Service/Learning Experiences


Conocimiento 2018 Trip – USC students with southern Arizona “Samaritans” at a humanitarian water station for migrants in the Sonoran Desert near Ajo, AZ

CONOCIMIENTO, “Becoming Aware”

Interfaith Action and Reflection on Border Justice in Arizona

All USC students, of any or no religious background, are invited to apply to be part of an unforgettable adventure next Spring Break, March 13-20, 2022. CONOCIMIENTO is an experience in service, advocacy, learning and spiritual reflection in the Tucson, Arizona area. Read reflections on the 2014 trip2012 trip2011 trip.

Participants in the trip will meet between January and March to prepare, exploring the role of different religions in movements for social change, and exploring immigrant justice issues in Los Angeles. The week in Tucson will be both a service-learning experience and an interfaith spiritual retreat.

Apply to be a participant in the March 2022 trip.

In the Tucson area, we will work with faith-based groups focused on human rights and immigration reform. We’ll meet with undocumented migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, Border Patrol (“migra”) officers, local officials and activists, and rabbis and pastors working for immigration reform. We’ll visit a medical clinic that serves undocumented people. We’ll participate in the weekly vigil at a shrine in Tucson that memorializes those who have died crossing the border. We’ll visit the US side of the border fence at Nogales and visit sacred sites in the Tohono O’Odham Native American reservation. We will experience Native American, Catholic Christian, Jewish, Protestant Christian, and worship and spiritual practice of other faiths. We’ll meditate, pray, and reflect together on our experiences, in the midst of the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. We’ll have free time for enjoying the cultural richness and scenery of the area, as well. We’ll be living simply for the week, sleeping in sleeping bags on a church floor and sharing meals with local people.

To participate, apply or contact Rev. Jim Burklo at or 213-740-6110.  Signups begin in the fall: students will begin preparations for the trip in early January 2022.  Campus Activities has a fund to which you can apply for financial support for the trip.

Bordados: Remembering the Migrants

Many Americans would consider these objects “basura” (garbage), along with the rest of the disintegrating backpacks, shoes and clothing items scattered throughout the Mexican-American Borderlands. Yet the tortilla cloths, also known as “bordados,” and the water vessel carry immense symbolic significance. They represent the survival needs for the hundreds of thousands of people who have crossed the Sonora Desert to enter the United States. Even today people continue to cross into the United States through the most hazardous regions to avoid detention, and even today too many die for their attempt. 71 bodies and counting have been recovered along the Arizona border alone since October 1st, 2011. When taken in this context, these artifacts paint a picture of the sons and daughters of the Americas who have departed from their families and taken an extremely dangerous road in search of economic opportunities and family reunification.

The humanity within the bordado stitching cries out, demanding to be seen not as the garbage of dehumanized criminal aliens but as the belongings of people who deserve recognition for their hardship as migrants caught in the crossroads of xenophobia, scapegoating and exploitation.

I know because in March, I walked through the same desert. A cactus needle an inch tall poked through the soles of my tennis shoes. The hot sun beat down, burning my shoulders, granting me the visibility that most migrants traveling by night lack. My mouth was too parched for words, my lips cracked. As a participant of the Alternative Spring Break to the Tucson Arizona area, I experienced a fraction of conditions that migrants go through. I brought the sensations of the border experience back to Los Angeles because I know that the hardships of immigrants do not end upon reaching their destination.

The 11 million undocumented people who live in the United States and comprise 5% of the total labor force in this country continuously live in fear of deportation. They do not receive electoral representation, despite paying state and federal taxes. If deported, as over 200 men and women are each night by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they may have no other option but to return their families and communities in the United States by attempting to cross the border. Mexico’s drug violence continues to divide towns based on cartel factions and endanger young adults, as the March 30th CNN report “Deportations After Dark” shows . Not only do the bordados cry for recognition, they cry for change- a change to the deportation practices that have created a United States refugee camps in the towns south of the Border.

Or so believes the federal public defender Heather Williams who spoke to our group as well as five other spring break college groups after we bore witness to an Operation Streamline court hearing. Every weekday in border counties along the Mexican-American border up to 70 migrants in each county are brought to federal court trial under the Operation Streamline program. How effective is this program? A policy brief from the UC Berkeley Law School cites that Operation Streamline “diverts crucial law enforcement resources away from fighting violent crime along the border, fails to effectively reduce undocumented immigration, and violates the U.S. Constitution.”

As I watched 50 men and two women stand before a judge, I appreciated the bordados once again because they kept me grounded in the humanity of the migrants, a humanity that is taken away when all 52 were brought into the court room with thick shackles around theirs wrists, ankles and waists. I witnessed a man who, having had only gone through one year of schooling in his life, could not confirm the spelling of his own last name as he plead ‘culpable’ (guilty) to crossing without authorization. After pleading guilty in unison, he and the five others next to him were led out the side door to await impending deportation or jail time. These migrants, most of who hold no criminal history and are not involved in the drug cartel, are being endangered by the deportation practices and dehumanized by the Operation Streamline program.

As I write this, another Operation Streamline trial begins in Texas. In three hours, 70 more migrants will stand before a judge in San Diego. By tomorrow morning, hundreds will be deported across Mexico, forced to fend for themselves with no cellphones, money, and perhaps without the bordado once embroidered for them by their mothers. They have been rejected from the salad bowl of American society because society has dehumanized them to the status of criminal aliens, and cast-aside their cultural heritage, including tortillas cloths- so they sit disintegrating onto the desert floor.

On the table in front of the three hanging bordados lies a piece of white fabric with a loose thread and a needle. Through the Bordado Project, USC students have begun to embroider their own bordados in recognition of the struggle for human rights taking place along the Mexican-American border, in honor of those who have passed away crossing the desert, in honor of the Samaritans that place water in the desert for the crossing migrants, and, finally, in honor of the 86,000 American citizen families that have been separated by deportations since 2008. What can you do? Check out the Bordado Project movie on Youtube, or visit the Fishbowl Chapel, and begin to stitch together your own web of feelings and actions to contest the unconstitutional and inhuman practices occurring in your country.

Alejandra Vargas-Johnson (graduated from USC in 2012)
April 25th, 2012