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.
Every other 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 across the United States. 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 scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
Pulling the last few weeks together I’ve learned quite a few things. I can officially say I know how to operate my camera fairly efficiently. I’ve learned to cook a few more meals and laugh a little harder. The trip was nothing short of complicated but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The people I traveled with became my good friends. Nights of mafia and golf/garbage made sure that I would never be able to forget them. And honestly that was probably my biggest fear going in, not being able to make friends. I’m both shy and introverted. I have a few close friends and I rarely stray out of that group but all of the amazing people on this trip made it easy to reach out. Sure they made jokes about one another but the jokes were never said in a cruel fashion and I think that made it safe to open up.
My highlights were the evenings, at least the ones where we were awake enough to hang out. I’ve never seen so many dance parties while doing dishes or people willing to create a feast big enough to feed 16. I can now say from experience that from the outside it’s interesting to watch a group grow closer but from the inside it’s amazing.
I only had one real lowlight: Operation Streamline. That’s not to say that the information we were constantly receiving wasn’t hard to process or that it wasn’t devastating to see people at their lowest but neither of those things calcified in my mind as much as Operation Streamline did. The callous court room and general disregard for the migrants’ humanity burrowed under my skin. How could I look at our justice system, which was supposed to be just and humane, and not feel like it was missing the mark in a brutal way? I’ve known for a long time in the form of statistics that the justice system was failing but seeing it played out before my eyes took that knowledge to a new level.
The reality of Operation Streamline led me to think about what I can do. And to be honest I still don’t have an answer beyond advocate and agitate. I know that if I remain silent I am choosing the side of the oppressor, therefore each time the opportunity comes up to discuss these issues I must not remain silent. Beyond that I know there will be opportunities to continue cultivating change, I am just not aware of them at this point.
I know that I have been changed by this trip and I look forward to seeing how those changes take root. I am grateful for the opportunity to have attended this trip and I am glad to call everyone in this class my friend. I am also thankful to you, the readers, for keeping up with this blog and supporting us on our journey.
I’ve always tried to live according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” It’s a simple quote but a high order. To me it means putting aside worldly things like money and consumerist success in favor of holding myself to the standard of helping others, even if helping is just being present with someone.
When I was very young I realized that my general fear of blood and distress in the field of mathematics meant that I would never be a doctor or a nurse. But when I went to Guatemala in tenth grade I learned that there are many ways to help that don’t require a medical license. It was there I decided to become a journalist.
While in Guatemala I read a book called Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti by Gerry Hadden. The book opened my eyes to the world of journalism and the realities of Latin America. Realities that paralleled what I was seeing in the community I was living with. For the first time I felt like there was something I could do to help: write. Visiting the border has only reaffirmed that calling.
The border for me serves as a reminder of what happens when the media capitalizes on fear. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an old journalism adage. I think it is an outdated motto that has unfortunately taken over the journalism world in an effort to keep afloat in an era of citizen journalism. The border reminds me of what happens when journalists fail to report on people. When we dehumanize people because they don’t come from our country, we overlook the human rights violations in favor of supporting our own interests. I hope to be someone who helps change that or who at the very least manages to remind people that there is a world outside our individual bubbles. A world that is crying because of the death and destruction we choose to ignore.
With interviews that often lasted longer than an hour, editing the documentary down to just 25 minutes was a significant challenge. The writing team had its work cut out for them initially; scouring the transcribed interviews for quotes that beautifully summarized everything we had just learned to create a coherent narrative.
Before splitting into our groups as editors and writers, the class built a rough story outline based off Kino’s goals to humanize, accompany, and complicate the issue of immigration.
It was such a natural outline I began to think about how that framework should be used in each story we tell. For example when I talk about my little sister as someone with a disability rather than as a disabled person, I am humanizing her. Her disability is a part of who she is but it is not all that she is. In the same fashion when talking about someone who has been deported, it’s important to remember that they have inherent human dignity, which should be implicit in any retelling of their story. They have been deported but that is only one part of their history, not its entirety.
After seriously considering the idea of the humanize, accompany, and complicate framework, I realized that it’s the way all stories about people should be understood. When I was a younger my pastor put a significant emphasis on learning how to listen deeply. Listening deeply implies that the listener isn’t thinking about how they will respond to the speaker but rather the listener is genuinely engaged with the speaker’s narrative.
While the bottom line is that the general audience will get what they want out of a story, its incredibly important to build every story off this framework. Even in fictional writing, telling a tale about a person without humanizing them makes it impossible for the intended audience to reap the message. Harry Potter wouldn’t be much of a story if all we knew about him was that he was an orphan.
Although our documentary veered off this track later in the week, because it was originally built with that outline, the story accomplishes those goals. It tells a story that we as a Jesuit university can be proud of because it maintains the principle of inherent human dignity in all persons.
The ride home in our van was quiet (and by quiet I mean I was asleep for most of the ride and probably couldn’t tell you whether it was noisy or not). But during the moments I was awake and even the ones where I wasn’t, the camaraderie between everyone was unmistakable. As we sat at Dr. Zuegner’s friend’s house, we told jokes and laughed with one another like we’d known each other for years instead of just a few weeks.
For better or for worse our shared experience on this trip was a bonding agent and I like to think it was for the better. Over the two weeks in Arizona we saw each other through some good times and some hard times. We cried and laughed, we talked about the afterlife and Dr. O’Keefe’s love of Taylor Swift. We’ve practiced meditation beside a lake and learned about some of the terrifying situations migrants face.
In my experience bonds like the one our class has aren’t built by casual interactions. They are built on the foundation of something arduous. In our case it was immigration. Watching the dehumanization on both sides of the border is difficult to say the least and yet our group handled it by being there for one another. At night we sang and danced. We played mafia and tenzi. We bonded by being vulnerable with one another whether in games or reflections or even just discussing what we had seen and heard that day.
That bond is what makes the trip home so bittersweet. When we get home we’ll be pulled back into our routine. We’ll continue to meet and sing the coyote song until our rough cut is finished and then we will go our separate ways.
There is no walking away from a trip like this without feeling some sadness at the prospect of it ending. When we get home there will be no playing mafia together in the evening or dancing to Dr. Zuegner’s excellent playlists. There will be only the knowledge that we are tied together by an experience inexplicable to those who have never built friendships in rough terrain, so to speak.
I feel close to each and every person in our group. I am glad to have shared the hard times and the good times over those two weeks with this specific group of people. I know that each of them will carry a place in my heart for a long time to come.
While I pack my bag for the final time, I think about the things I am bringing home with me. I am not only bringing home several bumper stickers that support the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office or a beautiful cross painted by one of the migrants. I am bringing home the stories, the smells, the exciting and disappointing events of this trip. I am bringing home the seeds of change as one of our interviewees so eloquently put it.
These seeds are perhaps the greatest gift because they grow each time they are planted. Every time our group tells a story or shows our film, we are cultivating change. And like any plant, the seeds we sow must be tended to; therefore our group must never grow complacent. A difficult task in Nebraska, so far from the border and its problems, but the people we’ve encountered while on this trip will undoubtedly stay with us for the rest of our lives. Their stories will guard against our complacency and motivate us to continually agitate for change.
As a writer whenever I am surrounded by people with such fascinating and heart-wrenching stories it’s difficult not to write about them in some form. But in the context of a blog I struggle to pen even one story because their depth beyond what I can encompass successfully in 500 words. In addition because I cannot separate my emotions from these stories it is impossible for me to accurately compose them for a general audience. Maybe one day I will be able to write about them with enough emotional distance to be coherent, but for now their sheer intensity is so overwhelming I am unable to do them justice.
As a videographer (although I certainly wouldn’t call myself that) I have learned to capture reality in its raw emotional state while contributing to a project I hope will plant seeds of change. I am proud of our group for the massive stockpile of footage that we have collected together in expectation of creating this documentary. And I am proud because I know that this group has worked hard over the past two weeks to illuminate the dark side of immigration in the United States.
As a person I have learned that hope is something both fragile and resilient. There is hope for reform along the border, even if the road to it is long and arduous. The people at the Kino Border Initiative inspire me to believe in the idea of humane migration as a possibility because they hold onto hope with the tenacious grip of faith.
In short planting seeds of change is a slow process that yields bountiful rewards to those who tend them. Each person, each discussion, each hot desert hike, waters the seeds and cultivates change.
While in Arizona the majority of people we interviewed were against the wall. But in an effort to not seem biased, we also interviewed one couple that considers themselves staunchly pro-wall.
The Chilton’s own about 50,000 acres of land on the border. They are a friendly, older couple that has owned their land for about 30 years. According to them, in that time they’ve seen the people crossing their land go from migrant workers to drug smugglers. Entering their house it’s easy to see fear that the cartel’s presence has instilled in them. Guns and other weapons are easily accessible from almost any point in the expansive house.
As we set up the interview, Jim Chilton shows us some of the footage he’s filmed of people crossing. Each person is carrying a large backpack, which he contends holds drugs. Some are also wearing carpet shoes, which are essentially pieces of carpet sewn together to go over a person’s shoes and thus prevent a visible trail. He has a large collection of these shoes on his front porch that he has found over the years on his property.
During the interview Sue Chilton discusses how securing the border is the only logical option for ranchers like her and her husband, whose land is separated from Mexico by a barbed wire fence. She talks about the necessity of humane migration and the need for a border patrol that actually patrols the border. She elucidates the viable fear of the cartel watching their every move, which is proven by the cameras they install on known trails, being turned upside down by masked men on occasion. Over the course of her interview she’s made a some interesting and fair points in her argument. To make it absolutely clear: I will never support either the proposed wall or the wall currently in existence. However, I sympathize with the fear of finding drugs on your land and the cartel’s constant presence.
When I was originally told we would be interviewing ranchers who were pro-wall I decided that I probably would not like them on principal. But after meeting them, attending mass with them, and hearing their side of the story I find myself unable to say that they are unlikable. They’ve built water fountains off of their watering stations for people passing through their land and they carry water with them at all times should they see anyone who might need it. They have seen a different side of this issue and while I disagree with their solution to it; I recognize that they are people trying their hardest to do what is best for themselves and what is right in the eyes of God.
Operation Streamline. Every thing you need to know about this state sanctioned program is in the name. It’s all about efficiency. Essentially Operation Streamline works to efficiently process and convict undocumented migrants. It requires that states utilizing Streamline charge undocumented workers with a federal crime in order to deter others from crossing the border.
At its worst Streamline is a massive violation of human rights, at its best it’s a drain on the federal system and a waste of taxpayer money. After watching a Streamline court session I feel like it’s closer to a violation of human rights than anything else.
As our group sits in the courtroom, we look at the 50 or more people sitting in front of us waiting for their chance plead guilty. They’re shackled at the waist, arms, and feet despite committing a non-violent offense. The judge reads off their rights as a group while a translator quietly communicates the judge’s words in Spanish through a headset given to each charged person. Then they are called up in groups of five, with their lawyers, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor so that the federal court will drop the felony charge. It’s systematic. The judge doesn’t ask anyone why they chose to cross and no one provides an answer. Before you know it the group of five has been sentenced and are walking out in their shackles.
The idea that something so quick and concise counts as due process is ludicrous. A truly just system would recognize that prosecuting people for trying to make a better life for themselves is a surface level response. It doesn’t deal with the question of why. Why are people migrating? Why are people claiming asylum? Why is there such systemic violence in these countries?
There is no simple answer to any one of these questions. If it were really as simple as the left or right make it, then immigration issues would have been solved years ago. The problem with issues like immigration is that they’re multifaceted. They contain dimensions far more complex than what Streamline addresses, which is why it’s such an ineffective practice. Leaving large groups of people with criminal records for the crime of pursuing a better life is a failure of the U.S. justice system.
The good news is that several states have already eliminated Streamline and the remaining states will follow suit with enough pressure. It is therefore our duty to raise our voices in protest of unjust laws and operations like Streamline.
The abuses by the U.S. Government in foreign countries are well documented if under-reported by the media. They generally occur in militarized areas and the border is no exception. It was here that Jose Antonio lost his life at the hands of a border patrol agent.
Jose Antonio was a regular kid until he, through death, became the center of an international conflict (conflict in this instance referring to conflicting ideologies and laws, not war or military incidents). He was shot while he was out walking by a border patrol agent* who claims someone was tossing rocks at the wall to distract attention from drug runners hopping the fence back into Mexico. The officer, from the U.S. side, emptied his entire clip into Antonio before reloading and firing several more shots. Without a warrant. Without a warning. And without justification.
The officer claims that because Jose Antonio was walking on the Mexican side, he and his family have no legal standing for either a criminal or a civil suit. While the family has successfully seen both cases go before a judge, both suits are pending (the government has agreed to prosecute the officer but maintains no wrongdoing was committed). A small statue of a cross marks the place where Antonio took his last breath.
Over the past few days I’ve been contemplating the story of the Good Samaritan in the context of this abhorrent crime. It was pointed out to me recently that while the Good Samaritan story has often been interpreted as a parable about treating neighbors with kindness, it is also a critique of law. When the priest and the Levite passed the dying man, they were simply following the laws of cleanliness. Their actions are not unkind, they are in fact righteous in the context of their law.
The failure of U.S. Government to do anything on Jose Antonio’s behalf is an example of the passive excuse: “I was just following the rules”. But for a country founded on the idea of liberty and in protest of unfair laws, isn’t it ironic that the response has been so passive?
It seems callous to say that I am not a part of the problem. On our desert walk the leader said “We would not have a wall if we didn’t have walls in here” as he pointed to his ears. What walls have we placed between us and reality to ignore the world and all of the pain in it? What unjust laws do we follow blindly because we either don’t know about them or choose to ignore them in favor of blissful ignorance?
A wall, a division, a separation, a classic us versus them represented in a physical object. The insanity of trying to build a wall isn’t lost on me and so, armed with a little bit of wifi I compiled a list of 4 reasons why the wall is not only idiotic but ultimately destructive.
1. It violates a major treaty
The Treaty of November 23, 1970 served as the final say in the territorial lines between Mexico and the U.S. Building a longer wall would only create more problems in terms of territory. For example, the treaty stipulates that within a certain distance of the border nothing can interfere with the flow of water, a wall would without a doubt do just that.
4. What other countries have walls
Take a minute and think about other countries with prominent walls either in their history or currently in effect. Three main walls come to mind: the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea. When most people think of the Great Wall of China they think of the monumental wall that has become a symbol of China’s history and a popular tourist attraction. The simple fact is that the Great Wall was built by a conscripted labor force too poor to protest. The more historically conscious the world becomes, the more people begin the recognize the unjust conditions under which this wall was built. The Berlin Wall and the Demilitarized Zone (which isn’t a wall by engineering standards but is still a strictly enforced border that holds to some of the same concepts as the proposed wall between Mexico and the U.S.) both have histories deeply intertwined with violence. Given these prominent examples it’s hard to imagine such a historically and symbolically violent image being associated with the U.S
*Because my understanding of these topics is not quite as nuanced nor do I have the authority to speak to the subjects at any great length, I have attached articles to explain these reasons.
The trip to Nogales was relatively uneventful until we got to Arizona. That’s where the full impact of the ridiculous things we call borders set in. Driving further south we passed a border patrol checkpoint while nearby an ominous drone flew overhead. The whole area felt as though the U.S. was trying to say “you’re not welcome here,” which in truth is exactly what it’s supposed to say.
When I was a kid I listened to an impassioned sermon from my pastor about the evils of the men and women who purposely go into the desert to remove aid for the people crossing the border. They shoot water jugs and remove food and directional aids but manage to sleep soundly at night convinced they are protecting their country. I couldn’t, and still can’t, fathom the hatred in these people’s hearts that would make such a heinous act seem like an act of patriotism. As we near the border I am struck by the cruelty of their actions all over again. When we stop for gas the heat feels oppressive and it’s impossible to crossing these large expanses of desert with only the supplies you can carry.
There is a great contrast on this ride between the beauty of the land and the peril it holds both naturally and as the result of humanity. When did the fear of others begin to trump our basic humanity? When did we lose our empathy as a nation? Of course, people throw out arbitrary dates and false statistics in defense of their xenophobia and to them this seems like a normal response but for me it’s impossible to imagine the hate. Does it eat them alive on the inside? Does it seep into their everyday lives without their knowledge? These questions stick to me as we wind our way to the house where we will stay for the duration of our time in Nogales.
It doesn’t help that I am reading Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, which confronts similar questions in the context of the death penalty. In the book she discusses aptly how there is a side to everything and to be certain that’s true. There’s more to the issue than what we’ve scratched off the surface.