Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda. In 2014, they will head north to Bethel, Alaska.
Wednesday, I spoke with another migrant. This time, the only English he spoke was “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “Gimme five” (as in give me a high five).
We made eye contact from across the room as he was drying the dishes from lunch. I had just returned to the comedor after shooting some B-roll around the city. He smiled and held up his rag. I smiled back and walked over. “Cómo estás?” How are you? I asked, grabbing a rag to help dry. He asked me, with some surprise, if I spoke Spanish. “Solo un poco,” Only a little, I replied. He told me his name was Pepe.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if he was a migrant or a volunteer since I had seen him help carry in boxes of food earlier that day. After a few minutes of conversation consisting of me trying to adequately respond to him in my broken Spanish, I figured out that he was a deported migrant and had actually just been interviewed for our documentary while I was on the streets getting footage.
After the dishes were done, we sat to “talk” some more and another student who had been there for his interview, Maria joined us. I learned that his birthday was on Cinco de Mayo. I guessed correctly that he was 25. He guessed incorrectly that I was 16. I told him how a waitress had made a similar mistake at a restaurant earlier, causing the entire group to get kicked out of the bar, even though I was legally allowed to be there, because I had left my passport in the comedor. He laughed once he deciphered my lengthy, undoubtedly confusing account of that incident.
I told him I was from Minnesota. He told me he hoped to go there someday. He asked me if it was beautiful and I told him it was. He told me how long he’d been at the comedor. He told me about crossing the border. He said he’d encountered three dead bodies and been abandoned by two comrades along the way. He told me he had a 7 month old son whom he’d never met. He only had photos and sometimes he called his son’s mother, trying to listen to his baby’s voice.
This was the content of an hour long conversation, filled with many “repite, por favor”s, repeat, please, and a lot of laughter as I tried, and failed, many times to form coherent sentences. The more we communicated, the less the language barrier seemed to matter.
The limits proved most difficult when the conversation turned serious. If the only words of sympathy you can offer are “lo siento,” I’m sorry, how can you properly respond to a man who’s risked everything for a child he’s never been able to meet, and has almost lost his life in doing so? Then again, would I have been able to come up with a better response in English? Honestly, probably not.
Pepe told me that when I couldn’t think of a word I should use “signos”, signals, to communicate. Maybe I should have given him a pat on the arm, or grabbed his hand to signal my distress at his pain. Instead, when he told me “Es difícil, es muy difícil,” It’s difficult, it’s very difficult, I could only look at him and offer a “lo siento” as I watched his eyes fill with tears and his face turn away. I wanted to share in his pain. I wanted him to know that watching his heart break broke mine a little too.
The language barrier is an interesting thing. Later, when we were laughing about my language skills (I was trying to figure out whether I should use ser or estar–two different versions of “to be” in Spanish) I found myself repeating the phrase he had used earlier: “Es difícil,” I said with a laugh. Even though the words were the same, the different contexts were clear to both of us.
Within the language barrier, there is a basic understanding: a human understanding. It’s an understanding you can feel without words. I know when someone looks me in the eyes and tells me something has been difficult, it means something different than me throwing back my laughing and protesting “It’s difficult.” We can both feel the pain; we can both feel the laughter.
That understanding is not limited by age, race, nationality, wealth, or language. Humanity is connected by these mutual understandings, and it is through them that we truly communicate with each other. I didn’t need to fully understand his words to know that he was suffering. He didn’t need to understand mine to know that I care.
In this way, I gained a new perception of the so-called language “barrier” that supposedly divides people from people, the same way an iron wall is supposed to divide people from people. It’s meaningless; it only exists through fear.
In the same way language couldn’t stop us from communicating, the wall couldn’t stop our two world’s from colliding. The wall, a political structure meant to protect us from our fear, doesn’t work when we dare to cross those walls, to cross those barriers, to learn what’s on the other side, and to learn what’s on the inside.