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.
Ignorance might not be bliss, but it is easier. Ignorance is choosing not to know information usually at someone else’s expense.
Before going to Nogales I was ignorant and I have really no excuse. I live in an age where information is more accessible than ever before. Yet, I did not know there was a wall splitting the city of Nogales, I did not know the number of migrants coming into the U.S. had decreased, I did not know America’s immigration policies, and I did not know the history of the American/Mexican border. I am not saying it should have been expected for me to know everything before going to Nogales. Instead, the issue is I had every opportunity to know more than I did, long before this trip was even an opportunity, but I chose not to.
I have been grappling with why I chose this ignorance because it was a conscious decision. The reality is I chose to ignore migration in the U.S. because it was easier.
To understand migration in America, I first had to acknowledge my own ignorance and then presume that this ignorance is nationwide. If more Americans understood the border I would like to think there would be much larger outcry, regardless of political orientation. If most Americans knew how much money was being wasted on checkpoints that do nothing or a wall that does nothing, but were solely established for political show and used to create fear, there would have to be public protest.
Instead, we go on with our lives in ignorance, because it is easier.
Jon Sobrino S.J. in his speech at the 1990 Regis graduation says “being human means, I would say first of all, to live in the real world in which we live”. This gets at this idea of coming down from all of our ivory towers and understanding reality and living reality. His entire speech is truly a rejection of ignorant bliss. A rejection of ignoring suffering.
It is hard to acknowledge my own ignorance and the harm it has caused. However, it is right to acknowledge my reality and live with humanity not above it. This whole experience has allowed me to better understand the connection between knowledge and a reality from the bottom up. The first step to changing anything is having a fuller understanding, a true rejection of ignorance.
This past week we’ve been editing our film, an arduous process that requires concentration, patience, and an abundance of teamwork. I could not be more grateful to have worked alongside such compassionate, inspiring, and talented individuals that understand the importance of showing and telling a story. However, as we sit at our computers editing film or hovering around a table rearranging the text, I felt something missing.
On our journey back to Omaha, I was excited to be home, but I was also sad to leave Nogales and the individuals we encountered. As I have mentioned in my past blog posts, my experience in Nogales was really moving, on many levels. So as I’ve looked over the text and edit the film of the people and places I encountered, from the bustling Comedor that accepts every individual with grace to Sister Alicia and Joanna’s constant smiles and warmth, it’s impossible not to feel like the journey isn’t over.
In some ways, sadly, threads of this journey don’t necessarily have an ending. It’s a hard reality to understand and accept that we may not know the fate of the people we met in Nogales, to comprehend that their journeys wherever they end up could end positively or negatively.
I do have hope, however, that this film will bring justice to those we encountered. I hope this film allows viewers to be informed, to perhaps step outside of their comfort zone, and to feel a sense of humanity in such a dehumanized issue.
After two longs days of driving, we arrived back in Omaha from Nogales on Saturday. The closer we got to Omaha, the more nervous I was about being back in my reality. I don’t usually do well with transitions, especially fast ones. I spent all Sunday running errands and catching up on life things, and made plans to watch a movie with my sister and some friends for Monday night. Inside Out was showing at Midtown Crossing, and it’s one of the best movies of all time in my books.
I sat on a zebra print blanket completely at peace — good friends, good weather, good people watching. A perfect summer night. As the movie started getting good, I thought about what a great tool it would be to use the emotion characters as a starting point in processing some of what we’ve just seen at the border.
Sadness: I experienced sadness most in moments of listening, and silence. Stories of families torn apart by immigration policy, limbs lost in the journey north, statistics of unidentified dead bodies — hearing these inconceivable stories broke my heart and left me speechless every single day. Our reflections were life-giving, but also left me feeling incredibly sad. Most of the stories shared revolved around an overwhelming sadness, and sometimes even feelings of hopelessness. It was comforting, though, to know that I was not the only one feeling disheartened at times. John once told us that it is often heartbreaking, witnessing suffering truly opens our hearts.
Joy: I felt joy just as often as I felt sadness, and the confidence that each day would also bring joy is really what kept me waking up every morning. That same promise of joy is what gave the people at the border strength and hope for a future of justice and love — seeing the hope in their faces gave me great amounts of joy. I felt joy in the backpack journalism team, working together to tackle technical difficulties, road trips, and dinner plans.
Fear: I was most afraid when I would hear stories about the power of the cartel. It is terrifying to me that an unregulated organization is so strong and overpowering in such a poor and vulnerable community. They capitalize on migrants at their weakest points in life, offering them a brighter future in exchange for a commitment to their mission. How could someone with nothing say no to someone promising them the world? Terrifying.
Disgust: I was disgusted when we sat through an Operation Streamline process. We watched first time illegal entry offenders get processed and sentenced to as many as three months in prison after spending 20 seconds in front of a judge, all while shackled at their hands and feet.
Anger: I was most angry when I thought about how systematically unjust this system is. It’s become increasingly systemized as years go on, and American policy has such little respect for our fellow humans, our neighbors. I’m angry at the American people for letting this happen, and refusing to listen to the cries for help of the people in the border lands.
All of these emotions roll into this backpack journalism experience so far, and all I can think about now is how excited I am to have a tangible product to show off. I’m excited for us to bear witness and share these testimonies with anyone that’s willing to open their ears and hearts to our message.
As we wrapped up our experience in Nogales, I couldn’t help but feel wholeness in my heart after hearing the stories of various individuals but also living amongst those who have lived a life of anguish yet still remained full of hope. However, the complexity of this issue left me with questions unanswered because while the solution to migration lies within humanizing those who suffer, the end to this issue could take much longer for the rest of the population to realize.
Our journey to Nogales was never meant to solve migration. The migrants we walked with and lived alongside with allowed us to see that in even the hardest circumstances, each individual should be treated with dignity, a right that cannot be taken away from them no matter what a government thinks is acceptable punishment. After hearing heartbreaking personal stories and understanding a migrant’s fate called out into a federal courtroom, I know that there is injustice in our society in the treatment of those who suffer. I know because I have seen the effects this inequality has on others and how it has become ingrained into our society.
Dr. O’Keefe made a point in his lecture during our trip that really opened my eyes to what it means to stand in solidarity with others. This is by no means as eloquent as it was when I first heard it, but I’ll try to explain it as accurately as possible. Dr. O’Keefe explained that after his first experience working with marginalized communities, what was once knowledge on the subject that may have been known mentally before being immersed in the community moves and settles in the heart and becomes a much more personal issue after being awakened and made aware of the realities that others may suffer.
It is societal nature to desire to categorize one another and put each other into little boxes that fit us with others who may be like us. Sadly, it’s instinct to want to push rich people to one side and the impoverished to the other, those with fairer skin to one side and those with darker skin to the other, those with brilliant minds and those who were not given those opportunities lie on different sides of the spectrum. We’re so caught up in wanting to organize our lives one way or another that we lose sight of the unity of humanity. No matter what characteristics or life experience we have in common or differ from one another, we all have a purpose on this earth. Some of us may know this reason and may be living out this purpose while others may be searching for what they were destined to do and who they were destined to become, but it’s up to each of us to recognize that a human life, with all of its faults and perfections, is a gift no matter what.
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.
The saying “the eyes are the window to the soul” has rung true to me during my time in Nogales. It’s impossible to distinguish the emotions, life journeys, trials, and tribulations of the individuals I have encountered with the little knowledge I knew about migration coming into this journey.
The aspect of this journey I keep coming back to is through each struggle that an individual may have encountered, there is a glimmer of hope in each migrants eyes. Hope is the silver lining that keeps humanity afloat in the difficult circumstances life throws our way. While some circumstances are more difficult to overcome than others, working with migrant populations has taught me to never lose hope no matter what the odds are against you.
After listening to the stories of migrants, kin of migrants, volunteers and Jesuits who help migrants at Kino Border Initiative, attorneys who represent migrants in a court of law, and ranchers who see drug smugglers crossing their land near the border, this issue is unbelievably more complex than I could have imagined.
Compassion, however, is not a complex issue. Treating someone as a human, with dignity and respect, is something that doesn’t take years of study to comprehend. Once you see the pain in someone’s eyes that shows the struggles that he or she may have gone through or the glimmer of hope in one’s eyes that shows the triumph that he or she could reach in the future, it’s impossible to see migration as anything but personal stories. If you are touched by one life, you are touched by many.
It’s impossible to say that suffering will ever be extinguished in the world, but if we look at individuals as humans who each have dignity and rights and see marginalized populations as individuals who deserve the same respect we believe we deserve, then perhaps the complexity of suffering can be alleviated.
When I interviewed Fr. Neeley, who used to work in detention centers, he told me that the guards would call migrants by letters and numbers. According to Fr. Neeley, dehumanizing migrants made it easier to mistreat them. For me, this was one of the most disturbing moments of the interview. I couldn’t imagine categorizing another human to avoid my own reality.
For this blog, I will do just that. I will tell the story of a migrant that I met and only call him by A22. I want to prove to myself and to the readers, how uncomfortable and disgusting this practice really is.
I had just finished cleaning up the evening meal at the comedor. Almost all of the men and women whom I encountered during dinner spoke Spanish. I communicated with a smile, service and a lot of Spanglish. I was surprised when A22 approached me and even more surprised when he spoke perfect English. A22 wanted the proper translation of an English word for his friend and asked for my help. Somehow A22 and I went from speaking about synonyms to telling his story. Right away, I could tell that A22 just wanted to be heard, and so I listened.
A22 came to the country when he was just 13 years old on a temporary visa. He stayed when it expired and started to make a life for himself in Arizona. He fell in love and had a son with his American girlfriend. After his son was born, his girlfriend became a drug addict. A22 told me that the plan had always been to marry her to become a real family and to also earn his citizenship.
“People always ask me why I didn’t just marry her. I know I wouldn’t have been deported if I did, but I couldn’t. The drugs took over her life. It ruined our relationship and it ruined her role as a mother. I wasn’t going to do that to my son. I wasn’t going to be that stereotype,” said A22.
At this point in A22’s story, I was almost in tears. The far right likes to believe that Mexicans are all criminals who will cheat the system to enter the country. A22 was a perfect example of how this idea is untrue. There are people with citizenship who do not have the moral compass that A22 holds; his girlfriend is a great example.
A22 won full custody of his son and split from his girlfriend. After some time, A22 made, what he called, a human mistake. He got back together with his girlfriend. His girlfriend became pregnant again and, according to A22, she continued to do drugs during the pregnancy. A22 told me that she was receiving the drugs from her brother.
“I made a mistake. I was so angry with her and her brother. This is my kid that she was hurting. She wouldn’t stop. He kept giving her drugs. I tried to warn him. She was killing my child. I had to do something,” said A22.
A22 assaulted his girlfriend’s brother, was charged with a felony and was deported in April.
“I just want a second chance. Why don’t I get a second chance? Is it because I’m brown? Is it because I’m different? I tried to tell the judge I was protecting my family, but he didn’t listen. Why does she get to keep our kids and I have to leave? I don’t get it,” said A22.
A22’s first son is now in the mother’s custody. His second son was born with Down syndrome and a missing limb because of his mother’s drug abuse. A22 has never met him.
A22 has been in Nogales for about a month. A22 shares an apartment with other migrants and has a job that only pays him about $10 a week. A22 is developing a case with a social worker to return to the country and raise his sons. It could take six to twelve months to process.
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.
Today is Tuesday, the 24th of May. Joanna took us to the Kino Border Initiative’s humanitarian shelter for women migrants, Casa Nazaret. We met women and children who had been staying in an apartment room on the top floor of a rickety old building. As we reached the top, we were greeted with grins and giggles by the families seeking shelter.
We listened to a presentation about the people who the Casa Nazaret served. I learned that the Border Patrol has a program that is aimed to interrupt migration routes by separating families traveling together. This makes families more vulnerable in an infinite amount of ways.
A fact that left me bewildered was that 75% of these women have had less than a middle school education.
How could this be when I have had the privilege of attending an all-girls private, college preparatory school. I had a flashback of all the things I had learned there and how much I had developed into a confident, independent, thinking leader.
I asked Joanna why this was. She said that even though education was free, families still had to provide money for books and uniforms and transportation. Most families can barely even afford their children taking time off of work to attend school. Since the education for women is so low, it becomes harder as they grow older to find work. Weavings of Hope is a program that provides women with the opportunity to have some sort of income by making bracelets.
After the presentation, I read testimonial after testimonial of women who had passed through Casa Nazaret. I found the main thing that tied a lot of the stories together was family.
I remember one story about a woman who had grown up in a family where she had been neglected simply because she had been born with the wrong set of chromosomes. She was abused both physically and mentally in the most crucial stages of her life. As she started to have children of her own, she made a promise to herself to never expose her children to the hardships she had known growing up. She crossed the border illegally and had four children in America, a place where she could receive aid and her children could receive an adequate education.
One day, she had been driving her daughter to an appointment. She was pulled over, handcuffed, and taken to be detained right in front of her daughter. She had no time to gather her things or say goodbye to her husband or her children. This women was deported back to Mexico, miles away from the loves of her life. But how could she call her children and explain why she had to leave?
At the end of today, I am thankful. I am thankful for the opportunity of not only an education, but one that celebrates what being a women means. I am thankful to have been able to focus on my studies rather than having to work all of the time at a young age. I am thankful for having job opportunities that provide me with more than $4 at the end of my shift. I’m thankful for the nurturing family that continues to care about my whole well being and supports me.
Today has been one of the longest days I have lived thus far in the past twenty years, but easily one of the most meaningful as well. Our entire group woke up to shoot footage at 4:30 a.m. this morning. We drove up to the top of a hill and watched as the sky turned from dark blue to an array of light blues and oranges over the border. Starting my day experiencing the beauty of nature was the perfect way to set the scene of seeing God in what was all around me throughout the day.
In the morning, we visited a women’s shelter organized by the Kino Border Initiative that helps female migrants and their children after they have been deported. KBI primarily works with migrants who have just been deported and provides a warm meal, clothes, medical assistance, and temporary shelter for migrants in need.
We were fortunate enough to spend time helping the KBI staff and listening to the stories of migrants. While we had been oriented about the lives of migrants, I was completely unprepared for what I would hear from migrants firsthand. In the women’s shelter, we met one family who had some members born in Honduras and two members born in Georgia in the United States but still were reunited in Nogales.
Maria C. and I stayed behind to help film Natalia, a performer who was born in the United States but raised in Latin America who has spent her life living in solidarity with migrants. She had worked for KBI for a few years listening to migrants stories and singing for them. We were able to film Natalia sing and play the guitar for migrants, many of whom had just been deported shortly before their arrival for dinner at KBI.
The stories I heard from migrants allowed me to see the perseverance and resilience of those who are seeking a safer and better life for themselves, the crucial its of reuniting with loved ones, and the gratitude of compassion from others helping them in their current situation. Many migrants sometimes feel they deserve what happens to them, from complete poverty to brutality from authorities, but when others listen, there can be hope in a seemingly hopeless and complicated situation.
It’s impossible for me not to see God working through the people I’ve been surrounded by through this experience, from my fellow students who are using their gifts to tell the story of those who are marginalized, to my professors who are giving their time and guidance to us through and through, to the organizations that help migrants in any way possible to alleviate what they are going through, and finally to the migrants themselves who in my experience interacting with them had a smile on their faces and didn’t leave any sense of giving up or ending their journey.