All posts by Nichole Jelinek

Dreamers Are Not Blind

Time is measured in interviews, outings to capture b-roll and numerous opportunities to bear witness throughout the immersion of the Backpack Journalism journey. The Backpack Nogales group continuously lost track of the demanding days that were filled with time at the comedor with migrants, meeting women and children at the Nazareth House, attending Mass in Arivaca, enjoying meals with our Jesuit hosts, following a migrant path in the Coronodo National Forest and walking Nogales, Sonora.

Union Pacific heading north, “Building America.”

Everyone has a story and each account of a life shapes the tale of humanity. Josseline Hernández Quinteros, a 14 year-old from El Salvador, is part of our story of human existence. We learned that Josseline was attempting to unite with her mother in California and lost her life in the desert not far from where we stood in the Coronodo Forest. At the border, Union Pacific announces on their cars that we’re “Building America” as the trains roll through South and North America. Trucks wait at the checkpoint in Mexico with “God Bless America” printed on their trailers – trailers carrying produce and goods to distribute throughout our country.

The cars and trucks pass and goods are delivered to a land where we pride ourselves on our freedoms and justice for all. Yet we choose to condemn people like Josseline who seek opportunities in a nation that was built by immigrants and migrant workers. We spend billions of dollars each year and have put up a wall along an invisible line to secure the border. We shackle the hands and feet of people who cross this boundary and we call it being tough on crime.

I have asked myself: What circumstances would force me to leave my home? What would it take for me to leave my family? To be labeled a criminal? To face humiliation in a foreign country? How could my best option be to cross the desert and risk the cartel and to risk death? We learned that for every body recovered in the desert it is estimated that ten others are never found. The disappeared leave behind families with no closure. What desperation could drive me to chance never being seen again?

Students walk along the fence in Sonora. The candles represent and honor deceased migrants.

I happened to be reading Blindness by Nobel-laureate José Saramago during our journey. The novel tells the story of a city hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” and Saramago uses the blindness as a metaphor for social and political crisis. The only explanation for the epidemic is offered at the end when a character finally says, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

I know that avoiding eye contact with the homeless man on the street corner in Omaha doesn’t make him go away. I know that even though I’m no longer in Nogales, there are still people being deported through cattle chutes, being dehumanized and losing their lives in the desert hundreds and thousands of miles away from me.

In his Nobel lecture in 1998 Saramago said, “The apprentice thought, ‘we are blind,’ and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.”

Maria Corpuz visiting with a migrant at the comedor.

From Nogales to Omaha, complicated issues abound and we left Nogales with more questions than answers. Despite the tragedy, the complications and sorrow we were witness to during this Backpack Journalism journey we also saw many smiles, much optimism and heard stories of hope and courage for restoring human dignity. Isabel Garcia, Pima County Legal Defender and advocate for immigrants’ rights, spoke of dreamers and of the youth who give her hope.

Backpack students agreed that while the issues are complicated, compassion is not. Students have said these journeys have been one of the best experiences of their lives. These students dream of corgis and keep an ever-growing list of corgi names for the day when they have a pet. These students also have plans to serve as agents of change and to work alongside marginalized people in the world through programs such as the Peace Corps and JVC.  The students come up with hysterical “would you rather” questions and they also come up with serious and engaging questions that target issues of social justice.

This year’s group is made up of dancing queens, including John and Carol. This year’s group mastered the coyote howl, but has yet to master Nico snaps. This year our eyes were opened in Nogales and we were each blessed to be a witness.


A layered learning experience

Today is the last class of Backpack Journalism, Alaska 2014. I recall when the project was in its beginning stages. When those involved were names on a list and email exchanges, and when the program plans were tentative notes on sheets of paper. Now it’s a year and thousands of miles later. It’s hours of video and many faces later, and over the last few weeks those faces have been paired with the names and stories.

Some of these stories have merged into one in the mini documentary. Other stories will be remembered from our experiences with the program. I am still struggling to find an adequate answer for how Alaska was. Alaska was amazing, but Backpack Journalism is a large part of this Alaskan experience. I have been referring people to the blogs, because there is no short answer to describe the program.

Backpack Journalism is a layered learning experience inside and outside of the classroom. Students learn about film making, interviewing, writing, and reporting through a Theological kaleidoscope. The program is also about experiencing another culture and hearing people’s stories and their histories. It’s about getting to know peers and professors, and it is also about understanding the world we live in and learning truths about oneself.

Learning happens all lifelong. This year I have realized that new feelings, good and bad, will also arise throughout life’s happenings. Alaska was full of these moments. Before Alaska I’d never experienced the challenge of walking across tundra. I spent my childhood digging in Nebraska dirt, but never knew what tundra felt like on my fingers. I’d never tasted moose or seal, and had never seen a whale. One night as I dug into the tundra with my bare hands, just because I was curious, there was a moment when I thought I might know what it’s like to be my three year old niece. I understood, and maybe remembered, why digging into the land could be intriguing. As I watched whales for the first time on one of our touristy days I understood why, for a three year old, dandelions, butterflies, and any bird flying over head were reasons for awe and sometimes a tiny celebration of sorts. All these happy distractions are new to her. The tundra and whale watching were new to me. I could not stop smiling as I watched some of them dart through the waves and a pod of Orcas at rest. If I were three I probably would’ve tried to go overboard.

In Alaska we had many moments of humor and lightheartedness that helped to get us through the intense times. We heard a personal story of family tragedy and historical trauma that for many is more like a current trauma. And during a town hall meeting we heard an elder Yup’ik man explain the need for subsistence living off of the Kuskokwim River, but with the help of an English translator. Here was an American, a Native Alaskan, who was speaking his Native language in America, and it wasn’t English. Having first experienced the Bethel, Alaska, and then going to the touristy part of Alaska in Seward I had an unexpected feeling that we didn’t belong there.

The irony of that feeling is that there wasn’t one moment in any part of Alaska where we did not feel welcomed. While we were in a land caught between different cultures, languages, and different value systems there seemed to be a search for a balance between the Yup’ik and Native traditions and Eurocentric traditions.

I had tried to go into the program without any expectations about how it would go, but my thoughts were that it would be students learning how to interview and how to film. However, from what I have witnessed, heard, and experienced myself it is so much more than that. It has been an eye opener about another culture and about American history, and it has been a time for personal growth and awareness. The program also provides an opportunity to get to know individuals in a way that could not happen in a regular semester. Backpack Journalism is five weeks of almost non-stop interaction with one another, from the long hours together to the constant connection through the GroupMe App for text messaging and updates at all hours.

Something great that I learned about this group of people is that they are funny – the levels of sarcasm and laughter were high. I think an important part of life is to take something away from every experience you have and to learn something from the people you meet along the way. I believe that years down the road there will be moments from Backpack Journalism that we will be reminded of, whether it’s the intense moments of a tragic story, the welcoming Alaskan people, the hilarious or insightful moments from Creighton students,  or the simple things like touching the tundra. There will also be a great documentary on important issues as a result of the student’s hard work  and as proof of the faculty’s dedication to this layered learning experience.

flat lands

Tonight was our last night in Bethel. There has been nice weather during our 11 days here, but none like today’s. As I sat under the sun, barefoot, with the transitioning blues above, it felt like home. It felt simple.   Bethel is full of welcoming and kind people who we have had the humbling opportunity to meet and to hear their stories.   During one of the interviews a Yup’ik elder told of his dislike of Anchorage and of the mountains there. If you were to ask most who have lived in Bethel and in the surrounding villages their whole lives they will tell you the land is part of Bethel and what makes this place home to them. The tundra and the Kuskokwim River provide for their subsistence living culture. I thought everyone liked the mountains, but I realized that to this man the mountains were only obstacles. He lasted nine weeks in Anchorage and then returned to Bethel where he could see for days. On Sunday seven of us walked through the town  of about 6,000 people to its edge where we could see the midnight sun. Standing on a spot of earth on the edge of Bethel more than 3,000 miles away from the familiar fields of Nebraska I watched the orange haze hover above the horizon.   I wondered what the evening sky had looked like back home in rural northeast Nebraska. The way the Yup’ik elder feels about the flat tundra is how I feel about the fields of Nebraska. These places are our homes. I can’t watch a sunset in Omaha the way I can in the countryside of my hometown.   I was reminded of the frustration I felt in Omaha when an evening sky caught my eye a while ago. I had gotten into my car and started, what turned out to be failed attempts, to find a satisfactory place to view the sunset. I felt defeated when I knew that by the time I drove out of Omaha it would be too late. Watching the sun melt into the tundra or an open field is different than watching it disappear behind mountains or trees.   At first glance the tundra can even look like a field. I hope everyone has a place where they can go to feel a sense of home and a connection to something or someone. I have that place in Nebraska that is half sky and half field. Now in a place that is very different, yet strangely familiar, I have had a chance for my bare feet to touch the earth more than 3,000 miles away from the land I know and the people who I love. I have felt a connection with Alaska as I watched the midnight sun mingle with the tundra.