Rosa Cano Dominguez, 32, was a mother of two from the Yucatan region who had been traveling to work in the Pacific Northwest when she sprained her ankle. She was abandoned by smugglers.
Baker was pregnant at the time and was struck by all she shared with Cano: They were both in their 30s, both working mothers from poor, less educated families.
“I cried and cried over that case,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure I could keep doing this, because it disturbed me so much. We’re supposed to be detached doing this work, and I’m not.”
She imagined what it would be like for Cano’s mother and children to hear about her death and lose hope.
When the time came to repatriate the remains, Baker’s pregnancy kept her from traveling with her team. Cano’s mother mistook another woman for Baker and embraced her.
Hearing the story later from team members, Baker felt relief.
“She just kept saying ‘Thank you doctor,’ ” Baker said.
Baker is the grandchild of a strict Southern Baptist preacher and was raised in Lufkin, an eastern Texas logging town. She became the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Baylor in 1993 with a degree in anthropology.
She was fascinated by human biology, especially DNA. In graduate school, she specialized in forensics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, home to the “Body Farm,” an outdoor lab for studying corpses at the university’s Forensic Anthropology Center.
She met and married her husband, Erich Baker, a fellow student, and was studying ancient DNA extracted from the hair of Native Americans when she was invited to help identify the remains of people who disappeared in Panama and Peru. As she discussed her work with fellow researchers, Baker found herself talking about migrant deaths on the U.S. border.