I think that is the case that made me graduate from my degree.
What is your vision for the FAFG? What impact do you want to see and how would you like to continue contributing?
My vision is to continue working cohesively as a team. That’s pretty good because you learn a lot from your coworkers. We can see that great objectives have been achieved in the formation and development of the search and identification processes; which is the main thing to dignify, not only the victims of the Internal Armed Conflict, but also their family members.
The impact that I want to see in the FAFG is that, with the objectivity with which we have worked for many years, the knowledge and experience continue to expand, at national and international level, with whom in different contexts have the same objective: Search for their Disappeared.
What lessons have you learned from this time of pandemic?
The main thing is that even if there are barriers, you look for a way forward and don’t get stuck saying “I can’t” or “I don’t know.” Things that we did not know must be learned. I also learned to prioritize my time with the family, working on the computer, or resting. Sometimes they are out of balance with each other, but it is about balancing. Organization is vital.
Many young people often contact us asking how they can have a forensic profession, such as FAFG. What advice would you give them?
Always trust your dreams and goals; thinking about them a lot lays the foundations of the constant struggle to achieve them.
What skills do you consider necessary for these areas or which have personally helped you?
What has helped me is reading. Also, getting out of the comfort zone. Know that it is not always office work and that if you have to go to the field to investigate you will have to walk, etc. A good way to learn is through practical and technical volunteering, and also in archaeological projects.
Finally, can you mention three words that you associate with the work of the FAFG?
Commitment, respect, and projection.