On Saturday, our group went on an interesting adventure. We followed a soft-spoken Quaker man, whose white hair was longer than mine, into the desert in order to gain a better perspective on what migrants go through on their journey north. Our fearless leader, “Lil John” as we called him, took us under barbed wire fences, over walls of rock, and through uneven rocky brush lined with heavily thorned desert plants under the early morning desert sun. I went through 4 bottles of water.
As I lay in my bed after a long day of editing, I find myself missing my airless air mattress that I spent two weeks sleeping on.
I miss the dry heat.
I miss the people we encountered.
I miss the car rides (kinda).
I miss Nogales.
When I came home Saturday, I was immediately asked by a friend how the trip went. But I couldn’t for some reason come up with a clear and concise way to answer her question.
Because it’s complicated. The immigration crisis is complicated. There isn’t just two sides to this story. The narrative intertwines and intersects different perspectives creating a web of conflicts, relationships and mistreatment.
I can’t compile a paragraph and just explain everything that happened the past two weeks.
How do I explain my emotions when I am so unsure of what I am feeling? Over the past two weeks I’ve felt, mad, ignorant, ashamed, upset, hopeful, excited and unsure. And I am still processing all the experiences and information that I’ve received.
During our interviews we asked the question, “What would you say to people who think they are not responsible for migrants because they are not US citizens?” The response we received every time was, you need to come to the border, you need to see what life is like for the migrant.
And we did just that.
This trip transformed my thoughts on immigration. Through our interviews and experiences, immigration was humanized. It is easy to disassociate ourselves from it because of distance or lack of interest. But it’s important to humanize immigration.
When you have to stare at something directly in the face you begin to break away little pieces in order to find the problem. It’s not an easy thing to face a problem so head on. When you do, you realize that you are apart of the problem. We all are. We are not helping fix the current immigration crisis by how we are currently living. People are arrogant of what is actually going on. You might think you have a grasp on what is happening but it is not until you are there facing it head on that you can truly grasp and attain all the conflicts that are happening just in Nogales.
I think what it ultimately comes down to is that there is no easy solution. There are problems not just in Mexico but in the United States. The problem all across the border are effecting all of us, yes all of us. We are all contributing to it.
So how do I explain that to somebody?
Well, my hope is that the film will give people just a taste of what is happening and then that will invite them to learn more and to ask those complicated questions.
In no apparent order I have posted some of my favorite photos and the memories that are associated with each. Enjoy!
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.
I haven’t had that many goodbyes to speak of, but I can tell you straight off the bat that I am not a fan.
They feel final and long and drawn out. Overdone. Severe as winter. Hard as bone. At least the goodbyes that I have known were like that.
Saying goodbye to the people of Nogales was painful and forceful. I kept thinking that I didn’t want to go back to Omaha. How could I come back to my reality when I had just witnessed so much suffering?
I didn’t want to say goodbye to the people of Kino or to Pepe. It felt too final. Like there was no hope of ever seeing them again.
On our last day at Kino, I immediately sought out Pepe. Most of our group sat around Pepe as we watched him paint. There was some conversation exchanged but for the most part we all sat there in silence unsure of what to say.
As I am writing this blog post, I am uncertain of where Pepe is. I am constantly thinking and praying for him hoping that he has food, shelter and water.
When it was time to say our final goodbyes I hugged Pepe and thanked him for everything and wished him luck. As I walked away, I looked back at him for what is probably that last time and he said, “Hasta Luego,” which in Spanish means “See ya later.” I smiled but as soon as I turned my head, my smile turned into tears.
Somehow saying that phrase includes the hope and promise that I will indeed see him again soon
But, the likelihood of seeing Pepe again is slim. I know of Pepe’s future plans and I am uncertain of what the outcome will be.
Now that we are back, it is essential that we remain thankful for the moments we were lucky enough to have in Nogales.
It may be difficult to accept, but it is important to remember that all human relationships eventually come to an end.Instead of looking at relationships from a purely physical perspective it is important we realize our relationships are much more.
Although our relationships may end physically, spiritually we are always connected.
Now I’ll be the first to admit this abstract concept is rather difficult to comprehend, however for me it has been a very powerful perspective to adopt.
While saying goodbye may close the physical door, we can always revisit our relationships through our memories.
Your memories are more powerful than you can imagine. Revisit them frequently and you will find that you have the ability to connect with anyone at anytime, regardless of location.
By being thankful we are able to connect with the true essence of life.
Instead of focusing on what you won’t be able to do in the future take sometime and be thankful for what you have already done.
I am thankful for the Kino Border Initiative.
I am thankful for those helping migrants.
I am thankful for meeting Pepe.
Time is measured in interviews, outings to capture b-roll and numerous opportunities to bear witness throughout the immersion of the Backpack Journalism journey. The Backpack Nogales group continuously lost track of the demanding days that were filled with time at the comedor with migrants, meeting women and children at the Nazareth House, attending Mass in Arivaca, enjoying meals with our Jesuit hosts, following a migrant path in the Coronodo National Forest and walking Nogales, Sonora.
Everyone has a story and each account of a life shapes the tale of humanity. Josseline Hernández Quinteros, a 14 year-old from El Salvador, is part of our story of human existence. We learned that Josseline was attempting to unite with her mother in California and lost her life in the desert not far from where we stood in the Coronodo Forest. At the border, Union Pacific announces on their cars that we’re “Building America” as the trains roll through South and North America. Trucks wait at the checkpoint in Mexico with “God Bless America” printed on their trailers – trailers carrying produce and goods to distribute throughout our country.
The cars and trucks pass and goods are delivered to a land where we pride ourselves on our freedoms and justice for all. Yet we choose to condemn people like Josseline who seek opportunities in a nation that was built by immigrants and migrant workers. We spend billions of dollars each year and have put up a wall along an invisible line to secure the border. We shackle the hands and feet of people who cross this boundary and we call it being tough on crime.
I have asked myself: What circumstances would force me to leave my home? What would it take for me to leave my family? To be labeled a criminal? To face humiliation in a foreign country? How could my best option be to cross the desert and risk the cartel and to risk death? We learned that for every body recovered in the desert it is estimated that ten others are never found. The disappeared leave behind families with no closure. What desperation could drive me to chance never being seen again?
I happened to be reading Blindness by Nobel-laureate José Saramago during our journey. The novel tells the story of a city hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” and Saramago uses the blindness as a metaphor for social and political crisis. The only explanation for the epidemic is offered at the end when a character finally says, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”
I know that avoiding eye contact with the homeless man on the street corner in Omaha doesn’t make him go away. I know that even though I’m no longer in Nogales, there are still people being deported through cattle chutes, being dehumanized and losing their lives in the desert hundreds and thousands of miles away from me.
In his Nobel lecture in 1998 Saramago said, “The apprentice thought, ‘we are blind,’ and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.”
From Nogales to Omaha, complicated issues abound and we left Nogales with more questions than answers. Despite the tragedy, the complications and sorrow we were witness to during this Backpack Journalism journey we also saw many smiles, much optimism and heard stories of hope and courage for restoring human dignity. Isabel Garcia, Pima County Legal Defender and advocate for immigrants’ rights, spoke of dreamers and of the youth who give her hope.
Backpack students agreed that while the issues are complicated, compassion is not. Students have said these journeys have been one of the best experiences of their lives. These students dream of corgis and keep an ever-growing list of corgi names for the day when they have a pet. These students also have plans to serve as agents of change and to work alongside marginalized people in the world through programs such as the Peace Corps and JVC. The students come up with hysterical “would you rather” questions and they also come up with serious and engaging questions that target issues of social justice.
This year’s group is made up of dancing queens, including John and Carol. This year’s group mastered the coyote howl, but has yet to master Nico snaps. This year our eyes were opened in Nogales and we were each blessed to be a witness.
As a journalist with a crappy memory, I have learned to avidly write down powerful quotes that I want to remember forever. After looking through all of my notes from our trip, these are the 9 that stand out to me the most:
- “The challenge of immigration politics is that it is driven by fear”
- “Celebrate resilience, give into moments of joy”
- “What’s most personal is most universal”
- “Try to listen to the space so you’re aware of what’s around you with an open heart”
- “The border wall would not exist if we did not have borders between our ears”
- “May she rest in peace, and may we be restless for peace”
- “You can’t build a wall against hope”
- “When you stop asking questions, you become complacent with the situation”
- “You have worth. You deserve to be treated as a human being — I think that’s something we all need to hear”
Here in my last day on this wonderful journey down here in Nogales I would like to just through out some final thoughts onto paper to share.
We started the morning by going to El Comedor to say our goodbyes. It was hard to leave because I know that I have left a chunk of my heart down here. I have fallen in love with the migrants who come in with their heads down but leave as a family and smiles on their faces.
Then we went to downtown Nogales, Sonora and walked around for almost 2 hours. That was really fun because we weren’t carrying cameras or doing anything but soaking it all in. Matthew and I walked about as far as you could go before going into the neighborhoods. Then we really wanted ice cream so we asked shop owners along the way who knew little or no English. It was actually a really great experience. We ended up getting smoothies that were made of fresh fruit and it was so delicious. It was the largest smoothie I had ever seen and it was only $3.50!
In the early afternoon we went to Patagonia Park which is this beautiful 2 mile long lake near Nogales. It was so peaceful and relaxing. Definitely much need after these past two weeks and before our two days of driving ahead. Also if you want to see me learn ballet in a lake check out our snapchat account. It was pretty fun.
After we got back I went for a run from our house to the wall and ran along side it for a while. I turned my music off there and just reflected on all the stories I have heard and how complicated this issue really is.
I finished the night talking to Father Pete for a while. I lost track of time but I think it was about one and a half hours. It was a great way to end my time here. We talked about many things including what I had experienced in the last few weeks and life experiences.
Truly a part of my heart will forever be in Nogales and the people who work and pass through El Comedor. As I was on my run I was listening to some music and the song Sometimes it takes a Mountain came on by the Gaither Vocal Band. Below is a snippet of it but I encourage you to watch it on YouTube.
I faced a mountain,
That I never faced before
That’s why I’m calling on the Lord
I know it’s been awhile,
But Lord please hear my prayer
I need you like I never have before.
Sometimes it takes a mountain
Sometimes a troubled sea
Sometimes it takes a desert
To get a hold of me
Your Love is so much stronger
Then whatever troubles me
Sometimes it takes a mountain
To trust you and believe
My prayer tonight is for an openness of heart. An openness to hear God’s voice and His voice through others. For all of the warriors I have met and all of those who are on their journey to the United States, for safe travel and a promising future. For all those who can not escape violence in Mexico and South America. For all who pass away on their migration north for a better life. For Father Pete, Ivan, Joanna, Father Sean, and all of the sisters so that they may continue to serve all who come to El Comedor and to continue to bring smiles and love to all they meet. For the cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora so that they may continue in their efforts to help migrants and to keep open minds and open hearts when faced with difficult decisions regarding immigration. And for safe travels for our group as we travel back tomorrow morning to Omaha. Amen.
Today we met up with two of Carol’s friends at Saguaro National Park. One is an accomplished herpetologist and the other is currently a journalism/magazine/editor professor at University of Arizona. They took us around the park and taught us many things about the plants and animals of the park. It was really a nice day and a beautiful park.
After the park we went to a restaurant with both of Carol’s friends. One of Carol’s friends is named Carol as well so we called her Carol 2. I got to sit next to her at lunch. We talked almost the whole time. She applied twice to work at National Geographic out of college as a writer and the second time she got in. She did some time in the office then became the editor at National Geographic for their travel magazine. She was telling me stories of the places she got to go and what she wrote about. Also she was on the launch team of the National Geographic web site when it first came to the Internet. I loved talking to her and seeing how excited yet humble she was. My teacher Carol told us that Carol 2 has won just about every teaching award possible.
Later in the evening Father Pete, Ivan, and a new guest came over for pizza. The new guests name was Mario. We talked one on one for a while before dinner started and then at the table. His story went a little like this. He was born in Portugal then did his undergrad in the states. Then he went to the University of Europe in Belgium to receive a masters. Their master programs are only 1 year so it is super intense. After that he served in the United Nations as a diplomat for 28 years. He lived for at least 2 years in 12 different countries and is fluent in 4 languages. He was telling me how he chose to live a life in service for others and how he always wants to give back. He said that that is the way to live a life and I totally agree with him. After his 28 years with the U.N. he got a call from the Vatican to serve there for 2 years. He did that and said it was a really good experience and now he is in between Spain and Boston in retirement. He is here in Nogales to do some consulting work for the Kino Border Initiative. I think it was God’s plan for us to meet because he left an impression on me and we had a great and meaningful talk.
Tomorrow is our last day in Nogales before we head back home. I continue to meet these amazing people and there are so many stories that will be left untold. I am now a witness to the raw reality of life on the border. I alone can not change this reality but I highly encourage you to spend time reading testimonies or to even come to Nogales if you ever have the opportunity.
I want to keep this blog short so I can get some sleep but I wanted to update everyone on what we did today.
A small group of us went into Nogales, Sonora at sunrise to shoot some b-roll of the city coming to life. It was really fun and I love being on the Mexico side. Then we went to McDonalds where it was Nico’s first time ever eating food there.
Later we drove to Tuscon where we went to the courthouse and witnessed the stream line. This is when 50 to 70 illegal immigrants are put on trial. 5 go up at a time and they all plead guilty. Once they plead guilty they are taken to jail for their sentence then deported once their time is up. The courts do this 5 days a week. That is over 300 people getting tried a week and that is just in Tuscon.
At night I grilled more hamburgers for everyone. These ones turned out very good and they were so juicy. We all ate outside and then played a game afterwords. Once the game was done I started a fire in the charcoal grill and we roasted marshmallows. It was a very relaxing night.
Keep the prayers coming for my fellow classmates, teachers and myself. Especially for the migrants who are risking their lives as you read this in order to come to the U.S. We only have 2 more days down here until we travel back to Homaha. I’m trying to make the most of what little time is left. I can’t wait to share my experiences with all of you back home.