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.
I anticipated that I would finish the five weeks with new knowledge of immigration, the ability to turn a camera on and other practical skills every journalism student should know. I had no idea that the knowledge would change me. I know, I know that it sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s true.
Because of Backpack… I am a seeker of truth.
Because of Backpack… I am margin traveler.
Because of Backpack… I am a listener.
Because of Backpack… I am a team player.
In my first blog, I wrote about how I am a “Yes Woman.” And even though I found this trip by saying no, it taught me that it is almost always right to say yes. By saying yes to the early morning B-roll, the extra interview, the longer explanation… I have learned so much and gained an incredible amount of confidence. It is Because of Backpack that I have grown as a writer, a film maker and as a friend. Saying yes, even to something that scared me, has been the greatest decision of my life.
Because of Backpack… I am thankful.
So, what is something I can do differently based upon what I learned? I can stop worrying about needing to say no and start embracing my love of yes.
My comfort zone is located in several odd locations: any rollercoaster, local coffee shop, or airplane.
However, you won’t find it anywhere near spicy food.
You won’t find it by a scorpion.
You definitely won’t find it behind a camera.
After two weeks of hanging out with all of the above, it felt incredible to be welcomed back with words.
I was in my element in Hitchcock 203. The satisfaction of seeing the story sprawled out on the surface was spectacular. (Side note: I love alliteration. Can you tell?) I loved collaborating with my teammates and organizing our hundreds of pages of material. It was much harder than expected to make the cuts; I wish our movie could be a day long, but I don’t know any film festivals with that requirement.
Overall, I loved reading the interviews again. That’s when I knew we had something special, when I was excited to read an interview that I already knew by heart. The writing team would shout out great quotes from the transcript they were reading and we would all comment on how much we adored it. Praise for our people became a regular pastime in that room. I hope… No, I know that we will make them proud.
I have a wonderfully excited feeling about this film and I cannot wait for you to watch it.
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.
When I studied abroad in Rome last year, one of my favorite professors forbid photographs. He would take us to the most beautiful churches in the world and go absolutely ballistic if he saw a student snap a photo.
Despite my initial annoyance, I learned how to appreciate whatever was in front of me (something very hard to do nowadays). Besides filming and updating the Snapchat, I didn’t take pictures during my time at the border.
Thankfully, my classmates did.
Here are some of my absolute favorite people/memories:
A lot of our days in Arizona started off very early, whether it be for getting b-roll or to get ready for the long day ahead of us. One day in particular, we were all out of the house we were staying in by 6 in the morning to take an early morning desert walk in Arivaca, Arizona, where we would walkfor two miles on the path that migrants take when they are traveling across the border.
During this walk, we were lead by our tour guide for the day, John Heidt, or as we lovingly called Lil John, who is an activist that works closely with the No More Deaths organization. Throughout the walk, he would give us information one why the route we were taking was a migrant route, and described the grueling journey most of them take to get to this point. We stopped to listen at some points, and even walked to a makeshift shrine made by migrants that had bottles and jugs of water for travelers to drink from. We ourselves left many bottles of water and several cans of food for anyone who would take the trail.
John spoke elegantly about the issue of migration to us and what these travelers go through to make it into the US. One of his statements that stuck with me throughout the trip was about how we, as Americans, tend to have borders in our ears, and unless we take those walls down, we cannot take down the actual wall. I spent a lot of time during the trip reflecting on that particular quote, and understanding that our ultimate goal of the trip was to, in fact, help take down some of those cultural walls through the final product of our documentary.
While it was only two miles, it took us about 4 hours to get through the trip, and all of us were completely exhausted by the end of it; and this was only an insignificantly small fraction of the length that migrants who cross the border have to travel. It gave me a slightly better understanding of the hell migrants have to trek through, albeit a very small example of that. It made the drive back to our house much more reflective, trying to imagine walking all the miles that we drove out there to Arivaca. I guess you really can’t understand what others go through until you walk a mile, or a few hundred, in their shoes.
The border is a complicated and sometimes, intense place. One way to wind down after a long, heavy day was to hang out with my incredible Backpack family. While we were there to learn, we laughed a lot and made memories that I will smile about forever. In the style of one of my favorite movies, 10 Things I Hate About You, here are the 10 things that I “hated” about this experience:
I hated stepping outside of my cooking comfort zone.
I hated the way my dance moves looked on Snapchat.
I hated losing my breath from laughing too hard on the long van rides.
I hated the deflated beds that created so many jokes in our room.
I hated being caught as a member of the “mafia” during our silly game.
I hated how my classmates cheated at Tenzi.
I hated the way we all looked out for each other.
I hated the pressure of picking the perfect song when I had the aux cord.
I hated how my cheeks would hurt from smiling during our hilarious dinner chats.
But mostly I hated the way I didn’t hate it, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
There has never been a definitive, defining moment in my life where I thought, “Yes, this is it. This is why I want to be a lawyer.” I’ve just always sort of known.
Although we had been prepared for what happens during Operation Streamline, I still felt a familiar feeling of excitement when I entered the courthouse. I find law and the idea of justice to be intriguing because visiting courts is like taking a peak into my future.
When I entered Operation Streamline, however, I felt shame. There were about 60 captured migrants in chains and headphones. They were quiet and they looked scared. Despite how angry I felt when I saw the chained people, that anger didn’t compare to what I felt when I saw their lawyers. They looked carefree and comfortable. They were standing around casually chatting with each other and laughing while their clients sat alone. These were the people I was supposed to look up to?
Now, the moderator in me has to be fair; I have no idea what the lawyers said to the clients before entering the courtroom. They could have been kind and compassionate, I don’t know. What I do know is that if I were in a new country, surrounded by a language that I didn’t understand and waiting to hear my fate, I wouldn’t want the person who was supposed to be fighting for me to look like they were on a lunch break.
My inner optimist would like to believe that these lawyers are good people. They are defending one of the most vulnerable populations, after all. But I want the migrants to feel respected. I want the process, despite it’s regularity, to be respectable.
Although the whole Operation Streamline process, not just the attorneys, disturbed me. I don’t want it to scare me away from my chose career path; I want it to inspire me to be better.
I guess you could say that it was my definitive, defining moment.
I started writing this blog when our group took a desert walk with the infamous Lil’ John. I was about halfway through it when I found myself holding down the delete button. All 237 perfectly crafted words were erased in a matter of seconds. That was the problem. They were perfectly crafted. They were artificial. It wasn’t me.
I wasn’t prepared for how the desert walk would affect me. Even today, I feel an ache in my stomach when I think about it.
Let me start by saying that I am not much of a hiker, so my first thoughts as I walked through the “moderate to easy “ trail were negative. Our usually silly group seemed more serious as we slipped and stumbled on the path. We were wearing athletic gear, sunscreen, had water and were well rested. But we were all struggling. My selfish, negative thoughts subsided when we stopped to hear Lil’ John talk about the migrants.
For the first time, it was easy to understand the migrant reality. I could imagine why people twist their ankles, run out of water, get lost or lose their life in the desert. It was hard for me to believe that anyone ever made it out.
Even though I was on the border, talking and serving the migrants every day, I couldn’t really comprehend that this was real. For some reason, I didn’t understand what I was seeing until I walked the path in the desert.
The moment that will stick with me for the rest of my life was when I first spotted a shirt. It was long sleeved, grey and looked like something one of my brothers would wear. It was proof. It was a reminder that this was real. That it belonged to someone.
It hurt when that reality hit me. It hurt that I would never know his name or his fate. I wanted to save him and knowing that I couldn’t and knowing that there were thousands out there was crushing. I think about that shirt and the man who left it all the time.
I want people who are against migration to understand that no one would want to walk that desert trail unless they had to. I want those people to think of their families and what they would do to save them. I don’t want them to step into his shoes, I want them to wear the grey shirt.
Yesterday, we said goodbye to Pepe at the comedor. “Tu es una buena Amiga,” you are a good friend, Pepe said to me as I gave him a final hug.
As soon as I stepped off the steps of the comedor onto the sidewalk outside, I lost it. I quickly walked down the sidewalk past my group to hide my sobs.
Pepe is planning on returning to the border on Saturday, the same day we returned to Omaha.
I think there is an inherent part of us that has preferred to accept fantasy over reality since the time of the very first story, however many thousands of years ago. Those stories and fantasies have turned into popular novels and major blockbuster films, often telling incredible stories of doing the impossible. We eat these franchises up; sometimes, they’re even based on true stories.
But, there’s a reason these incredible stories are so incredible. Literally, these stories are often not credible, as in they’re barely believable. They question reality.
Movies and books take us to a place we’re not used to end give us a hero and a happy ending. That’s what we’ve come to expect from stories.
So, when Pepe told us he was crossing again on Saturday, my first instinct might before have been to imagine him triumphantly struggling through the long journey north, only to come out victorious on the other side. I imagined him meeting his son for the first time. Maybe we could get him to Nebraska, or maybe we’d visit him in California, and we’d all have a happy ending.
But the rhetoric I’ve been listening to all week does not tell that kind of story.
So, when Pepe told us he was crossing again on Saturday, I thought of the migrant trail we walked, littered with rusty cans and empty gallons of water, where hundreds of migrants die each year. I thought of Pepe’s injured leg inflicted by the kick of a border patrol agent after Pepe surrendered himself last time. I think of the parade of 75 migrants chained hand and foot in front of a judge where they are given no chance to tell their story. I think of the floods of new migrant faces I’ve seen enter the comedor over the past two weeks, their faces swollen with bee stings and barbed wire injuries, their bodies weak from dehydration, and their limbs bruised from banging around in the back of a caged truck like animals. I think of the cartel, watchful, dangerous, and heavily armed from their perch in the mountains.
This is the reality of this story and the story of hundreds of thousands of others. This is the reality that finally hit me when I put my friend Pepe’s face to the horrors I’d heard this week. That’s the truth and it’s something I’ve never had to face, but now it was literally looking me in the eyes.
Of course, the movie-loving side of me still imagines pepe’s triumphant crossing. That part of me lets me sleep imagining him holding his baby for the first time and tears of joy streaming down his face. It allows me to imagine a system that doesn’t separate father from son, a system that looks into individual cases of deportation and asks the migrants, “why did you come here?” instead of “do you plead guilty?”. It’s a system people are fighting for and that gives me hope for a happy ending, but for now things are broken and people like Pepe don’t really have a chance and people like me are able to offer little but a choked up “Bueno suerte,” good luck.
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.