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.
My comfort zone is located in several odd locations: any rollercoaster, local coffee shop, or airplane.
However, you won’t find it anywhere near spicy food.
You won’t find it by a scorpion.
You definitely won’t find it behind a camera.
After two weeks of hanging out with all of the above, it felt incredible to be welcomed back with words.
I was in my element in Hitchcock 203. The satisfaction of seeing the story sprawled out on the surface was spectacular. (Side note: I love alliteration. Can you tell?) I loved collaborating with my teammates and organizing our hundreds of pages of material. It was much harder than expected to make the cuts; I wish our movie could be a day long, but I don’t know any film festivals with that requirement.
Overall, I loved reading the interviews again. That’s when I knew we had something special, when I was excited to read an interview that I already knew by heart. The writing team would shout out great quotes from the transcript they were reading and we would all comment on how much we adored it. Praise for our people became a regular pastime in that room. I hope… No, I know that we will make them proud.
I have a wonderfully excited feeling about this film and I cannot wait for you to watch it.
With this year’s CU Backpack trip being my first, I was expecting a variety of different interviews and different outcomes. Our professors told us that in the past, some interviews had been flops and couldn’t really be used in the final cut of the documentary. However, every single person we interviewed on this year’s trip were absolutely stellar, without a single bad interview. And with these stellar views came some stellar quotes, as well. Here’s just a few of some of the most memorable ones for me:
“The only law is love your neighbor. Now you tell me how putting up a wall is loving your neighbor. You tell me how deporting women and children back to a place we know they will get killed is loving your neighbor. It may be loving yourself because you want to hold onto your things, but we are making decisions based on material things, not on human beings. And that is no way shape or form something that we cannot tolerate as American citizens.” – Father Peter Neeley, S.J.
“The wall that’s a few miles from here would not be there if there weren’t walls between our ears, all of our ears. We have walls. We’ve built walls. We don’t even know that they are there, cultural walls. And until those walls are taken down, the other ones won’t fall.” – John “Lil John” Heidt
“If you go along the wall and then you see it, it’s pretty ominous, right. It’s like a scar, it’s a step backwards in history, and it will one day be looked at by people and wonder what we were thinking. It represents the worst of us, our ignorance, our fear and our arrogance. That’s what it represents. And when you have those things, those are powerful.” – Isabel Garcia
“[The migrants] are people with dignity who deserve everything, it is just that evil that makes them feel they don’t have any rights. I am sure you have seen at the comedor that people come in with a certain face and they leave with another face. Being treated well as human beings with dignity really lifts their spirits.” – Sister Maria Engracia Robles Robles, M.E.
“What we try to teach people when they’re in the Comedor is actually because you are made in the image and likeness of God, have inherent dignity, as a human being you have dignity. Because of that dignity, you have certain rights. These aren’t rights that a government can give or take away, these are your rights because you are who you are, just because you were born, just because God created you.” – Joanna Williams
I think the best way to describe the way this experience altered me is by what something Nico said during our final reflection. He said something to the effect of “We’re not just putting names and faces to the issue, we’re putting real, actual people to the issue,” and he could not have been more right.
It wasn’t just seeing these issues firsthand that got to me, it was learning about these issues and then meeting and become friends with the people these issues affect that really changed me I think.
And I’ve said this a million times, but I think it’s so special and so important that we have the ability to share these stories and these people with an audience. I think that’s an incredibly powerful tool and has led me to appreciate and love journalism and all its many facets and capabilities so much more than I already did.
As far as the issue itself, I think the biggest thing is that it makes me wonder what else is out there that I don’t know or that is so largely misunderstood. It just blows my mind that all of this is happening right under our noses and people, including myself, have been able to remain so ignorant about it. Again, I think that makes me appreciate the importance of journalism and makes me want to discover and share more.
It also blows my mind, from a political standpoint that there’s such a lack of knowledge. I would love to see politicians visit Kino and look at these issues firsthand before passing policy and legislation. This is an issue that cannot be resolved from afar, because the bottom line is that things aren’t working because there isn’t a concrete enough understanding of what the issues are.
I guess, to that extent, I find myself getting frustrated by our political system and by the backwards structuring of it all. But overall I think this trip has helped me understand how incredibly powerful journalism can be.
I’ve always tried to live according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” It’s a simple quote but a high order. To me it means putting aside worldly things like money and consumerist success in favor of holding myself to the standard of helping others, even if helping is just being present with someone.
When I was very young I realized that my general fear of blood and distress in the field of mathematics meant that I would never be a doctor or a nurse. But when I went to Guatemala in tenth grade I learned that there are many ways to help that don’t require a medical license. It was there I decided to become a journalist.
While in Guatemala I read a book called Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti by Gerry Hadden. The book opened my eyes to the world of journalism and the realities of Latin America. Realities that paralleled what I was seeing in the community I was living with. For the first time I felt like there was something I could do to help: write. Visiting the border has only reaffirmed that calling.
The border for me serves as a reminder of what happens when the media capitalizes on fear. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an old journalism adage. I think it is an outdated motto that has unfortunately taken over the journalism world in an effort to keep afloat in an era of citizen journalism. The border reminds me of what happens when journalists fail to report on people. When we dehumanize people because they don’t come from our country, we overlook the human rights violations in favor of supporting our own interests. I hope to be someone who helps change that or who at the very least manages to remind people that there is a world outside our individual bubbles. A world that is crying because of the death and destruction we choose to ignore.
Many of my blog posts have reflected on my experience in Arizona and Mexico in a deeper, more analytical way. To say that I am grateful for this experience would be an understatement.
I never expected to “be changed” by this experience, but I think there have been little moments where I’ve stopped to think, “Wow, I never would have thought this way before,” and I’m glad those moments made me step back and realize that this experience helped me appreciate many things in my life.
I have gained a better understanding of a major issue facing our country and I think this understanding came from the migrants we interacted with and the people who give their time and energy towards helping migrants better their lives each and every day.
I am more confident in my abilities as a journalist to tell the stories of others through film. I am humbled to have experienced my faith in a way I haven’t before, through seeing God every day in the migrants who hold such hope in their hearts, even after everything they have gone through.
I am content in telling the story of the migrants, but I am not content with the way immigration is handled in the United States and Mexico. There is so much that needs to be done in both governments, and I hope one day there could be a solution, one that includes treating migrants with the respect and dignity they deserve.
The biggest question to wrap up this experience is what I can do differently based on what I learned. I think there are many things I could do, from grateful for everything in my life – the big things and the little things, to telling others of my experiences and what I encountered in the two weeks we spent in Nogales. While I’ll undoubtedly incorporate this into my life, I think the biggest take away is to approach every individual and situation with a sense of compassion, to look at things from their perspective, and to never underestimate the humanity of our world, the good and the bad. It’s too easy to focus on the negativity that exists in the world, but centering on the positive moments in our lives is something that I believe outweighs all the hardships.
I hope audiences view our documentary with an open heart and open mind. It’s impossible to replicate our experiences in Nogales through film, but I think our documentary explains the human reality of migration and puts a face and life experience to the issue. I could not be more appreciate of this experience, for many reasons, and I know there is still much to be done, but I’ll use that motivation to tell the stories of others in the future – stories that give a voice to the voiceless.
I grew up in a conservative, small town in Wisconsin. I was raised to believe that immigration was wrong and that the “illegals” were stealing our jobs. I accepted that because I wasn’t exposed to the reality. Perhaps that is why I am understanding of those who are still against migration. The north is like a bubble, safe from the truth of the ugly parts of the south. However, it is a personal responsibility, no matter where one lives, to be educated and exposed.
When I entered college, I began to think for myself and discover what makes me mad. For me, anger is the strongest motivator. I am so angry here. I am angry that for every person found dead in the desert, there are ten more bodies. I am angry that men have come back to the comedor with bloody, torn up faces because BC pushed them into barbed wire. I am angry that the cartel keeps constant watch over the people and migrants of Nogales. I am angry that our country is just now processing paperwork from 20 years ago. I am angry that the reason some migrants carry drugs is because of the Americans who demand them. Mostly, I am angry that these people are classified as criminals and rapists when a large majority of them are just trying to survive.
As I said, anger motivates me. I’m the type of person who needs to brainstorm solutions whenever I hear a problem. I think that stems from my dad’s catchphrase, “Ok. So what are you going to do about it?” With him, I could never just complain or vent, I had to take action to solve my own problems. Listening to the stories of the people here, from both sides of the issue, has confirmed my desire to attend law school so that I can start a solution of my own.
So many of the people we have interviewed here have talked about young people and how they give them hope. A lawyer we spoke with called us “dreamers”. Those same people have also said that the dreamers fade out and the next round comes in and tries to change the world. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to learn until I am no longer ignorant. I want to think until a problem is solved. I want to dream until I am no longer angry.
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.
I’ve always imagined what it would look like. Long travel days. Poor hygiene. An air of excitement. I can happily say that I was almost right. Our group’s hygiene is on fleek.
Over the last two days we have traveled over 1,400 miles in a total of 24 hours of driving. There has been sleeping, singing, sight-seeing and more sleeping. Our already fun group grew even closer; I guess two vans full of antsy students is to blame.
Even though we were driving to the border, we didn’t discuss it or our mission much. The vibe of the van changed when we approached the outskirts of the city. The beautiful desert scenery was obstructed with border control and a giant drone searching for immigrants in the mountains. It was surreal. I felt like I was in a movie rather than my own country. We played inspirational music and remained silent until we approached our home for the next two weeks. Those final moments in the car set the mood for our mission.
Here is a quote that I have kept with me in travels throughout Europe a that I see fit for this journey:
“A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again,” Macrina Wiederkehr.
Today was, by far, the most draining day of bootcamp.
It could be that it is day five of our intense training into the documentary world. It could be that I procrastinated on packing. It could be that we participated in an emotional discussion with alumni of the program. It could be that we discussed heavy topics, such as the guilt that comes with privilege. It could be that we watched a documentary about teenagers who only have the option to join a gang or migrate. More than likely, it is a combination of all of these reasons.
After an exhausting day, I was excited to go home, relax and get some sleep. Well… It is 1:58a.m. and I am laying in bed next to a duffle with a broken zipper and a grocery bag full of Gushers.
I am nervous I didn’t pack the right things. I am mad because I smudged my freshly painted nails. I am cranky that I have to be up in four hours.
Aren’t I annoying? After all I’ve watched and learned this week about the struggles that Mexicans and Latin Americans endure just to enter my country, my biggest problem is that I can’t fit my flip-flops in my bag.
In class, John brought up the point about how easy it is to forget one’s privilege when one is surrounded by people with the same privilege. This documentary is meant to give a voice to the voiceless and make those who are are deaf to the issue hear. He also discussed how their was a John before Africa and a John after Africa
I hope that listening to and telling these stories will increase my awareness of my privilege and put my “problems” into perspective. I hope that I can turn my guilt into inspiration. I hope that I can find the Natalie after Noglaes.