Historias De Las Tierras Fronterizas (Stories from the Borderlands)

Late last year the New Sanctuary Coalition launched the #SanctuaryCaravan, a 40-day encampment of immigration organizers and lawyers doing direct service work with migrants moving northward from or through Central America.

When the New Sanctuary Coalition invited Auburn to accompany their work on the southwest border, our team sent Rev. Jason Chesnut of ANKOSfilms to document and help amplify the #SanctuaryCaravan and the stories of the migrants and volunteers involved. These are some of the people he met there.

[Credits: Jason Chesnut of ANKOSfilms, with New Sanctuary Coalition and Auburn Seminary, © 2019]

Jason talked with Auburn’s director of digital strategy, Keisha E. McKenzie, about what he learned from his time in California and Tijuana, what people inland most need to know about the borderlands, and the ethics of movement storytelling.

Keisha E. McKenzie: It’s now been a couple of months since your time at the border. What was the first thing you noticed about life inland when you came home?

Jason Chesnut: I was in the San Diego/Tijuana borderlands for almost a month, and when I came back I was a bit stunned as to how much I had become accustomed to crossing borders. I went to Tijuana almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. The lack of border patrol and the seemingly unending search for “proper” documentation in/around the San Ysidro border crossing was all of a sudden absent.

KM: Baltimore, where you live, is more than 400 miles from the U.S. border with Canada but only 100 miles from the Atlantic coast. We learned last year that the borderlands aren’t only what people imagine as the border near Mexico or Canada: the border extends 100 miles inland from any part of the United States’ border or coast so more than 60% of the U.S. population lives in the borderlands. In what ways do you think differently about the border now because of the time you spent with migrants and organizers there?  

JC: As a white man, even as one who grew up near the border in Texas, I have the extreme privilege of not having to think about the myriad of connected issues from immigration to criminal justice to racial politics. And even with the migration justice and education efforts I’ve joined, going to the borderlands in the Californias opened my eyes in different ways.

The border itself at San Ysidro is like nothing else –– it is the busiest land crossing on this planet. But in the midst of that chaos and community I was able to deeply connect with the work of documentation and storytelling. Getting to know migrants and hearing their stories reminded me that I can’t categorize all those who migrate in the same way: their reasons for migrating are as diverse as humanity itself.

KM: Which elements of your faith most nourished or challenged you while you were out in the field?

JC: By far, I was nourished by my deep commitment to the Jesus movement, particularly in Jesus’ promise to always be with us who’re trying to follow him. I believe he’s particularly with us when we follow him to the places on the margins –– the places with fences and walls –– where he spent his time.

KM: Tell us a little about the process you went through while you were in San Diego and Tijuana to film the volunteer stories featured in the video.  

JC: My creative process is centered on stories: I consider what story(ies) needed to be told, and why. What impact would the stories have on the audience? What/how did we want them to feel? Getting to that particular story in the borderlands was the result of conversations with the extremely intelligent and aware people I had the great opportunity to work with. When we had that story, I worked to establish a space where we could tell it. I spent a lot of time with volunteers coming to the area to create a presence there, and to encourage people to trust me and my work with New Sanctuary Coalition. Then, with their consent, we would talk in front of the camera — and I tried my best to convey the way they fit in with this larger narrative.

KM: What were some of the most consistent messages you heard from these migrants and seasoned volunteers? What do newcomers to the borderlands need to know?

JC: I continually heard how important it is for people who are newcomers to the work or to the area or both to listen to the voices on the ground. They know what they need, and our role is to listen and amplify as much as possible. We cannot see ourselves as saviors; saving is the opposite of what’s needed.

I also heard that migration is a human right, and doesn’t need the qualifiers that are often placed upon it. People migrate because they can and they always have. They don’t need to be of particular, capitalistic ‘use’ or extraordinarily ‘good’ to have the right to migrate.

Immigrants are at the heart of the American experiment yet they are effectively erased from our national story unless they are from majority-white, European countries. The current U.S. policy of separating children from their parents and holding migrants in cages takes a toll on people who are demonized and brutalized because of the color of their skin and the language they speak and the place where they were born. I think newcomers need to be aware of these dynamics, and access whatever reservoirs of hope and compassion they possibly can.  

KM: We’ve talked before about prioritizing consent and permissions when documenting migrant movements and people in sanctuary. Media release permissions are pretty standard for film and photography, though, so what’s different about consent or permission when you’re documenting movements or migrants?

JC: It’s a great question. Since working in chaotic, shifting landscapes like Tijuana/San Diego can add even more stress and possible misunderstanding when it comes to gaining permission, a strong level of consent with the people who trust you to tell their story is paramount.

Those who document through the creative arts need more than permission; we also need trust. Particularly for someone like me coming in from the outside, those working with the organizations that host us and who might have some of those trusting relationships already have to leverage them and advocate for us. People have to trust those of us behind the camera for us to produce a compelling and honest narrative.

This relates to larger movements as well: I can’t overstate the importance of trust. Without trust, no story can be told with any semblance of integrity. In this era of propaganda and highly-doctored images and films, we can’t afford to play the game of sensationalism over storytelling. We need to value trust and relationship above all else, so that we can tell actual stories that are real and true and have the capacity to expose injustice and fundamentally change things.

KM: As you developed this video, how were you thinking about translation and captioning? Do your choices tell us anything about who you wanted this work to reach?

JC: I wanted the audience to hear Spanish as much as possible, since almost everyone on the México side speaks both languages, but Americans (particularly white Americans) almost exclusively speak only English. So with Spanish-speakers on camera, if they did speak English, I tried to have the interview be at least one-third in Spanish.

I also consistently hire out to get English captioning for all my videos, so that a high level of accessibility is standard. This time, you helped me think about having Spanish subtitles as well, which is a great option for this video.

KM: If another filmmaker or photographer told you they wanted to do this kind of documentation, what would you most want them to know?

JC: I would tell them to be ready to go with the flow. Nothing is certain or in stone when it comes to the borderlands, especially in the face of the current U.S. stance on our borders, which flirts with fascism.

You need to be able to shift plans on a moment’s notice, and take trips that might lead to nothing. Look at things in a different way; be ready to mine narrative from visuals and audibles you might have never thought about before.

Also remember that some people who are escaping violence and struggling to live in the midst of extraordinarily intense situations want to tell their story, and we need to honor their agency while also respecting confidentiality.

KM: Yes! We have to hold both. So much of the world is on fire right now. Where do you think people of faith should be paying special attention? What gives you hope in the midst?

JC: “So much of the world is on fire” is a necessary and sobering way to put it. As a Lutheran, I often think of things in the both/and universe. I think we need to pay attention to both the places in which human beings struggle to survive and live with dignity and the moments where joy remains. If we obsess only with the struggle, we risk creating/curating disaster porn; I think we also need to remember why this planet and its unique human race are so necessary and worth saving.

KM: Thanks so much for your heart and commitment, Jason. Where can people learn more about ANKOSfilms and the other faith-rooted justice work you do?

JC: Thank you, Keisha, for this opportunity! I am lucky to work with a diverse array of organizations and people working on the forefront of faith-rooted justice work to help tell their stories. You can check out our YouTube page (search “ANKOSfilms”) and go to our website (below) if you’d like to partner with us. I think we live in a unique and terrible and exquisite time on the enormous timeline of humanity –– and we have stories to tell. And I think now’s the time to tell them –– if not now, when?

Rev. Jason Chesnut is Principal and Creative Director at ANKOSfilms and an ordained clergy member in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He’s based in Baltimore, MD, and will travel to film. Follow ANKOSfilms on Facebook or Twitter.

Dr. Keisha E. McKenzie believes that all people have inherent worth and dignity, that we deserve a world where all of us can flourish, and that people of faith must help to make that world of possibility real. Join other faith-rooted justice organizers using Auburn’s digital organizing program, Groundswell Movement, on Facebook or Twitter.

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