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.
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.
As we continue to edit and piece together our film, major themes are rising to the surface, particularly the meaning of family in regards to immigration. This theme holds a lot of meaning to me not only in the film but in my personal experience in Nogales as well.
A woman we interviewed, Daniela, is the daughter of migrants and is a nursing student in graduate school at the University of San Francisco. Daniela spent several days with us and it was a joy to get to know her and understand her personal narrative in the complexity of this issue. Somehow a connection was made that Daniela knew my aunt, a fellow nurse who spoke at a bioethics conference in California and Daniela met her and spoke with her. I was astounded at how small our world is, what are the odds we ended up on this trip together with this personal connection to someone who I hold so dear to my heart and someone who Daniela knew and respected?
I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Daniela on camera, and it was easily one of the hardest parts of the entire trip for me. Daniela is so passionate about her family, migration, nursing, volunteering, and giving back to a community that has touched her life so personally. There was not a dry eye in the room and it was difficult to even fathom the struggles Daniela’s family has gone through to get to this point in their lives.
Daniela reflected on the meaning behind the sacrifices her family had made to see her succeed and how proud they are of her. It was impossible for me not to think of my aunt, this common bond Daniela and I shared, and how meaningful her presence in my life has been. She is one of the strongest, most compassionate people I know and love, and I couldn’t imagine my life without her in it.
Daniela’s story was touching in so many ways and I am genuinely grateful to have been able to hear her story and convey that to a larger audience. Her story is just one narrative amongst many migrants, each unique, significant, and raw in their own way.
So thankful for these hooligans. I’m grateful for everything that they have taught me about journalism, theology, life and myself. Even though it’s almost over, I know that we all will remain friends. So grateful for you guys everyday.
On Saturday, our group ventured out early in the morning to set out on a desert hike to experience what the migrant goes through. The only thing I was sure of was that it was earlier than I was used to and the road to get there was barely even a road.
Our tour guide’s name was John, a crunchy granola looking fellow with long, white hair. His quirky character and love for all humanity is probably what stuck out to me the most. He took us across grasslands, up and down hills, through ravines, along both beaten and unbeaten paths. I fell within the first 15 minutes and tried to catch myself. My hands landed on some rugged rocks and got pretty scratched up.
As we were walking, I tried to listen to what John was telling us. We were crossing over from a cattle trail to a migrant trail when he told us that we were part of the story now, that this wasn’t just a migrant story. That struck a chord with me. Up until then, I always saw it as their story, their struggles, their lives. But it’s the story of the human race, including all of our struggles and our dreams.
Above is a photo of Isabel Navasca Corpuz, also known as my Lola (Grandma in Tagalog). She was born on July 7, 1927 in Manilla, Philippines.
During WWII, she lived in a house with five other families on a farm in a rural area. She had just become a teenager but she was prohibited from going anywhere public by herself. Whenever she did go out, she had to disguise herself in old woman clothes so that the Japanese would not capture her and rape her.
When the war was over, my Lola finished her college education. She met and fell in love with Raymundo Corpuz and together they bore two sons. However, they saw that the Philippines was not the best place for them to raise their sons. Like many immigrants, they faced oppression in the country that they happened to be born in. With prayers tucked into their pockets, they left whatever material things they had behind in hope for a brighter future. They found refuge in this country that I call my own, America, the land of the free.
Almost a half of a century later, Lola has five grandchildren. Both of her sons have pursued higher education and have been able to provide for their own families.
Above is a picture of Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quiteros. She was born on September 15, 1993 in El Salvador. When she was young, her parents left of the United States in order to make more money to support their family. Both came into the country illegally and had been working in the shadows. Meanwhile, Josseline was in charge of taking care of her younger brother. Eventually, her mother, Sonia, had made enough money to hire a guide to take both of her children all the way from El Salvador to Los Angeles.
Josseline, 14, and her brother, 10, went with other trusted adults to travel over 2,000 miles; jumping walls, hiking up and down the mountains, and trekking through the desert. They only brought with them the clothes on their backs. Josseline chose a pair of jeans and some sweatpants that had “Hollywood” bedazzled on the bottom. She planned to wear them when she arrived to the land of the famous.
They hid from Mexico’s national police as well as the United States Border Patrol. Just after they had crossed the US/Mexican border, Josseline started to get sick. The rest of the group were on a time crunch. They needed to be at a certain location where they would be picked up and time was running out. Josseline could barely walk. She encouraged the group to go on without her. Her brother cried and refused to leave his main caretaker. She encouraged him and told him to tell their mother where she was and to send help the second that he was able to.
Her first nights alone in the desert were spent in the freezing cold. She had on two jackets and two pairs of pants, but that still wasn’t enough to beat the 29 degree weather.
Three weeks later, members of No More Deaths were hiking the migrant trails to leave out jugs of water and canned goods for migrants. They stumbled upon the small body of a girl whose dreams were cut short. A memorial was held at the site where Josseline’s body was found. However, her family was not able to make it in fear of being arrested and deported back to Mexico.
I will be a part of my grandchildren’s history, like Lola was a part of mine. I grew up asking her stories of her hardships, of her hopes for her family, of her American Dream. When my grandchildren ask me questions, I want them to be as proud of my accomplishments as I am of Lola’s. I want them to learn from my courage and my determination for social justice. I want them to know how much I would sacrifice for our family and for our brothers and sisters around the world. I’m lucky that my Lola’s experience was not as difficult at Josseline’s and I have my life to show for it. I can only hope to do my 4 foot 6 inch grandmother justice.
Migration isn’t an us versus them issue, this is a we issue. When we see them as people with families and friends, with fears and dreams, then we will be able to stand in solidarity with them and fight for change.
First of all, I just want to say that this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I never thought that I would completely fall in love with a culture, photography, and a group of classmates as I have now. Even after I committed myself to going on this trip, I still didn’t imagine how wonderful it would turn out.
I came into this class with almost zero photojournalism experience. During the first day of video boot camp, I thought that I would never remember any of what we were learning. I was overwhelmed with information. About a week later though, I was out on the tundra, taking shots of the river, and setting up interviews. By the end of the week, filming almost seemed like second nature to me.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve told almost everyone about this, but the absolute highlight of the trip for me was our boat ride on the Kuskokwim. The overwhelming beauty of everything that was around me cannot be put into words. Overwhelming beauty was kind of a theme for me during this trip. A lot of my classmates probably got used to me getting overly enthusiastic about things, sometimes to the point where I couldn’t form coherent sentences. Everything from the sweeping tundra, to the clear Kuskokwim River, from the midnight sun, to the wisdom of the people is too exquisite to describe.
When we talk about the highs and lows of the trip, it is hard for me to think of an actual low. Yes, there were moments that were hard or difficult, but that doesn’t mean that they were not good moments. One of those instances was when Rose talked to us about historical trauma. Her raw emotions touched me deeply and made me extremely sad, but it was also beautiful in its own way. It was one of those rare times where a connection is made with another human on a level much deeper than sympathy. I feel so incredibly privileged that she shared her story with us.
Alaska is gorgeous and this trip was life-changing, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing if I didn’t go with such a fantastic group of people. In a little over a month, we formed our own type of family. Every member contributes something unique and valuable to the group. I’ve learned just as much from them as I ever have in the classroom. I think I’ve had a smile on my face for the majority of the past five weeks. This group of people is truly special, and I could not be more grateful for each individual’s friendship.
Going forward from this trip, it seems like so much has changed. The way I look at the world, how I see our resources and my understanding of culture has greatly shifted. All of this change can be a lot to handle at times. However, I know that there is one thing I can change based on what I learned while in Alaska. Going forward, I am going to change the way I interact with the people around me. Through this experience, I’ve learned that everyone has a story to tell. I may not recognize the story right away, but I have to keep listening until I do. A person is so much more than they appear. Behind the outer shell, there is a soul that has memories and experiences you will never know about unless you ask and listen.
Bethel has taught me to see the intricacy in the dull and the beauty in the plain. Wonder and mystery can be found all around you. I won’t attempt to try and convey the depths of this wonder and beauty because, as I’ve said before, there are simply no words. Instead, I will leave with a Navajo saying that we heard while in Bethel:
“Everything in front of me will be beautiful,
Everything behind me will be beautiful,
Everything on my right will be beautiful,
Everything on my left will be beautiful,
Everything above me will be beautiful,
Everything below me will be beautiful,
Everything around me will be beautiful,
Everything that comes from my lips will be beautiful.”
Last night we had the privilege of having a potluck hosted by the Catholic Church. Church member were very generous and brought us all kind of native foods that I’ve never even heard of or tried before! There’s always a first for everything! Some of the foods featured at our potluck that I sampled personally were seal soup, moose stew (one of my favorites), fish chowder with white fish and salmon, hering fish eggs dipped in olive oil (very interesting texture I’d say), caribou stew, moose stir fry, and salmon every possible way you can imagine. I decided not to be apprehensive about trying the new dishes because how many people can say they’ve eaten seal meat? All of the dishes tasted amazing! Our Creighton group decided that we should bring some form of Nebraska to the table. So of course we made a dish that included corn. Everyone loves cornbread muffins!
Not only was it great to see the variety of foods that were brought forth to the table, but it was also even better to see the people and friendships we’ve made during our short time in Alaska all come to the potluck. It just goes to show how great this community is. Some our friends that came were Connie and Arvin who showed a few of us to their fish camp the other day; Brian McCaffery, acting Yukon delta NWR manager and deacon of the Catholic Church; Cecilia, a Yup’ik woman, and her husband Mike; Alisha, our friend and fixer; Stan, a barbershop owner and amazing person who hosted all of us at his fish camp, Susan, who runs the Catholic Church behind the scenes; and Sarah, our guide and former Jesuit volunteer at the Catholic Church. Not only did our new friends show up, but members of the church also came to help us feel more at home and gift us with more food.
After our amazing feast all the students including Tony and Nicole all went on a nice long walk after dinner to unwind and goof off at the end of a long day. During our long walk, I realized that our own group is a potluck of personalities. The group wouldn’t be the same without everyone. It also wouldn’t be the same without everyone who was willing to help us out and make our time here in Bethel memorable and one for the books.
It also really hit me the various things I’m going to miss the most about Bethel. I’m going to miss these late night 11 pm strolls while it’s still light out. I’ll even miss seeing kids still riding around on their bikes at night with nothing but one layer on while you see me with four layers on. I’m going to miss just spending time with everyone literally 24/7 and eating every meal together like a giant family. I’ll miss our attempts at “jumping pictures”. It’s random moments like these I’m going to miss the most. I do know for a fact these memories will still continue to be made even after we come back from Alaska. I won’t lie. I was little homesick a week ago (Yes mother I’m admitting it!). Normally you are supposed to feel homesick after you leave a place. Now I’m starting to feel the post-Alaska homesickness. It’s incredible we’ve only been here a week and a half, but I feel like it’s not enough time. There’s still so much more to explore and learn from Bethel. Perhaps I could continue this exploring and come back one day. Maybe by that time I’ll be in or done with dental school and I could use my skills here. No matter what, I see myself coming back to this place I can call a home.
Quyana to all that have made this experience amazing!
Last Wednesday we had the privilege to participate in an all day long workshop with Rose Dominic, a Yup’ik woman, and Ray Daw, a Navajo man. Rose and Ray hold these workshops for villages allover the main Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and throughout Alaska. These workshops are intended to help the people through their healing process and understand what happened to them when change was brought about so rapidly and suddenly to them. Many of my classmates have already written about the workshop because this day was a very important day for all of us. I believe the workshop really set the course for our documentary and helped us get rid of our Eurocentric views and really understand what life was like when missionaries came and boarding schools were set up. Not only did it help us understand what happened, but I believe it made us feel, know, and understand what it means to be and live in the Yup’ik culture.
My Aha moments so far on this trip:
When Ray stopped in the middle of his speech and sang his Navajo song and explained what Aha meant. Aha means when you are experiencing a moment of happiness and wonder that you just have to sing from the mountaintops. That is what an Aha moment means.
During Ray’s song I flash backed to standing and looking out on the hill in the tundra that took forever to walk and climb to. We saw all of Bethel on one side and on the other tundra that just seemed to go on forever.
Realizing how isolated we are in Bethel. There are no roads, highways, or streets that lead anywhere outside of Bethel. There are only roads within Bethel with no stoplights.
Sitting on the bank of a river and diving into my fresh salmon caught 20 minutes earlier.
Listening to the Yup’ik people tell their story in all of our interviews.
Enjoying the golden hours and the sun set that lasted about 4 hours all with my new friends Arvin and Connie and with my camera crew, Nico, Tony, and Tim.
Meeting people that are just so welcoming and will come up and talk to you.
Sitting by the warm fire on a cold day at Stan’s fish camp.
Going to mass and hearing the Yup’ik songs at the beginning and finding myself catching onto the language and singing along with the Yup’ik hymnal towards the end of the mass.
Learning new Yup’ik words.
Taking walks along the Kuskokwim river and chatting with friends.
People gifting us with native food and just being so generous.
Waking up in the morning and walking out to the lake behind our little “cabin” and seeing a complete reflection on the lake
Playing basketball Alaskan fish camp style at Stan’s fish camp!
Going to sleep with the sun still up and waking up with no alarm to the sun. goodbye annoying alarm!
Wondering how blessed and random it was that I got to go on this trip and the trip to the fish camp. The universe has a weird way of working doesn’t it.
When Rose explained what a family structure meant in Yup’ik culture. At the heart of a giant circle is spirituality. That is surrounded by the young people and children in the tribe. Around the children is the elders who provide the wisdom and teach the children the ways to live. Around the elders are the women of the tribe who care and nurture for everyone. Then around the women are the men who protect and secure the tribe. She showed us in a demonstration and had us actually sit in a circle. I got to be a child in the center!
Realizing how blessed I am and what a great Alaskan family i have here. I know for a fact that these are some great people that I have the privilege to share this experience and journey with them.
This has been one of those weeks that is both incredibly long and yet nowhere near long enough. In just one week, we’ve learned the equipment, had theological discussions, prepared our potential story and learned about leafy spurge. We’ve created videos, shared views on culture and expressed our hopes and fears. So, are we actually ready?
Today, we had our first reflection in which two Backpack Journalism alums came to join. The shared that they too were overwhelmed at this point and asked the same question: can we actually pull this off?
But they reassured us. Because despite all of our fears, we’re all in this together. And I can’t think of a better group of people to be together with. Perhaps because of the many hours we’ve spent together already, somehow after just one week we have developed into our own Backpack Journalism family.
Other than all of the proper lessons and discussions, we’ve laughed and stumbled together. Bags of rice were divided up and a small portion of us discovered that we’re all Hufflepuffs (according to Pottermore). We’ve shared excitement over discovering that our iPad Minis have Photobooth (get ready for lots of selfies!) and we’ve compared hours wasted on Buzzfeed.
Water is a necessity for life. We need it to survive. the people of Uganda need water to survive. But, getting water that is clean to drink here is much more difficult than going to our faucets, refrigerators, or hoses and grabbing a slurp. People here walk miles everyday to search for uncontaminated water to fill their yellow 5 gallon containers.
But it must be clear that the Ugandan people’s definition of uncontaminated couldn’t be any further than the American definition of clean water.
Water is fluid, just how life is fluid. Every year we celebrate another year of our lives going past, remembering a day in which we are supposed to grow older, never younger. We are constantly moving in one direction and there is no stopping it.
The years go by like stones on rushing water. We only know, we only know when it’s gone. – Needtobreathe
When we look at a lake, a river, an ocean, there are always stones underneath it, rocks that help support the pathways of the waters. They are never viewed as the primary sight of splendor, but in some instances, there is that one rock that we just can not stop starring at in beauty.
We have rocks in our lives. As we go on our journeys within our lives, there are rocks that are always there that help to guide is in our actions, point out our mistakes, and teach us something new. Despite how far our journeys may be that take us away from those rocks in our lives, they will always constantly be there, waiting for us until we come back. They wait until the currents of blue come back to keep company with them once again.
This trip, being here in Uganda, has really made me appreciate the rocks in my life. Despite how long I am away from them, if I am in a dispute with them, or just downright angry at them, they are always there, patiently waiting for me to come back to where we were before the currents took hold. Before these two weeks, I never told my rocks how much I appreciate them, how much I love them, how much I want to be around them even when I act like I don’t.
Life is unpredictable, and I don’t want the years to go by like stones on rushing water without telling them I love them every single day.
how long we have them for, so cherish every single moment.