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.
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.
There are no easy solutions to immigration. There are issues in every sector and across both sides of the border. The corruption that is the immigration system means that we are far from having a solution.
I can walk away from this project saying that I still don’t understand everything there is to know about immigration. Some of the questions I’m left with include:
I need to know why we have not had immigration reform before this. I need to know why we are constantly seeking the most simplistic answers to the most difficult questions. I need to know why we cannot band together when we clearly know the wrong of something, but refuse to do anything about it.
I am deeply concerned about my beautiful and wonderful country turning into one I am no longer proud to live in by those who wish to turn us back in time to “ greed is good.”
I can only hope those dearest to me will not drop the ball, but fight for the rights of all who are here to live in this land and respect the people who have come here for a better life.
This experience has drastically changed what I thought about immigration. I went in thinking one thing and left with thinking another.
I encourage whoever is reading this blog to educate themselves on immigration. It is a very real situation that is happening right outside. Seek out sources and individuals that challenge your current way of thinking.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
It’s one thing to have knowledge about large-scale issues, but it’s another to see the face of those affected by the issue up close.
I can recall vaguely how my understanding of immigration has evolved over the years. When I was younger, I remember hearing the term “illegal immigrant” and thinking of all of the negative connotations that went with it. Immigrants broke the law, and then they took American’s jobs.
As I grew a little bit older, I was better able to empathize for illegal migrants, as I gained a better understanding of why they wanted to flee to America. They wished for a better life, they ran from poverty, they had family in the United States, etc. However, even with these insights, I lacked the capacity to get a solid grip.
It has never really occurred to me that migrants felt guilty for what they had done. I didn’t know they were stigmatized by other Mexicans after being deported and returned to Mexico. I had no idea the level of brutality migrants faced and the dehumanizing measures they suffered after being captured. Worst of all, I didn’t stop to consider that deported migrants accepted this treatment because they thought they deserved it.
In the last three days I’ve seen the passageways, resembling cattle chutes with the one-way turn staffs, where deported migrants are pushed through when they’re returned. I’ve heard stories of families being separated. I’ve stood in the spot where one Mexican was shot merely for throwing rocks over the wall. I’ve seen the faces of newly deported migrants, sad, defeated.
With each interview we complete, we learn so much about the overall challenges with immigration, along with what it looks like on a personal level. I think I need some time to let it all process.
But for now, we’re learning, we’re laughing, we’re crying and we’re sleeping very little.