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.
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.
When I studied abroad in Rome last year, one of my favorite professors forbid photographs. He would take us to the most beautiful churches in the world and go absolutely ballistic if he saw a student snap a photo.
Despite my initial annoyance, I learned how to appreciate whatever was in front of me (something very hard to do nowadays). Besides filming and updating the Snapchat, I didn’t take pictures during my time at the border.
Thankfully, my classmates did.
Here are some of my absolute favorite people/memories:
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.
On our first day back in the classroom we watched and transcribed the interviews from the various people we met along our journey. It struck me that we had met and interacted with a variety of very knowledgeable people who were clearly passionate about migration. We were told to search for little “nuggets” of the interviews that really packed a punch. It became clear pretty quickly that we didn’t need to do much digging because we had hit the jackpot. We were in a goldmine of succinct, well-spoken ideas that really struck a chord with the interviewee. Here are just a few of my favorite “nuggets” of knowledge from the trip.
“The only law is love your neighbor. You tell me how putting up a wall is loving your neighbor. You tell me how deporting women and children back to a place where we know they will be killed is loving your neighbor. It may be loving yourself because you want to hold onto your thing. But we are making decision based on material things not on human beings and that is no way, shape or form something that we can tolerate as American citizens.” – Rev. Peter Neeley, S.J., Assistant Director of Education at KBI
“When you stop asking questions, that’s when something’s wrong because you’ve become complacent with the situation. But when you continue to ask the question: ‘Why is this happening?’ I think that continues to change perspectives.” – Daniela Vargas, KBI volunteer
“Because you are made in the image and likeness of God, you have inherent dignity. As a human being, you have dignity, you have certain rights. These aren’t rights that a government can give or take away. These are your rights because you are you, just because you were born, just because God created you.” –Joanna Williams, Director of Education at KBI
“Migrants as the human person have something to teach us. And yet, they are marginalized. They are pushed aside, they are not seen, they are not heard, they are not valued, the are pushed outside.” –Rev. Sean Carroll, Executive Director at KBI
“It’s what we really do to the least of us that defines us.”– Isabel Garcia, Immigration lawyer
“It’s a lot of suffering. One suffers a lot. there are people who say ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. He’s illegal,’ or this or that. But there’s people like me who do it for their families, for their brothers, for their kids. We are all taking this journey, and this is a journey where a lot of people fail and are left behind.” – Jose “Pepe” Guillen, deported migrant
“Many of these people who have decided to take on this migrant journey are not doing it because they want to, they’re doing it because they have to. Part of the need also is the dream, and the dream is that someday they will be able to provide for their families what they’re currently not able to provide and give to them.” – Daniela Vargas, KBI volunteer, daughter of migrant
“Make a friend on the border. I think you’ll learn so much more about the border by knowing a person in depth than you will a concept and having to read a lot about it.”– Natalia Serna, Singer/songwriter
“What gives me hope? That’s a hard question to answer. I have faith that the goodness of God is stronger than any greed or any desire for money in this world. We have to do the little bit we can every day with faith and hope. And more than anything, what gives me hope is the faith of the migrants. A faith that doesn’t fade even against everything they have been through.” – Sister Maria Engracia Robles Robles, M.E., Education/Advocacy at KBI
“The wall that’s a few miles from here would not be there if there weren’t walls between our ears. We have walls. We’ve built walls. We don’t even know they are there, cultural walls. And until those walls are taken down, the other ones won’t fall. They will someday, those walls are coming down. But the ones that put them there in the first place have to come down first.” – John Heidt, Activist
On Saturday, our group went on an interesting adventure. We followed a soft-spoken Quaker man, whose white hair was longer than mine, into the desert in order to gain a better perspective on what migrants go through on their journey north. Our fearless leader, “Lil John” as we called him, took us under barbed wire fences, over walls of rock, and through uneven rocky brush lined with heavily thorned desert plants under the early morning desert sun. I went through 4 bottles of water.
As we moved from the cattle path to the migrant trails, the reality of where I was didn’t really hit until crawling under the second barbed wire fence of the day. While brushing myself off on the other side, someone pointed out a discarded sweater. It looked like it used to be white, but was torn, weathered, and caked with dirt, turning it a stained dark brown. It appeared a migrant had discarded it right before crawling under the barbed wire we’d just come through.
As the trail continued, I noticed the occasional rusty can littering the sides of the trail. After a while, we reached an opening in the valley trail. A small shrine had been erected out of a natural opening in the side of a small cliff. A tree branch to the right of the shrine had gallons of water hanging from strings with messages of prayer and good will written across them in Spanish. On the ground lay several more gallons of water, as well as cans of beans. The shrine itself was decorated with candles, crosses, and images of St. Mary.
It was an incredibly surreal place to see in the middle of a trail that meant death and pain for so many. In the midst of illness, death, injury, and pain that lines this journey for so many, there is a small ray of hope and comfort. Ironically, that aid is provided by a group of activists from the very same nation that at once draws and rejects people. The same country that hunts these migrants down on this journey, also produces people who aid them on the way.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t know what to think about this juxtaposition. I guess it reminded me the more positive aspects of The United States’ system after two weeks of feeling frustrated by my country’s continuous blunders. Out of all the backwards policy, the ability and the choice to help people in need still remains.
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.
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.