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.
When I studied abroad in Rome last year, one of my favorite professors forbid photographs. He would take us to the most beautiful churches in the world and go absolutely ballistic if he saw a student snap a photo.
Despite my initial annoyance, I learned how to appreciate whatever was in front of me (something very hard to do nowadays). Besides filming and updating the Snapchat, I didn’t take pictures during my time at the border.
Thankfully, my classmates did.
Here are some of my absolute favorite people/memories:
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 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.
I’ve always imagined what it would look like. Long travel days. Poor hygiene. An air of excitement. I can happily say that I was almost right. Our group’s hygiene is on fleek.
Over the last two days we have traveled over 1,400 miles in a total of 24 hours of driving. There has been sleeping, singing, sight-seeing and more sleeping. Our already fun group grew even closer; I guess two vans full of antsy students is to blame.
Even though we were driving to the border, we didn’t discuss it or our mission much. The vibe of the van changed when we approached the outskirts of the city. The beautiful desert scenery was obstructed with border control and a giant drone searching for immigrants in the mountains. It was surreal. I felt like I was in a movie rather than my own country. We played inspirational music and remained silent until we approached our home for the next two weeks. Those final moments in the car set the mood for our mission.
Here is a quote that I have kept with me in travels throughout Europe a that I see fit for this journey:
“A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again,” Macrina Wiederkehr.
My name is Natalie Riordan and I am a journalism student at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. For the next several weeks, my classmates and I will be creating a documentary about immigration. Please think of us in your prayers or positive thoughts as we embark to the border (see Nogales on map below).
For those of you who don’t know, like me when I first applied, Creighton is a Jesuit school. Magis was the first Jesuit value I was taught upon my arrival to Creighton almost three years ago. Magis simply means “more”. While the definition may be simple, the actions to fulfill it are much more complex.
Before I knew that little, Latin word, I felt it inside of me. In high school, I was dedicated to my studies, dance, volunteering and leadership. I was internally competitive, completely motivated and entirely overwhelmed. I wanted to be successful, not for me, but for the parents who dedicated themselves just so I had the opportunity.
I still feel magis inside, fueling me, throughout my college experience. The motivation of magis is why I decided to complete three majors and a minor in four years, why I studied in Italy for a semester, why I’ve had three internships, why I hold executive office on three different campus organizations and why I am going on this trip.
I used to think that magis was measured through a quantitative method; if my planner was not filled, I failed. It is only day one and this trip has already taught me that the philosophy of magis is more about the quality of work.
For the first time, this documentary will be the only responsibility that I will focus on. I want to give more to my classmates, professors and to the people and stories that I will tell. I am excited to go beyond the textbook and experience what it is like to be a real journalist. I am scared of the unknown and the horrors that I may hear. I am motivated, in a new way, by magis.