All posts by Maria Watson


This experience has transformed my understanding of community in a number of ways.

We’ve seen how the border lands can harden the hearts of people through grueling physical challenges of the desert and the threatening control of the cartel, but we’ve also seen how the community there can heal any physical or emotional wounds. For every heartbreaking story, we heard two hopeful stories of people working together towards justice.

Community is the fuel of every fire there — fires of hope, justice, dreams, spirituality, friendship, and family. There is more of an emphasis on community than anything else. Poverty emphasizes living within the means, and finding faith in reality, however simple.

Living simply without man-made pressures of excessive materialism has allowed these people to focus on community and relationship. These people don’t work for nicer cars, branded watches, or giant houses — they work for their families and children to have better lives. They find joy in community — the intersection of communication and unity.

Communication, in its many forms, connects people across different realities to unify us all in the common threads of our humanity. Laughter, smiles, tears, hugs — the kind of communication that does not require words, are the types of gestures that transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. Where norms, expectations and values vary across different political and economic cultures, these types of communication remind us that no matter our differences, we’re all created in the same likeness of God. We, as humans, possess all of the same emotional capacities of love and compassion, but also heartbreak.

A symbol of peace and love on the wall in downtown Nogales, Sonora
A symbol of peace and love on the wall in downtown Nogales, Sonora

It has been fulfilling to be reminded of these consistencies of humanity, and carry those memories with me beyond the border lands. In addition to that, I am particularly grateful to have been able to record these intentional conversations (i.e. interviews) and images of the reality of Nogales and bring them home to share with the world.

I was reminded of the way communication can unify the communities of migrants and activists in Nogales. I was reminded of the way communication allowed us to be in solidarity with these people, despite cultural barriers. And I was also reminded of the way documentary-style communication can bear witness to the rest of the world. Our documentary has taken on a life of itself. Now the stories we heard won’t end with us, they’ll continue on to plant seeds with anyone willing to listen.

Desert Living

Having lived in the midwest my entire life, it’s always been baffling to me that there are so many beautiful plants that thrive off of little to no water in the desert.

A tall cactus in Saguaro National Park.

The vision of brightly colored flowers blooming alongside pricklies on cacti is like dipping french fries in a milkshake — two things that you’d never think would go together, but seem to complement one another beautifully.

Every time I would see beautiful flowers on cacti, I would stop and take a photo. I started thinking about parallels of plants that adapt and thrive beautifully in the desert, realizing that people have done the same thing in the borderlands.

Hearing stories of extreme poverty from migrants and Kino volunteers, it was constantly inspiring to me that everyone still remembered how to smile and laugh. Just like the cactuses have a beautiful flower here and there, the people of Nogales have learned to live beautifully, with joy, hope and faith despite such hardship.

Nogales-2 Nogales-4 Nogales-16 Nogales-8

Our immersion as told by Inside Out

After two longs days of driving, we arrived back in Omaha from Nogales on Saturday. The closer we got to Omaha, the more nervous I was about being back in my reality. I don’t usually do well with transitions, especially fast ones. I spent all Sunday running errands and catching up on life things, and made plans to watch a movie with my sister and some friends for Monday night. Inside Out was showing at Midtown Crossing, and it’s one of the best movies of all time in my books.

I sat on a zebra print blanket completely at peace — good friends, good weather, good people watching. A perfect summer night. As the movie started getting good, I thought about what a great tool it would be to use the emotion characters as a starting point in processing some of what we’ve just seen at the border.


Sadness: I experienced sadness most in moments of listening, and silence. Stories of families torn apart by immigration policy, limbs lost in the journey north, statistics of unidentified dead bodies — hearing these inconceivable stories broke my heart and left me speechless every single day. Our reflections were life-giving, but also left me feeling incredibly sad. Most of the stories shared revolved around an overwhelming sadness, and sometimes even feelings of hopelessness. It was comforting, though, to know that I was not the only one feeling disheartened at times. John once told us that it is often heartbreaking, witnessing suffering truly opens our hearts.

Joy: I felt joy just as often as I felt sadness, and the confidence that each day would also bring joy is really what kept me waking up every morning. That same promise of joy is what gave the people at the border strength and hope for a future of justice and love — seeing the hope in their faces gave me great amounts of joy. I felt joy in the backpack journalism team, working together to tackle technical difficulties, road trips, and dinner plans.

Fear: I was most afraid when I would hear stories about the power of the cartel. It is terrifying to me that an unregulated organization is so strong and overpowering in such a poor and vulnerable community. They capitalize on migrants at their weakest points in life, offering them a brighter future in exchange for a commitment to their mission. How could someone with nothing say no to someone promising them the world?  Terrifying.

Disgust: I was disgusted when we sat through an Operation Streamline  process. We watched first time illegal entry offenders get processed and sentenced to as many as three months in prison after spending 20 seconds in front of a judge, all while shackled at their hands and feet.

Anger: I was most angry when I thought about how systematically unjust this system is. It’s become increasingly systemized as years go on, and American policy has such little respect for our fellow humans, our neighbors. I’m angry at the American people for letting this happen, and refusing to listen to the cries for help of the people in the border lands.

All of these emotions roll into this backpack journalism experience so far, and all I can think about now is how excited I am to have a tangible product to show off. I’m excited for us to bear witness and share these testimonies with anyone that’s willing to open their ears and hearts to our message.


Top 9 quotes

As a journalist with a crappy memory, I have learned to avidly write down powerful quotes that I want to remember forever. After looking through all of my notes from our trip, these are the 9 that stand out to me the most:

  • “The challenge of immigration politics is that it is driven by fear”
  • “Celebrate resilience, give into moments of joy”
  • “What’s most personal is most universal”
  • “Try to listen to the space so you’re aware of what’s around you with an open heart”
  • “The border wall would not exist if we did not have borders between our ears”
  • “May she rest in peace, and may we be restless for peace”
  • “You can’t build a wall against hope”
  • “When you stop asking questions, you become complacent with the situation”
  • “You have worth. You deserve to be treated as a human being — I think that’s something we all need to hear”

Warm hearts and warm tortillas

“We hold that there is a strict difference between eating and dining. We eat at fast-food places with the emphasis on ‘fast.’ We hardly take time to taste the fried whatevers. We are usually double-tasking while merely doing away with a sense of hunger. Dining is more relational, takes time, involves tasting, enjoying and being more present. Dining creates memories, not merely of the food, but of those with whom we dine. It is a “slow-food” process moving the diners to gratitude for the whole experience of food and friends. Eating is often self-centered while dining is usually interpersonal and therefore creative, both individually and interpersonally, of those dining together. Reflection in the Ignatian tradition is rooted in God’s creating us and our being available to that process by attempting to be present at the table of our lives.”

This is a quote from an article called “The Nature and Importance of Reflection” that Creighton’s beloved resident Jesuit best friends Father Gillick and Father Carlson distributed to Creighton seniors through Ignatian Wisdom Groups this past fall.

This paragraph has stuck with me, leading me to do a lot of reflecting on the difference between eating and dining over this past year. Most recently, I started thinking about the connections between eating, dining and ritual. Rituals come in two different packages. Some daily rituals include brushing your teeth, drinking water, or catching up on the news. Rituals in the Catholic Church are more sacred in their essence but also in the fact that they are less regularly partaken in — Eucharist, confession, and Christmas are weekly, monthly, and yearly rituals.

Eating is a daily ritual, necessary for life. But is it a daily ritual of necessity, like sleeping, or is it more than that? A rumbling stomach in the middle of a busy day is more likely to lead to daydreams about what kind of food we will consume, rather than who we will share our meal with. If doing away with hunger is treated as a more sacred ritualistic experience of gratitude for both food and friends, it becomes a holistic and fulfilling experience in a number of ways.

How would our daily lives change if we treated the daily ritual of eating with sacred care  — transforming this thrice daily activity into dining? If we focused less on consumption, and more on community? What if every dinner was as intentional as a birthday, Thanksgiving, or Christmas dinner?

Some of the CU backpack team preps for an afternoon meal at Kino Border Initiative's comedor

This past week, I’ve had a renewed understanding of how meals can fill more than just an empty stomach — and how an experience of dining in community, even in the midst of tragedy, can bring joy and laughter. We’ve spent the past 7 days immersed in learning about the culture of the Kino Border Initiative, an organization that, among many things, creates a warm, welcoming space for migrants to share meals together every single day. Empty stomachs are never an inconvenience at Kino, and every meal is treated like a celebration and a gift.

Any and every migrant is welcomed at Kino with warm smiles and warm tortillas. The guests that dine at the comedor are dehumanized and demoralized every day through harsh immigration control enforcement and negative stereotyping, even from their Mexican peers. How could they ever find faith and hope in these conditions on an empty stomach?! In fulfilling basic needs of food and drink, and escalating the experience to truly empower guests, reminding them of their inherent love and worth in Christ, Kino Border Initiative provides a flame of hope in very dark times.

A mural of Mary holding a blessed loaf of bread painted on the wall at Kino Border Initiative

Building America

On Tuesday morning, my alarm went off at 3:45 am, and after a few hits of the snooze button and a couple cups of coffee, our 16-person backpack journalism squad rolled out to a local hilltop neighborhood to film some sunrise b-roll. As the sun inched over two neighboring cities of the same name, a long and looming copper wall became more and more evident rising and falling with the dessert hills.

Over the past four days, we’ve spent equal amounts of time in loaded silence and hysterical laughter. Hearing stories that challenge our understandings of life in all its forms makes us forget how tired we are from dessert heat, emotional roller coasters, and 12+ hour days. During late nights and early mornings, I’ve had many opportunities to blog about how this experience has been so far, but I just haven’t been able to find the words.

Every interview, conversation, observation and reflection makes me more and more confused about the reality of migration. The Olivia Pope ‘fixer’ in me gets frustrated with every new piece of information, as it makes a realistic solution seem even further out of reach.

My fixer instinct was particularly defeated in seeing a train marked with “Union Pacific – Building America” cruising past downtown Nogales on the Mexican side, through a gate opening in the wall, and straight into the US. As this train is “Building America” by delivering cheaply produced goods from Mexican factories to American consumers, Mexican citizens wait in line for 20 years for the chance to be called American and treated as such.

This raises the question — how deeply rooted and systematically unjust is the relationship between the US and Mexico, and how does that relationship trickle down to affect individuals every day? Union Pacific, headquartered in downtown Omaha, employs dozens of Creighton students. Are they contributing? I love to eat avocado toast for breakfast, and “Avocados from Mexico” brand avocados are tasty and cheap. Is my avocado addiction to blame?

Father Peter Neeley, a Jesuit and the Assistant Director of Education at Kino Border Initiative, believes that the dehumanization of migrants comes down to American people valuing things over people. We care a lot about keeping the prices of our favorite goods and foods low, and as a result, economic dependence on cheap Mexican labor continues. Yet, criminalization and dehumanization of migrant populations stimulates a culture of fear despite economic dependency.

For me, comprehending all this comes down to a single quote: “to live fully, we must learn to use things and love people, and not love things and use people.” With this in mind alongside inspiration from the love and passion of the people that have dedicated their lives to working towards resolving this issue, it seems that hope and faith can be found in knowing that the sun will rise over the wall again tomorrow with a solution somewhere down the road.

An Unexpected Moment of Perspective

Anger. Defeat. Annoyance.

Tonight I spent what felt like hours crafting the perfect blog post to succinctly wrap up my first two days of this experience, and a slip of the thumb erased all of my hard work. I threw the iPad at my air mattress out of equal parts shock and exhaustion. After having been awake since 3:45 this morning to shoot b-roll, I had a long day of working hard, all for my blog post to disappear forever. ‘You don’t deserve this.’ were the exact words that crossed my mind.

You don’t deserve this.

It’s been a long two days — a long two days of hearing stories of people that have lost loved ones, possessions, limbs, and dignity fighting for something that they believe they deserve, and still, I was so worked up about losing probably an hours worth of work. I asked myself in exasperation whether or not I should stay awake to rewrite the post because I deserve as much sleep as I can get, and yet the people we met over these past two days at the Kino Border Initiative may very well be settling down for their night’s sleep in a box in a back alley right this second.

Guilt. Complication. Perspective.


With less than 8 hours before we hit the road to head to Nogales, I really should be getting some rest, but I’m much too excited.

After five days of weirdly exhausting boot camp, I couldn’t be more antsy to get to work.

I’m a strongly visual person, and so when I daydream about the future, a strong image usually comes to mind. In this case, I have no strong image, no vague image, no image at all in imagining what lies ahead.

The next two weeks are so close I can feel my heart beginning to race, but I truly have no idea what I’m getting myself into here.

More than anything, I’m overwhelmed and overjoyed with a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for a university that values faith and justice. Gratitude for professors that invest their entire hearts and souls to the Jesuit mission. Gratitude for an opportunity to put four years of study, reflection, practice, and intentionality to work in one last Creighton adventure. And last, but not least, one last road trip in the good old 12-passenger vans.

Nogales, here we come!!!

Pope Francis saying "gracias"
My favorite Popemoji is particularly appropriate today

Faith That Does Justice? Faith in Injustice?

After 72 hours of backpack journalism bootcamp, I lie in my bed absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed at how much information we’ve received, but confident that we’re making notable progress.

So far, we’ve spent some time learning about the art and technique of videography, foundations of feature writing, and introductory theology. More than anything, I feel as though today marks a huge turning point — the foundation has been set, and it’s time now to dive in.

We all have the skills now to “fake it ’til we make it” and from this point forward, I feel as though we’ll be applying these last three days of information constantly, pushing ourselves to live and breathe light meters, to begin to raise questions about our own personal definition of church, and to think about how to ask those same questions of others in a respectful but intentional manner.

Much to my surprise, I’m pretty excited to see how the theology class ties into our project. I was expecting videography training, dos and don’ts of interviewing, and a crash course in good storytelling, but the biggest curveball for me so far has been wrapping my head around tying theology into our agenda.

We’re working our way towards a better understanding of ecclesiology — the study of church. Specifically, we’ll be discussing the definition of church within the context of border culture in Nogales.

This past fall, my understanding of church expanded tenfold when I was blessed with an opportunity to travel to Philadelphia to join a million and a half others in celebrating Pope Francis’s visit to the US. As we held hands and recited the Our Father, giving each other peace in the streets of downtown Philadelphia, I had goosebumps witnessing faith and mass ritual bring people from all over the world together in prayer. My own definition of church changed that day, and I’m looking forward to seeing how migrant culture challenges that even further.

Christian traditions are practiced all over the world, but with each culture brings a new interpretation and understanding of faith and community. As we continue to prepare ourselves technically and emotionally for this border immersion experience, I have found myself newly ecstatic to experience and absorb a new and different definition of “church,” as understood by the people of Nogales.

In the midst of such trial, transiency, and systematic injustice, how do migrants keep their faith? How do those serving humanitarian purposes in that area find strength to keep working towards a distant goal? How do those negatively affected by an increasing number of immigrants strive to live like Christ?

A Voice for Hope, Hopefully

Greetings! Maria Watson here, facing a daunting task of putting words to my hopes and anticipations for my Backpack Journalism experience.

I recently (two days ago) graduated from the beautifully Jesuit Nebraskan paradise, Creighton University. Is there a more appropriate way to celebrate my newly acquired “adult” status than to have one last earth-shattering Creighton-led immersion?

For those of you unfamiliar, Catholic Jesuit philosophy serves as the backbone of the Creighton experience, challenging students to love more, serve others for the greater glory of God, care truly for each human we encounter, and believe in the power and beauty of community, faith, and justice. It pushes us to think about life through lenses of empathy, critical thought, and hopefulness.

With that in mind, it’s all too natural that the Journalism and Theology departments here at Creighton partner to host a “Backpack Journalism” program that travels the world searching for stories that have the ability to shed new light on faith and justice issues in the greater community outside of our own Creighton bubble. Students and faculty/staff members work together to create a documentary striving to capture the essence of culture witnessed and stories told during the experience.

This year, I’m honored to be a part of this adventure, and in only five days, twelve students and four faculty/staff members will be packing up two twelve-passenger vans to make the 20+ hour trek to Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. We will be spending the following two weeks exploring stories of migration from both sides of the Mexican-American border.

So why did I choose to embark on this pilgrimage, you may ask?

With a deeply rooted love and appreciation for both Jesuit tradition and journalism, I have dreamt of being a part of the Backpack Journalism experience since I was a freshman at Creighton. I was ecstatic when I learned that the project this year would center around border culture because it’s an increasingly relevant issue in today’s world. I absolutely love the idea of being a voice for the voiceless to shed a bit of light on the migrant situation in the midst of such controversy and political tension — hopefully fostering at least a little bit of hope along the way.

While I have heard from many that I will walk away from Nogales with a broken heart for the people suffering from the injustices of the system, I have faith that we will find some strength in learning about the selfless individuals that live and serve on the border as their vocation at the Kino Border Initiative. I’m not sure exactly what we’re getting ourselves into here, but I do know that Arizona sunsets and sunrises are the stuff of legends, and no matter what happens, seeing the cycles of the Arizona sun for two weeks will remind me that life continues to be inherently beautiful and that no matter how hard it gets, there is always something to be looking forward to in the coming day.

Arizona sunset from Hole in the Rock in Phoenix, Arizona
Arizona sunset from Hole in the Rock in Phoenix, Arizona – January 2016

Over the course of the next 5 weeks, all of us participants will be writing here to keep you updated on our progress and stories as we dive into the border culture of Nogales. Please, keep us in your prayers for safe travels, strength, and open minds and hearts for what God has in store for us.