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’m not sure where the two weeks went that we spent in Nogales. It’s a blur of work, of intense experiences, of laughter, of tears, of learning about migration, our country, ourselves. I have said it before and I’ll say it many times again: John O’Keefe, Nico Sandi, Nichole Jelinek and I are blessed to work with such a terrific group of students.
Their dedication to the project, to the learning and to the community we built is something to be treasured. John, Tim Guthrie (one of our team who couldn’t make this trip) and I often say we want to make a good movie, but our main goal is to make good people. We have much work to do in the next one and one-half weeks. What we experienced will sink in with reflection and time away. I am confident this year we will have a good film. We already have good people.
Being home is lo
vely. My dog. My bed. My house. But as I try to tell family and friends about my experiences over the past two weeks, I am a little at a loss for words. How can I adequately explain that moment in the Kino Border Initiative comedor when Sister Alicia — playing a simple game of gestures — brings smiles to the faces of men who have been and still are lost and struggling? How can I describe the stark desert landscape scarred by the metal, rusting wall that seems to symbolize inhumanity?
I am confident the words of those we interviewed and the compelling footage we shot will help bring those stories to life. Our task is a heavy burden, but one we welcome. As Pope Francis said when he went to the America-Mexico border earlier this year: Instead of measuring migration with statistics, “we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”
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?”