All posts by A.J. Olnes

Final Post

Five weeks ago I walked into a room with 13 strangers in it.  The majority were journalism majors and they were all older than me.  I asked myself, “What are you doing here?”  I had no idea that I would have an experience of a lifetime.

Now I have 13 new friends who I know I can always say hi to.  Getting to know them as a group and on a personally level is one of my favorite things from the trip.  I have gained confidence in my abilities to write and in being able to talk to strangers and not be shy.

I’ve learned so many things on this trip that I cannot share them all in this blog.  The thing that will stick with me the most is the stories I heard in El Comedor.  Before I went down to Nogales I thought of immigration as huge political mess, which it is, but now that I have faces and stories that factor into this mess I am on the side of allowing more migrants to seek asylum in America.

Being with the migrants made me the happiest.  Hearing their stories was very moving and inspiring.  They also made me think of how lucky I really am.  Also they made me think how I can help in this large issue of immigration.

One thing that I will do differently based upon what I learned is to just live each moment like it’s my last.  This trip was a true blessing to me and one I will never forget.

Sometimes it takes a desert to get a hold of me

Leaving lasting impressions at El Comedor
Leaving lasting impressions at El Comedor

Here in my last day on this wonderful journey down here in Nogales I would like to just through out some final thoughts onto paper to share.

We started the morning by going to El Comedor to say our goodbyes. It was hard to leave because I know that I have left a chunk of my heart down here. I have fallen in love with the migrants who come in with their heads down but leave as a family and smiles on their faces.

Then we went to downtown Nogales, Sonora and walked around for almost 2 hours. That was really fun because we weren’t carrying cameras or doing anything but soaking it all in. Matthew and I walked about as far as you could go before going into the neighborhoods. Then we really wanted ice cream so we asked shop owners along the way who knew little or no English. It was actually a really great experience. We ended up getting smoothies that were made of fresh fruit and it was so delicious. It was the largest smoothie I had ever seen and it was only $3.50!

In the early afternoon we went to Patagonia Park which is this beautiful 2 mile long lake near Nogales. It was so peaceful and relaxing. Definitely much need after these past two weeks and before our two days of driving ahead. Also if you want to see me learn ballet in a lake check out our snapchat account. It was pretty fun.

After we got back I went for a run from our house to the wall and ran along side it for a while. I turned my music off there and just reflected on all the stories I have heard and how complicated this issue really is.

I finished the night talking to Father Pete for a while. I lost track of time but I think it was about one and a half hours. It was a great way to end my time here. We talked about many things including what I had experienced in the last few weeks and life experiences.

Truly a part of my heart will forever be in Nogales and the people who work and pass through El Comedor. As I was on my run I was listening to some music and the song Sometimes it takes a Mountain came on by the Gaither Vocal Band. Below is a snippet of it but I encourage you to watch it on YouTube.

 

I faced a mountain,
That I never faced before
That’s why I’m calling on the Lord
I know it’s been awhile,
But Lord please hear my prayer
I need you like I never have before.

Chorus:
Sometimes it takes a mountain
Sometimes a troubled sea
Sometimes it takes a desert
To get a hold of me
Your Love is so much stronger
Then whatever troubles me
Sometimes it takes a mountain
To trust you and believe

 

My prayer tonight is for an openness of heart. An openness to hear God’s voice and His voice through others. For all of the warriors I have met and all of those who are on their journey to the United States, for safe travel and a promising future. For all those who can not escape violence in Mexico and South America. For all who pass away on their migration north for a better life. For Father Pete, Ivan, Joanna, Father Sean, and all of the sisters so that they may continue to serve all who come to El Comedor and to continue to bring smiles and love to all they meet. For the cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora so that they may continue in their efforts to help migrants and to keep open minds and open hearts when faced with difficult decisions regarding immigration. And for safe travels for our group as we travel back tomorrow morning to Omaha.    Amen.

Beauty lies within the hearts of those you meet

Today we met up with two of Carol’s friends at Saguaro National Park. One is an accomplished herpetologist and the other is currently a journalism/magazine/editor professor at University of Arizona. They took us around the park and taught us many things about the plants and animals of the park. It was really a nice day and a beautiful park.

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park

After the park we went to a restaurant with both of Carol’s friends. One of Carol’s friends is named Carol as well so we called her Carol 2. I got to sit next to her at lunch. We talked almost the whole time. She applied twice to work at National Geographic out of college as a writer and the second time she got in. She did some time in the office then became the editor at National Geographic for their travel magazine. She was telling me stories of the places she got to go and what she wrote about. Also she was on the launch team of the National Geographic web site when it first came to the Internet. I loved talking to her and seeing how excited yet humble she was. My teacher Carol told us that Carol 2 has won just about every teaching award possible.

Later in the evening Father Pete, Ivan, and a new guest came over for pizza. The new guests name was Mario. We talked one on one for a while before dinner started and then at the table. His story went a little like this. He was born in Portugal then did his undergrad in the states. Then he went to the University of Europe in Belgium to receive a masters. Their master programs are only 1 year so it is super intense. After that he served in the United Nations as a diplomat for 28 years. He lived for at least 2 years in 12 different countries and is fluent in 4 languages. He was telling me how he chose to live a life in service for others and how he always wants to give back. He said that that is the way to live a life and I totally agree with him. After his 28 years with the U.N. he got a call from the Vatican to serve there for 2 years. He did that and said it was a really good experience and now he is in between Spain and Boston in retirement. He is here in Nogales to do some consulting work for the Kino Border Initiative. I think it was God’s plan for us to meet because he left an impression on me and we had a great and meaningful talk.

Tomorrow is our last day in Nogales before we head back home.  I continue to meet these amazing people and there are so many stories that will be left untold.  I am now a witness to the raw reality of life on the border.   I alone can not change this reality but I highly encourage you to spend time reading testimonies or to even come to Nogales if you ever have the opportunity.

Nearing the end

I want to keep this blog short so I can get some sleep but I wanted to update everyone on what we did today.

A small group of us went into Nogales, Sonora at sunrise to shoot some b-roll of the city coming to life.  It was really fun and I love being on the Mexico side.  Then we went to McDonalds where it was Nico’s first time ever eating food there.

Later we drove to Tuscon where we went to the courthouse and witnessed the stream line.  This is when 50 to 70 illegal immigrants are put on trial.  5 go up at a time and they all plead guilty.  Once they plead guilty they are taken to jail for their sentence then deported once their time is up. The courts do this 5 days a week.  That is over 300 people getting tried a week and that is just in Tuscon.

At night I grilled more hamburgers for everyone.  These ones turned out very good and they were so juicy.  We all ate outside and then played a game afterwords.  Once the game was done I started a fire in the charcoal grill and we roasted marshmallows.  It was a very relaxing night.

Keep the prayers coming for my fellow classmates, teachers and myself. Especially for the migrants who are risking their lives as you read this in order to come to the U.S.  We only have 2 more days down here until we travel back to Homaha.   I’m trying to make the most of what little time is left.  I can’t wait to share my experiences with all of you back home.

Peace in the valley

image
The wall

Located in the valley of a desert, Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora is a place where hardships are suffered but the light of God shines. It is a land of harsh heat during the days and cool, brisk nights. The sun is ablaze at high noon and the stars shine bright during the stillness of night.

I have witnessed first hand from migrants the difficult journey that they have embarked on. I have shed tears with them, I have laughed with them, I have prayed with them. I have walked along a portion of where they walk in order to cross the border. I see their faith lift up not only their own spirits but their brothers and sisters around them. I do not think I have ever witnessed God’s wondrous works in such a way that I have witnessed in this border town.

On a long drive back to our house tonight, I couldn’t help but reflect on my life. From as far back as I can remember to the present, the amount of blessings and opportunities I have been given is humbling. The support of my parents and family is unreal. I would not be the person I am today with out my friends, neighbors, classmates, teachers, and family. I want to thank all of you who read my blogs and for the comments and prayers. I really do appreciate the support especially on this part of my journey.

Sitting here, looking up to the stars shining bright on this suffering earth I feel hopeful that one day this world, this country, this Nogales will be a better and safer land. Many people we have interviewed talk about the youth of the world. I can see what they mean by how the youth of this world are our hope. Looking into the eyes of my fellow classmates and others that I come across, I see the hope, the vision, and the will to make our world better. My hope is to tear down barriers of race, gender, religions, and countries. The wall that stands no more than 5 miles from where I am right now is a symbol of a corrupt, divided human race.

Even in the shadows of the mountains around, God is here in the people of Nogales. You can see it in theirs smiles, their eyes, and their attitude towards life. People here do not have that much but what they do have is God and for many, that is what sustains them. The migrants especially have this sense of strength and hope that radiates off of them. It amazes me how strong in faith they are even in life’s toughest situations. They still believe and trust in God.

Cross painted by migrant
Cross painted by migrant

My prayer is for these migrants who risk all they have to try and live a better life. For the world and all of its cuts and wounds that bleed and blister. For an end to all divisions and divides that cast shadows on the earth. And for the strength and courage that I see in the people of Nogales and the migrants who pass through it.  Amen.

Small town Arivaca

We started off the morning interviewing Daniella, who I picked up from the airport in Phoenix a few days ago. Her story and testimony was very moving. She was truthful and you could feel her honesty during the interview.

Later we went to a town north of Nogales called Arivaca. Arivaca is a small town of no more than 50 people. Father Pete took us to mass that he was presiding over. When we walked in, myself and another guy called drafted to sing in the choir. This choir had zero talent and I couldn’t help but laugh the whole first song but it was a blast. We witnessed two baptisms and one first communion. It was really cool.

After mass and a pot luck dinner with the people of Arivaca we went to a ranch and interviewed its owners. I talked to the owner a lot during the lunch after mass so I shot b-roll around his property while everyone else interviewed them. I walked a lot around his 50,000 plus acres. The land here is truly spectacular. I have really enjoyed and cherished time that I’ve spent alone the last few days. There is so much to process and to be at peace in thought in this land is a blessing.

Walking in the footsteps of warriors

Yesterday we made our way up to Tucson. We interviewed a lady named Isabel who had quite a lot to say. She was a public attorney for 37 years. After her interview she took us to shrine in a neighborhood and it was a really unique experience. Then we went to IN-N-OUT burger. I’m not going to lie, I think that IN-N-OUT is pretty overrated. Some of us came to the conclusion that it’s over hyped because it’s only in the south.

Shrine in Tucson, Arizona
Shrine in Tucson, Arizona

Later that day Carol, Nichole, and I went to Phoenix to pick up a lady that we are interviewing down in Nogales.  There and back it was 7 hours in a car on top of the 3 hours earlier in the day.  It was a fun car ride though and it was great getting to know everyone better.

Today, after my 5 hours of sleep, we set off to meet a man who took us along a migrant trail. We hiked for about 4 hours and the experience was unreal. He is a part of No More Deaths and they set out water and beans along the migrant trails. The focal point of the journey was a small shrine where migrants who are crossing the border put rosaries and pictures to commemorate and pray.  I couldn’t help myself to just walk in silence the whole time back.  I couldn’t imagine walking those “trails” in 100 plus degree heat while being afraid of someone chasing you.  These migrants are true warriors.  Their strength is incredible and the hearts are filled with faith. This experience is one of my most memorable so far and it’s hard to put into words.

Migrant Shrine
Migrant Shrine

Later this afternoon we met up with Luis Parra, an attorney in Nogales, Arizona. He is currently working on a high profile case that will likely make it to the Supreme Court. The case involves a US border agent fatally shooting a Mexican kid on the Mexico side through the wall. The victims name is Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. Luis took us to the site and explained everything. It was quite a sight to be able to hear from the family’s attorney what happened. I really enjoyed Luis’ company. We talked while we were walking around Nogales, Sonora and we also sat next to each other at dinner.

I just got back from picking Nico up at a Burger King in downtown Nogales.  He went back to Omaha for a wedding and his shuttle from Tucson just arrived in Nogales.  No better way to end the night than picking up my brother man!

Tourist, chef, professional lip singer

For the first time I felt like a tourist today. We did one interview with the director of the Kino Border Initiative and then we were on the road again. We had to drop Nico off at an airport back to Omaha for a wedding and then we went to Saint Xavier missionary.

Saint Xavier Mission Tucson, Arizona
Saint Xavier Mission Tucson, Arizona

It was absolutely beautiful both inside and out. The church was so busy yet so beautiful. The detail and purpose of the art work was unreal. Matthew and I climbed up this really rockey hill to the top where there was this white cross that you could see from miles away.

Cross over the land Tucson, Arizona
Cross over the land Tucson, Arizona

After that we went out to eat and then to another missionary that the Jesuit Kino started. It was really cool being there and seeing how they collaborated, not dominated, the indigenous culture.

To end the night, I was the grill master again. I grilled 17 pieces of chicken. Carol wanted to make Greek salads so three people helped her with that while I was outside. The chicken turned out great! Everyone really enjoyed it and it went great with the salad. While we were cooking we had a blast dancing and singing to songs. Some of my classmates thought I did musicals and plays growing up but I said no. It was so much fun though bonding with Carol and my other classmates.

Check out our snapchat @cubackpack to see some of my interpretive dancing to a Tarzan song and others exceptional dancing/lip singing skills.

Painting a picture of the border life

The morning began again at El Comedor. We got a lot of B-roll of the inside before breakfast started. Then I got some really great shots of migrants faces and actions while one of the sisters was talking. Every time I go in El Comedor I learn so much. Although language can be a barrier, just a simple smile can go a long way. I would say gracias and smile and the migrants would beam and some even said that I have very good pronunciation!

Nogales, Sonora
Nogales, Sonora

I saw my friend who, described in a blog from earlier, left his children in order to get a better job in America. He said he is going to wait a while before he crosses but he plans on doing it for his little girls. His face lite up when he saw my face and greeted me with a, “hello brother.”

We also met up with a Jesuit from the Kino Border Initiative. His name was Father Peter and we talked a lot just by ourselves. He is truly an amazing guy who has seen a lot in his sixty plus years. He loves giving me hard time and whenever a Hispanic would be standing there he would talk to him or her and start speaking in Spanish and pointing and laughing at me. He has made me want to learn Spanish just so I can understand him and that’s exactly why he was doing it. His story is very similar when it comes to foreign language. He grew up not liking Spanish and not getting it in an academic setting. When he was about 30 he was immersed in the culture and learned it that way. I never enjoyed Spanish classes growing up but being down here makes me want to learn the language from the people.

As we were interviewing our fourth person of the day in El Comedor I talked to Ivan, a Jesuit at Kino, about all these beautiful crosses I had been seeing migrants painting. He told me stories behind some of them and said that they are for sell and that the migrants who painted them get 80% of the profit. The other 20% goes towards buying more wood and materials. The one featured below is going to an art gallery to be put on display. I really wish I could have bought it.

Painting by migrant in Nogales, Sonora
Painting by migrant in Nogales, Sonora

Everyone but four of us went out to lunch in Nogales, Sonora. We who remained got ready for an interview of a migrant who just tried crossing the border. It was a very moving story. He got beaten up by Mexican authorities, then American Border Patrol, and when he was brought back to Mexico he was threatened by the cartel.

I went out on my own to shoot some B-roll of where the cars drive to get to the U.S. It was no more than 100 yards from El Comedor but it seemed like miles. When I was shooting I noticed a few Mexicans walking around in my area. Then the bridge I was by had five or six cartel members under it and they were very curious about what I was doing. By the end of my shoot here was around 20 cartel members within 50 yards of me wandering all around. They would look at my screen to see what I was filming. I kept my cool and even said hola and smiled and they smiled back and conversed a little. I was a little scared but not enough to make it seem like I was rattled or afraid.

My partner Goose and I had a great day together. While an interview was going on in the women’s shelter we went outside and shot a lot of B-roll in the area. Then we went to the downtown port in Nogales, Sonora with Father Peter. We got B-roll of the port and the cattle shoot. I ventured off on my own for a while to where the train tracks go into the United States. I wanted to get pictures and video of when the last rail car goes through and the U.S. Border Patrol closes the gates. It was a great shot but something that struck me so wrong was how it was a Union Pacific train that said, “Building America” on the side. A train that likely traveled thousands of miles through Mexico says that they are building America.

Lastly Goose and I made sixteen hamburgers and 5 hot dogs for dinner. We cooked them over a charcoal fire but with that much meat you are bound to get a lot of juice to fall and start a giant flame. We ran and got everything off the fire and spread the coals out even more. At this point the burgers where black on both sides and bright red in the middle. We then put them back on when the flames died down and put cheese on them to hide our mistakes a bit. No one complained and they actually tasted pretty good! It was a great end to another good day.

Not all goods things can be captured

At 3:30 am I woke up to start the day. After showering and eating we drove for about 10 minutes to a beautiful vantage point above the city. We broke out into our teams and we all had different shots we had to film of the sunrise. My partners name is Maria aka Goose (check out her blog to get the story behind her nickname). We climbed up a hill, higher than everyone else, in order to get the perfect shot.

We reached the top of the hill and could see almost all of Nogales, Arizona. It was quite a site to see. We set the camera up that we share in order to film the sunrise but it didn’t go as planned. Nico, our videographer expert didn’t mention the trick about shooting sunrises until we met back up at the van. Long story short we got to see a beautiful sunrise over the city and the landscape that empties to the mountains but our camera told a completely different story. Our aperture was perfect at the beginning but by the time the sun was up it was a white screen.

Sunrise in Nogales, Arizona
Sunrise in Nogales, Arizona

Later in the morning around 8, Joanna came back to our house and we went to a women’s shelter in Nogales, Sonora (Mexico). It was an eye opening experience seeing the women and their children who were either just deported or planning on making their way across illegally.

The thing I enjoyed most about today was getting to know some of my fellow classmates better. I had many good conversations wether it was walking across the border or walking around in downtown Nogales, Sonora. One of these walks led to where El Chapo lived and where he built his tunnel under the wall. It was really cool standing in front of his house and knowing that there is a tunnel under your feet that was used for drug smuggling among other things.

Tomorrow is another busy day and I am already excited. We have nine more days down here on the border until we depart back to Omaha and I already know that I am not going to want to leave. The culture, the people, and the landscape is truly unreal. I am blessed to be here and I hope I can really do something meaningful and impactful through this project.

Women's Shelter Nogales, Sonora
Women’s Shelter Nogales, Sonora