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.
Five weeks ago I walked into a room with 13 strangers in it. The majority were journalism majors and they were all older than me. I asked myself, “What are you doing here?” I had no idea that I would have an experience of a lifetime.
Now I have 13 new friends who I know I can always say hi to. Getting to know them as a group and on a personally level is one of my favorite things from the trip. I have gained confidence in my abilities to write and in being able to talk to strangers and not be shy.
I’ve learned so many things on this trip that I cannot share them all in this blog. The thing that will stick with me the most is the stories I heard in El Comedor. Before I went down to Nogales I thought of immigration as huge political mess, which it is, but now that I have faces and stories that factor into this mess I am on the side of allowing more migrants to seek asylum in America.
Being with the migrants made me the happiest. Hearing their stories was very moving and inspiring. They also made me think of how lucky I really am. Also they made me think how I can help in this large issue of immigration.
One thing that I will do differently based upon what I learned is to just live each moment like it’s my last. This trip was a true blessing to me and one I will never forget.
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.
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.
This past week I stopped by my favorite coffee shop to write my theology paper due for this class. I ran into a close friend I hadn’t seen in too long and we sat and talked for two hours catching up. I explained to her what Backpack Journalism was, where we went, what I learned, and what we were doing with what we had learned.
She and I had a wonderful conversation about migration, the legal system, what possible solutions are and what could be done. She explained that she was really proud of me and I let that sink in for a minute. I feel as though it’s not me she should be proud of, but the migrants. I’ll put my thoughts into an analogy of what we are trying to accomplish for Backpack Journalism through tortillas, a staple Mexican food.
The migrants and others we interviewed and interacted with gave us the ingredients to use for our documentary, all of the elements that otherwise wouldn’t make the story what it truly, uniquely is. I, along with everyone else in our group, are simply putting all of these ingredients into one concoction (a tortilla if you will) and we’ll put the finishing touches on our documentary (or tortillas) and present it to audiences to enjoy (much like tortillas).
I felt this analogy fit the context in which we served as Sister Alicia so lovingly prepared the tortillas every day for migrants in the Comedor, making sure they were warm and delicious for everyone who enjoyed them. I believe we are preparing our documentary in a similar fashion to how Sister Alicia goes about preparing tortillas: with compassion. Without the migrants, there would be no story, and without the migrants, there would be no one to enjoy the tortillas. Now go get yourself a tortilla, I’m sure you’re craving one by now.
I heard the word “culpable” in the US Federal District Court in Tucson, Arizona during the hearings of detained migrants about 35 times yesterday. I would have heard it another 30 times if our group stayed in the courtroom for another fifteen minutes. 30 guilty pleas in 15 minutes may not sound right, but it unfortunately is: the plead of “guilty” was said about every 30 seconds in that courtroom.
Operation: Streamline is an initiative that began in 2005 under the Bush administration in an effort to create a zero tolerance policy against the undocumented crossing over of migrants from Mexico into the U.S. Every migrant who has been detained meets with a lawyer, who strongly encourages them to plead guilty, and has their hearing within one day. These hearings are en masse, where up to 70 migrants are all tried in one courtroom session: rarely do they ever plead innocent. In exchange for their cooperation of pleading guilty, their sentences typically range from 30 to 180 days.
This process with this many individuals happens every weekday in that courtroom, as well as a couple others along the southern states.
I grew up in a conservative, small town in Wisconsin. I was raised to believe that immigration was wrong and that the “illegals” were stealing our jobs. I accepted that because I wasn’t exposed to the reality. Perhaps that is why I am understanding of those who are still against migration. The north is like a bubble, safe from the truth of the ugly parts of the south. However, it is a personal responsibility, no matter where one lives, to be educated and exposed.
When I entered college, I began to think for myself and discover what makes me mad. For me, anger is the strongest motivator. I am so angry here. I am angry that for every person found dead in the desert, there are ten more bodies. I am angry that men have come back to the comedor with bloody, torn up faces because BC pushed them into barbed wire. I am angry that the cartel keeps constant watch over the people and migrants of Nogales. I am angry that our country is just now processing paperwork from 20 years ago. I am angry that the reason some migrants carry drugs is because of the Americans who demand them. Mostly, I am angry that these people are classified as criminals and rapists when a large majority of them are just trying to survive.
As I said, anger motivates me. I’m the type of person who needs to brainstorm solutions whenever I hear a problem. I think that stems from my dad’s catchphrase, “Ok. So what are you going to do about it?” With him, I could never just complain or vent, I had to take action to solve my own problems. Listening to the stories of the people here, from both sides of the issue, has confirmed my desire to attend law school so that I can start a solution of my own.
So many of the people we have interviewed here have talked about young people and how they give them hope. A lawyer we spoke with called us “dreamers”. Those same people have also said that the dreamers fade out and the next round comes in and tries to change the world. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to learn until I am no longer ignorant. I want to think until a problem is solved. I want to dream until I am no longer angry.
When touring the Mexican side of Nogales, a train passed us sporting the Union Pacific logo and the slogan “Building America”.
This was a train filled with assembled car parts headed for America. This got me thinking who is building America?
I am not building anything, but I sure do consume.
While in “both” Nogales I have had to face the reality that I play a role in the problems surrounding migration. I am not free from fault. I partake in American successes on the backbones of those across the world. I am not living in an isolated nation. I can no longer turn my back on the connectedness of the world I am a part of. Someone else is building an America I get to reap the benefits of.
Isabel Garcia, a public defender in Tuscon, Arizona, truly hit the nail on the head in her interview. That America is not ready for the reality of a world without migrants. A world where we have to pay higher prices for labor. A world that would inconvenience us. She talked about being grateful for migrant labor. I am not yet sure what this gratitude looks like?
However, I do understand what it is not…
Gratitude is not deporting these migrants.
Gratitude is not treating them less than human.
Gratitude is not purposefully separating migrants from their family during the deportation process.
Gratitude is not streamlining the immigration criminal justice process.
Gratitude is definitely not building a wall.
I was always raised to be grateful for my immigrant background. To appreciate those who came over on a boat and accomplished the American Dream, so that my life is easier. It is about time we start appreciating both the migrant’s plight of the past and the migrant’s struggle today, as it is immigrants who build America.
The morning began again at El Comedor. We got a lot of B-roll of the inside before breakfast started. Then I got some really great shots of migrants faces and actions while one of the sisters was talking. Every time I go in El Comedor I learn so much. Although language can be a barrier, just a simple smile can go a long way. I would say gracias and smile and the migrants would beam and some even said that I have very good pronunciation!
I saw my friend who, described in a blog from earlier, left his children in order to get a better job in America. He said he is going to wait a while before he crosses but he plans on doing it for his little girls. His face lite up when he saw my face and greeted me with a, “hello brother.”
We also met up with a Jesuit from the Kino Border Initiative. His name was Father Peter and we talked a lot just by ourselves. He is truly an amazing guy who has seen a lot in his sixty plus years. He loves giving me hard time and whenever a Hispanic would be standing there he would talk to him or her and start speaking in Spanish and pointing and laughing at me. He has made me want to learn Spanish just so I can understand him and that’s exactly why he was doing it. His story is very similar when it comes to foreign language. He grew up not liking Spanish and not getting it in an academic setting. When he was about 30 he was immersed in the culture and learned it that way. I never enjoyed Spanish classes growing up but being down here makes me want to learn the language from the people.
As we were interviewing our fourth person of the day in El Comedor I talked to Ivan, a Jesuit at Kino, about all these beautiful crosses I had been seeing migrants painting. He told me stories behind some of them and said that they are for sell and that the migrants who painted them get 80% of the profit. The other 20% goes towards buying more wood and materials. The one featured below is going to an art gallery to be put on display. I really wish I could have bought it.
Everyone but four of us went out to lunch in Nogales, Sonora. We who remained got ready for an interview of a migrant who just tried crossing the border. It was a very moving story. He got beaten up by Mexican authorities, then American Border Patrol, and when he was brought back to Mexico he was threatened by the cartel.
I went out on my own to shoot some B-roll of where the cars drive to get to the U.S. It was no more than 100 yards from El Comedor but it seemed like miles. When I was shooting I noticed a few Mexicans walking around in my area. Then the bridge I was by had five or six cartel members under it and they were very curious about what I was doing. By the end of my shoot here was around 20 cartel members within 50 yards of me wandering all around. They would look at my screen to see what I was filming. I kept my cool and even said hola and smiled and they smiled back and conversed a little. I was a little scared but not enough to make it seem like I was rattled or afraid.
My partner Goose and I had a great day together. While an interview was going on in the women’s shelter we went outside and shot a lot of B-roll in the area. Then we went to the downtown port in Nogales, Sonora with Father Peter. We got B-roll of the port and the cattle shoot. I ventured off on my own for a while to where the train tracks go into the United States. I wanted to get pictures and video of when the last rail car goes through and the U.S. Border Patrol closes the gates. It was a great shot but something that struck me so wrong was how it was a Union Pacific train that said, “Building America” on the side. A train that likely traveled thousands of miles through Mexico says that they are building America.
Lastly Goose and I made sixteen hamburgers and 5 hot dogs for dinner. We cooked them over a charcoal fire but with that much meat you are bound to get a lot of juice to fall and start a giant flame. We ran and got everything off the fire and spread the coals out even more. At this point the burgers where black on both sides and bright red in the middle. We then put them back on when the flames died down and put cheese on them to hide our mistakes a bit. No one complained and they actually tasted pretty good! It was a great end to another good day.
It’s one thing to have knowledge about large-scale issues, but it’s another to see the face of those affected by the issue up close.
I can recall vaguely how my understanding of immigration has evolved over the years. When I was younger, I remember hearing the term “illegal immigrant” and thinking of all of the negative connotations that went with it. Immigrants broke the law, and then they took American’s jobs.
As I grew a little bit older, I was better able to empathize for illegal migrants, as I gained a better understanding of why they wanted to flee to America. They wished for a better life, they ran from poverty, they had family in the United States, etc. However, even with these insights, I lacked the capacity to get a solid grip.
It has never really occurred to me that migrants felt guilty for what they had done. I didn’t know they were stigmatized by other Mexicans after being deported and returned to Mexico. I had no idea the level of brutality migrants faced and the dehumanizing measures they suffered after being captured. Worst of all, I didn’t stop to consider that deported migrants accepted this treatment because they thought they deserved it.
In the last three days I’ve seen the passageways, resembling cattle chutes with the one-way turn staffs, where deported migrants are pushed through when they’re returned. I’ve heard stories of families being separated. I’ve stood in the spot where one Mexican was shot merely for throwing rocks over the wall. I’ve seen the faces of newly deported migrants, sad, defeated.
With each interview we complete, we learn so much about the overall challenges with immigration, along with what it looks like on a personal level. I think I need some time to let it all process.
But for now, we’re learning, we’re laughing, we’re crying and we’re sleeping very little.
Today I met a man while visiting the Kino Border Initiative’s Comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The Comedor is a place where migrants who have been deported back to Mexico can go to get a couple of hot meals twice a day, as well as any other help and assistance that they may need. It’s a place of refuge for those who have no where else to turn after they’ve lost everything, and it’s filled with volunteers who care greatly about each individual and do their best to make them feel important. The inside of the Comedor is covered with posters that all start with “Tengo derecho a…”, stating the rights that everyone in that room deserves to have. The people who work at KBI do everything they can to make sure those who were deported understand they have these rights, and help them share their stories of the trials they’ve faced resulting in them being back in Mexico.
Today I had a conversation with someone who kindly pulled me off to the side away from another conversation I was listening to. The first thing he said to me wasn’t to ask my name, or to ask how I was doing. Instead, the first thing he did was shake my hand, look me in the eyes, and ask: “Are you a Christian?” I was somewhat caught off guard by this question, not expecting this to be the beginning of our conversation. I hesitated for a moment in answering him: I haven’t been a practicing Catholic since I was in middle school, and even then I never really considered myself a devout Christian. But given the fact that this was the very first thing this man asked me, I knew he must care deeply about his faith, and was looking for someone to discuss the matter.
Today I lied to man about my faith and answered him with a smile: “Yes, I am a Christian.” He immediately began to confide in me, and we dove into conversation for the next several minutes. His name was Francisco, and he had been in Nogales for the past 2 weeks. He was separated from his wife Roxanne, who was stilling living in the United States, about 3 months ago after he was detained and deported back to Mexico. His son, Daniel, is currently living with his sister in a city 8 hours away from Nogales, and hasn’t seen him in awhile either; he missed his 7th birthday in the middle of April, and wished that he could have been there to see him. His son will be taken to his wife later in the month, since he has all of his legal documents, as does everyone else in his family but him.
Today I saw the personification of determination in Francisco. Despite everything that has happened to him, he kept assuring me that he would see his wife and son again. “I know I’ll get my paperwork soon, and I can see my family again. I know it’s possible with God.” He asked me to pray for him and his family, and to keep them all in my thoughts. He also told me to pray for everything else in this similar situation. “I’m not the only one going through this; there are so many others that are going through different things, and they all have their own story.” And he was right: just earlier in the Comedor we heard stories of other migrants who were just recently deported and what had happened to them. Some tried to hitch rides on a train but fell off, almost dying. Some tried to walk through the desert, only to be detained after the grueling journey defeated them with dehydration and exhaustion. All different people with different stories and different backgrounds.
Today I heard but one example out of hundreds of thousands of stories about the hardships migrants face when it comes to finding a better life. I saw how much his faith mattered to him that he would ask me, someone he believed to be a Christian, to pray for not just him, but for all other migrants facing the many different facets of injustice. I admired his devotion to his religion, that he can have so much faith in God and still be so optimistic to see his family again, and ask of others to have faith in his mission as well.
Today I prayed for a man after years of not practicing any religion, in genuine hope that he will see his family again.
Today I met one man out of so many others who just want to reach a better life across the border.