Time is measured in interviews, outings to capture b-roll and numerous opportunities to bear witness throughout the immersion of the Backpack Journalism journey. The Backpack Nogales group continuously lost track of the demanding days that were filled with time at the comedor with migrants, meeting women and children at the Nazareth House, attending Mass in Arivaca, enjoying meals with our Jesuit hosts, following a migrant path in the Coronodo National Forest and walking Nogales, Sonora.
Everyone has a story and each account of a life shapes the tale of humanity. Josseline Hernández Quinteros, a 14 year-old from El Salvador, is part of our story of human existence. We learned that Josseline was attempting to unite with her mother in California and lost her life in the desert not far from where we stood in the Coronodo Forest. At the border, Union Pacific announces on their cars that we’re “Building America” as the trains roll through South and North America. Trucks wait at the checkpoint in Mexico with “God Bless America” printed on their trailers – trailers carrying produce and goods to distribute throughout our country.
The cars and trucks pass and goods are delivered to a land where we pride ourselves on our freedoms and justice for all. Yet we choose to condemn people like Josseline who seek opportunities in a nation that was built by immigrants and migrant workers. We spend billions of dollars each year and have put up a wall along an invisible line to secure the border. We shackle the hands and feet of people who cross this boundary and we call it being tough on crime.
I have asked myself: What circumstances would force me to leave my home? What would it take for me to leave my family? To be labeled a criminal? To face humiliation in a foreign country? How could my best option be to cross the desert and risk the cartel and to risk death? We learned that for every body recovered in the desert it is estimated that ten others are never found. The disappeared leave behind families with no closure. What desperation could drive me to chance never being seen again?
I happened to be reading Blindness by Nobel-laureate José Saramago during our journey. The novel tells the story of a city hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” and Saramago uses the blindness as a metaphor for social and political crisis. The only explanation for the epidemic is offered at the end when a character finally says, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”
I know that avoiding eye contact with the homeless man on the street corner in Omaha doesn’t make him go away. I know that even though I’m no longer in Nogales, there are still people being deported through cattle chutes, being dehumanized and losing their lives in the desert hundreds and thousands of miles away from me.
In his Nobel lecture in 1998 Saramago said, “The apprentice thought, ‘we are blind,’ and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.”
From Nogales to Omaha, complicated issues abound and we left Nogales with more questions than answers. Despite the tragedy, the complications and sorrow we were witness to during this Backpack Journalism journey we also saw many smiles, much optimism and heard stories of hope and courage for restoring human dignity. Isabel Garcia, Pima County Legal Defender and advocate for immigrants’ rights, spoke of dreamers and of the youth who give her hope.
Backpack students agreed that while the issues are complicated, compassion is not. Students have said these journeys have been one of the best experiences of their lives. These students dream of corgis and keep an ever-growing list of corgi names for the day when they have a pet. These students also have plans to serve as agents of change and to work alongside marginalized people in the world through programs such as the Peace Corps and JVC. The students come up with hysterical “would you rather” questions and they also come up with serious and engaging questions that target issues of social justice.
This year’s group is made up of dancing queens, including John and Carol. This year’s group mastered the coyote howl, but has yet to master Nico snaps. This year our eyes were opened in Nogales and we were each blessed to be a witness.