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, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
I anticipated that I would finish the five weeks with new knowledge of immigration, the ability to turn a camera on and other practical skills every journalism student should know. I had no idea that the knowledge would change me. I know, I know that it sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s true.
Because of Backpack… I am a seeker of truth.
Because of Backpack… I am margin traveler.
Because of Backpack… I am a listener.
Because of Backpack… I am a team player.
In my first blog, I wrote about how I am a “Yes Woman.” And even though I found this trip by saying no, it taught me that it is almost always right to say yes. By saying yes to the early morning B-roll, the extra interview, the longer explanation… I have learned so much and gained an incredible amount of confidence. It is Because of Backpack that I have grown as a writer, a film maker and as a friend. Saying yes, even to something that scared me, has been the greatest decision of my life.
Because of Backpack… I am thankful.
So, what is something I can do differently based upon what I learned? I can stop worrying about needing to say no and start embracing my love of yes.
It’s a word that we learned on our very first day in Nogales. One of the Kino Border Initiative’s main goals is for groups to leave with an understanding of the complicated reality of migration. After two weeks on the border, I can’t imagine anyone leaving without complication packed in his or her baggage.
I thought I learned complication from the desert walk, our discussions with people who work on the border, Operation Streamline or the migrant’s stories, but I didn’t understand it until I got back home.
When my family asked what I learned, my mind went blank. I felt like every question, every frustration, every sign of hope was at the tip of my tongue but couldn’t escape; I had so much to say, but no way to say it.
That frustrating feeling was when I truly understood the layers of complication that migration carries. I always knew the layers were there and I uncovered even more during the trip, but to know and to understand are not the same thing.
I think this is part of Kino’s magic; they taught us as much as they could, but left the understanding for a later date.
Now that I truly understand, I am so thankful for the outlet of film.
Even though I often find myself frustrated and overwhelmed with migration’s level of complexity; knowing that there will be an epic film full of b-roll and sick edits, gives me relief.
The border is a complicated and sometimes, intense place. One way to wind down after a long, heavy day was to hang out with my incredible Backpack family. While we were there to learn, we laughed a lot and made memories that I will smile about forever. In the style of one of my favorite movies, 10 Things I Hate About You, here are the 10 things that I “hated” about this experience:
I hated stepping outside of my cooking comfort zone.
I hated the way my dance moves looked on Snapchat.
I hated losing my breath from laughing too hard on the long van rides.
I hated the deflated beds that created so many jokes in our room.
I hated being caught as a member of the “mafia” during our silly game.
I hated how my classmates cheated at Tenzi.
I hated the way we all looked out for each other.
I hated the pressure of picking the perfect song when I had the aux cord.
I hated how my cheeks would hurt from smiling during our hilarious dinner chats.
But mostly I hated the way I didn’t hate it, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
I started writing this blog when our group took a desert walk with the infamous Lil’ John. I was about halfway through it when I found myself holding down the delete button. All 237 perfectly crafted words were erased in a matter of seconds. That was the problem. They were perfectly crafted. They were artificial. It wasn’t me.
I wasn’t prepared for how the desert walk would affect me. Even today, I feel an ache in my stomach when I think about it.
Let me start by saying that I am not much of a hiker, so my first thoughts as I walked through the “moderate to easy “ trail were negative. Our usually silly group seemed more serious as we slipped and stumbled on the path. We were wearing athletic gear, sunscreen, had water and were well rested. But we were all struggling. My selfish, negative thoughts subsided when we stopped to hear Lil’ John talk about the migrants.
For the first time, it was easy to understand the migrant reality. I could imagine why people twist their ankles, run out of water, get lost or lose their life in the desert. It was hard for me to believe that anyone ever made it out.
Even though I was on the border, talking and serving the migrants every day, I couldn’t really comprehend that this was real. For some reason, I didn’t understand what I was seeing until I walked the path in the desert.
The moment that will stick with me for the rest of my life was when I first spotted a shirt. It was long sleeved, grey and looked like something one of my brothers would wear. It was proof. It was a reminder that this was real. That it belonged to someone.
It hurt when that reality hit me. It hurt that I would never know his name or his fate. I wanted to save him and knowing that I couldn’t and knowing that there were thousands out there was crushing. I think about that shirt and the man who left it all the time.
I want people who are against migration to understand that no one would want to walk that desert trail unless they had to. I want those people to think of their families and what they would do to save them. I don’t want them to step into his shoes, I want them to wear the grey shirt.
It seems like as each day passes, I’m left with more questions than answers.
On Sunday we traveled to Arivaca for mass. Through the windy roads, passing miles of mountainous desert, we arrived at little Arivaca. A church. A bar. A cafe.
Inside of the small country church, the locals chatted, welcoming the new faces as we walked in, inviting us to join the empty choir. Our group of 20 consisted of almost a third of the people. With two baptisms and a First Holy Communion, this was a larger crowd than the church saw most Sundays.
Arivaca. A town surrounded by miles of land, about 20 miles from the border. Cattle roam freely, border patrol always watching. Some came here to retire, to get away. Others owned or ranched acres upon acres of land handed down over generations.
Following mass we were invited to join the parishioners in their weekly potluck. Through conversation, it didn’t take long for me to realize the people here felt differently about immigration than many of the others we’ve talked to. Phrases like “Build the wall” and “increase border patrol” rang in the conversations. One woman looked at me, tears in her eyes, and said “I’ve seen one too many bloody murders on my land.”
After the potluck we drove five minutes to the home of two of the parishioners and local ranchers, Sue and Jim. Their western style home sat on 50 thousand acres of land.
We were greeted by several pairs of camo-printed slippers lining the walkway to the front entrance of the home. We later were told that these were the carpet slippers drug packers wore to cover their tracks. These were just a small sample of what Jim and Sue had discovered on their land.
As some set up cameras for the interview, Jim showed the rest of us footage he gathered from the three cameras randomly set up around his property, moving them every couple of weeks. We watched as caravans of men dressed in camo carried large square shaped backpacks past the hidden cameras. These were drug packers. Jim and Sue’s land was prime territory for drugs to pass over as for 25 miles there was no wall on the border of their land.
In Sue’s interview she shared a number of her views according to her experiences over the years. Sue explained the drug cartels as a multi-billion dollar market.
“The ones coming over aren’t looking for jobs, the have jobs carrying drugs with good compensation,” Sue said. “There’s always been contraband, but it hasn’t always been blood thirsty drug cartel.”
Put a wall up, get it highly secured and get a road parallel to the border. Communication needs to be increased. You can have all the border patrol in the world, but if it’s in the wrong locations, it’s not effective.
Get a worker permit program and a legal worker program that is readable and doesn’t take five years to get through.A big amnesty program isn’t the answer.
Sue explained they’re land isn’t a safe worker entry. People need a safe port of entry. If workers were legal and had documents, they would have rights as a worker. Without these documents, they have no rights and therefore no way of acting against their mistreatment.
I knew immigration was a complex issue, but the more I learn, the more complicated it becomes.
When I interviewed Fr. Neeley, who used to work in detention centers, he told me that the guards would call migrants by letters and numbers. According to Fr. Neeley, dehumanizing migrants made it easier to mistreat them. For me, this was one of the most disturbing moments of the interview. I couldn’t imagine categorizing another human to avoid my own reality.
For this blog, I will do just that. I will tell the story of a migrant that I met and only call him by A22. I want to prove to myself and to the readers, how uncomfortable and disgusting this practice really is.
I had just finished cleaning up the evening meal at the comedor. Almost all of the men and women whom I encountered during dinner spoke Spanish. I communicated with a smile, service and a lot of Spanglish. I was surprised when A22 approached me and even more surprised when he spoke perfect English. A22 wanted the proper translation of an English word for his friend and asked for my help. Somehow A22 and I went from speaking about synonyms to telling his story. Right away, I could tell that A22 just wanted to be heard, and so I listened.
A22 came to the country when he was just 13 years old on a temporary visa. He stayed when it expired and started to make a life for himself in Arizona. He fell in love and had a son with his American girlfriend. After his son was born, his girlfriend became a drug addict. A22 told me that the plan had always been to marry her to become a real family and to also earn his citizenship.
“People always ask me why I didn’t just marry her. I know I wouldn’t have been deported if I did, but I couldn’t. The drugs took over her life. It ruined our relationship and it ruined her role as a mother. I wasn’t going to do that to my son. I wasn’t going to be that stereotype,” said A22.
At this point in A22’s story, I was almost in tears. The far right likes to believe that Mexicans are all criminals who will cheat the system to enter the country. A22 was a perfect example of how this idea is untrue. There are people with citizenship who do not have the moral compass that A22 holds; his girlfriend is a great example.
A22 won full custody of his son and split from his girlfriend. After some time, A22 made, what he called, a human mistake. He got back together with his girlfriend. His girlfriend became pregnant again and, according to A22, she continued to do drugs during the pregnancy. A22 told me that she was receiving the drugs from her brother.
“I made a mistake. I was so angry with her and her brother. This is my kid that she was hurting. She wouldn’t stop. He kept giving her drugs. I tried to warn him. She was killing my child. I had to do something,” said A22.
A22 assaulted his girlfriend’s brother, was charged with a felony and was deported in April.
“I just want a second chance. Why don’t I get a second chance? Is it because I’m brown? Is it because I’m different? I tried to tell the judge I was protecting my family, but he didn’t listen. Why does she get to keep our kids and I have to leave? I don’t get it,” said A22.
A22’s first son is now in the mother’s custody. His second son was born with Down syndrome and a missing limb because of his mother’s drug abuse. A22 has never met him.
A22 has been in Nogales for about a month. A22 shares an apartment with other migrants and has a job that only pays him about $10 a week. A22 is developing a case with a social worker to return to the country and raise his sons. It could take six to twelve months to process.
We are on our fourth day of work for Backpack Journalism Arizona/Mexico, but we sit and look at each other at dinner every night and say — “Has it really only been one (two)(three) days?”
We have packed a lot into a few days, spending most of our time at the border or in Mexico at the Kino Border Initiative. We have walked along the wall, seen the “cattle chute” that deported migrants must walk through. We have watched those mostly recently deported migrants come into the comedor, the Kino Border Initiative’s soup kitchen, clutching their backpacks or plastic bags that hold everything. They look lost and scared and hungry. For a short time, in the midst of feeling lost, there can be a sense of belonging.The people who work there and the volunteers do everything to be welcoming. One example is Sister Alicia of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, one of the partner organizations at the Kino Border initiative. She and other sisters work in the comedor and the women’s shelter. In the comedor, she never stops moving and never stops smiling.
That smile, the movement all help to make the migrants feel at home, feel like people after a dehumanizing system has left them without a place.
Sister Alicia and everyone at the comedor work to make it a welcoming and warm place. The migrants are served the meals. Short presentations before the meal focus on dignity, rights, a song about hope. The volunteers or Sister Alicia lead the migrants in short hand exercises or cheer contests. It’s beautiful to see the faces light up with smiles and laughter.
There’s prayer too. One of the themes we are hearing likens the comedor to the Eucharistic table where gifts are prepared and shared. The power of hearing the familiar cadences of the “Our Father” — even in a language I don’t understand — brings tears to my eyes. Every time. I have been lucky enough to hear and recite that prayer in the Dominican Republic, in Africa and now at the border.
On our first morning here, we walked across the border and into Mexico. No one asked to see my passport, not a single question was asked. I saw the wall, snaking up and down the terrain, drones and cameras watching everyone and everything that approached it. I didn’t see the cartel members in the trees at the top of the hill, but I was told by a number of people that they were there, watching for migrants.
Prior to going on this trip, it seemed like everyone I told left me with the same warning: “Be careful, the border is dangerous.” I guess if I was afraid of anything, it was the drug lords and cartels I had heard about in the media. However, when we crossed the border, I didn’t feel unsafe at all.
Nogales is unique because it’s one of the only cities split by the wall. About 25,000 people live on the America side, while 250,000 live on the Mexico side. In 2011, the wall was built to replace a wire fence. Prior to this, Americans and tourists flowed freely between the border, heading into Mexico for a cheap authentic dinner or a night on the town. However, following 911, as talks of threats to national security skyrocketed, people began to avoid the border at all costs because they were afraid. In walking through the town, you see what’s left of what used to be a lively town for tourists, now clearly in a depression.
Throughout the trip, the idea of the wall continues to come up, literally and figuratively. It’s pretty hard to miss the structure that stands 18-30 feet depending on the location. I’ve learned it takes two minutes to climb over it. About four million dollars per mile to build it. Drugs and money can still be passed between the it. In fact, other than stirring fear in people, the wall does very little. When we put walls up, we assume it’s up to keep something out. It really struck me when Fr. Peter Neeley, a Jesuit priest who has worked with immigration for over 20 years asked us, “How is putting up a wall loving your neighbor?”
A train track runs through the center of Nogales, perpendicular to the wall. Ironically, the first train we saw pass through was a Union Pacific, carrying Ford cars. Everyday 2,500 Fords manufactured in Nogales are brought into the U.S. We watched as the wall opened so the train could pass through, closing immediately after the last car. This is just one example of the many goods that pass from Mexico into America. In addition to this, we saw an abundance of factories in the city, all producing American goods.
Again, I was struck by Fr. Neeley’s words. “America depends on so many material goods from Mexico, but when it comes to the people, it wants nothing to do with them.” America relies on the world for so many of its possessions. We don’t live in a little cocoon.
Fr. Neeley talked about how 20 years ago he would tell Mexicans he worked with how wonderful he thought America was. He would ask them why they hadn’t wanted to try and find jobs in the United States, where they would make a better wage, to which they would respond, “Why would we go to the U.S. Father? We have everything we need here and we’re happy.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American moves 12 times in his or her lifetime, over 80 percent of these people move within the same state. The reasons include leaving for college and job opportunities. The point is, most people don’t move unless they have to, especially to places far from their families with unfamiliar languages and cultures.
Over the past four days every migrant we’ve talked to was running from something or to someone. From trying to avoid danger, to hoping to meet his or her child for the first time, each migrant we’ve met didn’t leave their home just because they wanted to; they had to.
Yet, we continue to dehumanize them, we continue to criminalize them and we continue to build walls instead of looking at the human on the other side.
Pope Francis asks us: “Where is your compassion? Have you forgotten how to cry?”
Today is Monday, the 23rd of May. We met Joanna, director of education and advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative. She led us into our first experience of crossing the border into Mexico.
We parked our vans a couple of blocks outside of the border. After walking for about five minutes, we came upon what looked like a steel, caged walkway. Joanna informed us that this walkway will be used in the future as an entrance for migrants being deported back to Mexico. I was shocked at how much it resembled a cattle chute. The path we took into Mexico was a sidewalk that followed right along side of the caged walkway.
We walked beside the caged runway for about 200 yards (two football fields) and got into Mexico without anyone flinching or checking our passports.
I was already hot and irritated with the rocks that kept getting into my shoes.
But the migrants had to do this trek from within a cage. I can’t fathom what they could possibly be feeling during this very public walk of shame. These people had left their homes out of fear to search for safety. They have been in the desert for who knows how long without the proper basic resources such as food and water. When Border Patrol detains them, they are in terrible condition. The humiliation must be traumatizing to be shackled by the hands and feet. They get dropped off in the same dusty, sweat filled clothes that they started their pilgrimage in. Once they are uncuffed, they are told to walk through a cage into a city they have never been to.
I cannot begin to imagine the horror and vulnerability that these people face.
One of the Kino Border Initiative‘s missions is to work towards humane migration. This becomes a huge challenge when news outlets, politicians and government officials are constantly criminalizing migrants and refugees. I admit that I have fallen victim to this power of repetition that sees migrants as criminals rather than as individual lives seeking something better. After today, my eyes have been opened and my life has been changed. My hope is to help those who aren’t fortunate to have the experiences that we are having. I want to give a face to the migrant instead of seeing a group of criminals. No matter your political views, I hope that you can at least realize that all humans have inherent rights and dignity.
“When you devalue one human life, you devalue all human life.”
This morning we met with Joanna Williams who took us to the Comedor in Mexico. I was very surprised how easy it is to get into Mexico. All we did was walk along the sidewalk until we were in Nogales, Mexico. We didn’t have to show a passport or even talk to a single person. The lines for vehicles were very long to get into the United States because people wanted to get to work.
Once we got to the Comedor, eight of us went inside to help with breakfast and eight went into Nogales. I stayed and helped with breakfast which was a great experience. After making the plates and serving them I talked to a man who is from Mexico City.
Joanna was helping me translate because i know very little Spanish and the man I met knows no English. He was telling me how he left his home because his weekly wage went down $20 US dollars. I asked where he worked and he said he was a welder for a automobile company. He worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week.
He arrived in Nogales two days ago. He has family in Sacramento and Florida but neither would help him and his family back home. He decided that his conditions back home weren’t good enough for his 2 daughters. He didn’t tell his daughters that he was attempting to cross the border. He only said that he was going to a near by city. I asked where he gets his strength from and he told me his daughters are his joy and world. He told me, “God’s greatest gift to me was my daughters and I love them.”
He hopes to cross the border once he can get enough money to hire a guide. Saying goodbye to him was sad in a way because I will probably never see him again and also because I will never know if he will make it across the border. I was also filled with inspiration because he made a 2 day journey by bus, alone, in order to get to this point. Hearing about how the Mexican authorities in both Mexico City and a town just south of Nogales would stop him and search him and how he had to pay them 100 pesos not to get in trouble and another 100 pesos to help him. This is just a snippet of one persons story. There are hundreds if not thousands more that never get told. I hope to keep you all posted on these stories and more that I come across.