Saints Go Global Returns
Lucy Palma '23
Over Spring Break I joined 10 other students and Ms. Hardwick and Mr. Yee on a trip to San Diego. The trip was led by “Shoulder to Shoulder”, an organization that brings students on global study and service trips to become leaders in the world around them. Our part of the Shoulder to Shoulder program focused on the San Diego and Tijuana border and the ongoing complex issue of immigration in America. Shoulder to Shoulder’s San Diego trip was branded as an opportunity for Learning Service, as opposed to Service Learning. Learning Service dives into a less hands-on service approach, and focuses more on learning about the issues around us and then taking what we learned to make a difference in our community. The Shoulder to Shoulder model touches on how to become an ethical leader in your community, and throughout the experience we were constantly discussing how we could take what we learned and become an ethical leader in Alexandria, and eventually in the rest of the world.
On our first day of the trip, we took two very bumpy flights across the country, until we reached San Diego very tired and VERY hungry. We checked into the hostel, which proved to be a fun experience for all, as we stayed in bunk bedrooms and enjoyed playing pool in the hostel’s common rooms. We then went to get dinner at a local taco spot, ordering all different types of tacos, from Birria to Carne Asada. We then shared our first meal together and talked about our expectations for the trip. Some people had never been to California before, so we talked about how our expectations shifted now that we were in the city. We immediately noticed that San Diego seemed to be a city of many cultures but was dominated heavily by a strong Hispanic presence, which made sense in our minds given we were only a short drive from the Tijuana border.
On our second day, we woke up and ate a delicious bagel breakfast, where we debriefed the day ahead of us. We were scheduled to meet Alex Gomez, our guide for most of the trip, at the historic Old Town San Diego. Once we got there we chatted with Alex about his background and what he does. Besides being a professor at San Diego State University, he works with families on both sides of the border and works to educate groups like us on how the immigration system works. Furthermore, he went into his personal background, telling us about how he immigrated to the United States after his family was in danger in Colombia. He came to the United States on political asylum and has lived here ever since. After chatting with him for a little bit, we were sent on a scavenger hunt around Old Town, with a giant bag of Mexican candy at stake for the winners. We ventured around the small, but historic town, touring cemeteries and Spanish colonial houses. Afterward, we enjoyed another delicious Mexican meal, complete with homemade tortillas and a Mariachi band. We took the train home and took a group trip to the grocery store, stocking up on all the different foods for the week. Once we arrived back at the hostel, we cooked dinner and danced to 80s music before closing the night with a documentary called Chicano Park.
On day three, we got to go visit Chicano Park in person which was an amazing experience, and was the favorite day of the trip for many. Chicano Park is in the center of Barrio Logan, the Mexican-American (Chicano) neighborhood in San Diego. The park was built as a protest against the city of San Diego tearing down houses in Barrio Logan in order to build a highway and the Coronado Bridge. The Barrio Logan community wanted to preserve their culture and community, so they built the park under the Coronado Bridge highway. The park features colorful murals along the highway bridge pillars, and it quickly became a landmark in the community. The murals and the park represent the struggle of the Chicano community to maintain their culture in their neighborhoods, while also representing the hope of preserving that culture. In the documentary we watched, one of the members of the community wished the park would serve as a place where generations could come and gather. Sure enough, 40 years later while we were there, a group of about 100 kids came running into the park to celebrate Ceaser Chavez and have a good time as a community.
The second half of the day was centered around the growing issue of deported veterans, which I didn't even know was an issue before this trip. We zoomed with another Alex, who is a deported veteran currently living in Mexico. He served as an American soldier for years and once he returned from war was deported on a cannabis charge, leaving his wife and children in America. He has been unable to return to America and has been in Mexico for 10 years, missing out on his children's lives and only being able to see them on occasional visits and Facetime. After we zoomed with him we walked a block down the road to the VFW where we watched a meeting with Homeland Security on the issue of deported veterans. Our attendance to the meeting was a spur of the moment thing, but it ended up being one of the most impactful parts of the trip. We met with the commander of the VFW post in Barrio Logan, who was the first female leader of that post. We then listened to a meeting centered around what the government, more specifically Homeland Security, is doing about the issue. It was a town hall structure, so joining us in the audience were all different kinds of people, from organizations helping veterans to lawyers and even people working for congressmen. I was amazed at how all these different people were at the meeting with one end goal in mind, and they were all so knowledgeable on an issue I previously had no knowledge of. I felt as if I did not belong, and although that feeling was uncomfortable at first, it was worth it, because by the end of the meeting I learned a lot and was amazed with how many different people were contributing and bouncing ideas off of each other. After the meeting, we got local rolled tacos from a hole-in-the-wall shop in Barrio Logan. These tacos were some of the best I have ever had! We wrapped up the day by taking the train out to the beautiful coast of La Jolla, where we sat on a grass park that overlooked the ocean and debriefed everything we learned. We watched the sunset and saw some seals perched on the cliffs.
On Day 4 we ate breakfast with Maria Galletas, who is the founder of Madres y Familias Deportadas Center, located in Tijuana, Mexico. Maria has worked tirelessly her whole life helping deported immigrants, and working to get them on their feet again. Her center provides all different types of necessary offerings, such as teaching the women how to sew so they can make money, teaching children English, or just providing a meal for those who do not have one. Her center does it all, from making sure everyone is taken care of to helping all families succeed after being deported. Maria lives in San Diego but travels across the border daily to work at the center, helping kids and their families. I thought it was amazing to see how much of an impact the center had on people, like how Maria really ran a tight ship over in Tijuana, making sure everyone felt welcomed and loved. The second half of the day was spent talking to Rudy and Rodrigo Jacobo who were also professors at SDSU. They discussed push/pull factors with us, and explained how immigration happens because of turmoil or unstable living conditions in the home country of an immigrant, as well as pull factors of the United States, such as job opportunities and safety
On Day five, we had another very impactful day, and for the first time we got to put a face to the name and travel to the actual Tijuana/San Diego border. Once we arrived, I was shocked about the difference in terrain on each side. On the American side, there is no civilization within 10 miles of the wall, and our side is protected by scary looking border patrol agents and a double wall. On the Mexican side, the city of Tijuana is built all the way up to the wall; their local police are the only patrol. . We all described the Mexican side as seemingly much more fun, while our side looked scary and dull. One thing that stood out to me was that the border wall went out into the ocean, but our guide for the day, Daniel Watman, pointed out that the water does not pick a side, it just goes right through the wall, almost making a mockery of it. Daniel then showed us the Bi-National Friendship Park, which he started as a way for families to connect through the border wall. Originally, the park was open at all times during the day, and families could talk across the border and get close enough to touch each other. Through the park, he was able to run language exchanges and reunite families who were separated. However, during Covid, the park shut down and the border patrol has refused to open it ever since. The US side looks dead and has all the flowers and plants overgrown because no one has been allowed in, while the Mexican side is booming with flowers and life.
While we were talking at the border, the border patrol cars came up to where we were talking. At first, we were hesitant to go up to them, but then I decided I would definitely regret it if I did not at least try to talk to them. So I went up to the car and started having a conversation with the agent. Shortly after the rest of the group joined me and we asked the agents questions such as “Why did you choose this job?” and “Do you feel like the wall works?” While the agents did not answer every question we asked, for the ones we did ask we got very different responses. One agent said he became a border patrol agent because he was in the military and wanted to do something afterwards like being a police officer. The other agent we talked to told us it was just a job that put food on the table for his kids. This answer really struck me because I could not imagine it being “just a job.” After seeing everything we saw on the trip, from family separation to people dying on the journey, to the terrible lives they faced in their home countries, the border patrol honestly seemed like the bad guys. Hearing it from the perspective of “just a job” frustrated me because in my mind it is hard to see it like that. How can ruining people’s lives and taking them from their children or loved ones be “just a job”? While I did not fully agree with this outlook on border patrol, it opened my perspective and helped me see it as something different than I had been seeing it, which I appreciated.
After the day at the border, we watched a movie called “Who Is Dayani Crystal”, which is a story about a migrant who crosses the border in order to work and send money back to his family, but dies along the way. It honestly showed me that not everyone makes it and the journey through the desert takes a large physical and mental toll. The movie really reinforced the feeling in me that migrants who come to our country illegally are only coming because they have to. They are leaving everything they know and are comfortable with behind, in order to seek a life in a foregin country, where they know little to no one. One thing Alex touched on was that sometimes we forget that migrants often do not want to be American citizens, they do not want to be in America, but they have to be in order to survive.
Finally, on our last day of our journey, we traveled out to the desert to stay in Jacumba Springs for the night. We packed our rental cars with food and our overnight bags, made some playlists, and drove about an hour and a half out to the desert tower, where we would stay the night. Once we got to Jacumba Springs, we went to visit the wall that was out there, which was immediately different. Although it was still guarded by border patrol, there was not a second wall, so we could literally stick our legs through the wall and be on Mexican soil. In Tijuana, the US built an extra wall about 100 feet back from the original border wall, so we could not get that close. While we were there we found ladders that were used to climb the wall, and talked about how difficult the journey is when crossing in the desert. Even standing there talking we could feel how powerful the sun was, and we could not imagine walking all day in it without any food or water. After walking to the wall we talked with Eric and Jennifer, who were siblings that although they were American citizens, had to face deportation with their parents numerous times. They remembered being deported back to Mexico, a country they had never lived in before, because the CBP agents found their parents and deported them. Eric and Jennifer barely knew Spanish and were expected to live in this new country as if they belonged there. One of the main things I took away from their story was a failed sense of belonging in both Mexico and the US. Although they should feel a sense of belonging in the US, given it has been their home since they were born, CBP stripped that from them by deporting them with their parents. In Mexico, they also did not belong because they did not speak the language or grow up in the culture. They felt alone-without a true home or place that was theirs. Recently, they came back to the US by themselves, and Alex and Maria have unofficially adopted them, helping them navigate paying taxes and trying to help them get an education, given they lost so many years of it having to go back and forth from Mexico and the US. They enrolled the kids in JobCorps, which is an organization that gives them an education while also teaching them vocational skills so they can make money and establish themselves in America. I was inspired by how brave they were; I could not imagine what I would be like if I had to go through what they went through. After talking with Eric and Jennifer, we did a water drop, where we walked into the desert and put gallons of water under trees and bushes for the migrants who would be walking across the desert. As we were walking, Alex told me that the border patrol agents often come and slash the water bottles, draining them of water so the migrants cannot have it. He also told me that sometimes other people would come and poison the water bottles. This infuriated me, as I could not see how one human could treat another human like that. It hurts my heart that these people could be so desperate for another life that they would make this journey, risking their lives for a job or safety, and we as Americans would do everything we could to make that journey even harder.
We then went back to the desert and reflected on our entire trip. Throughout the trip, we had many meaningful conversations that will stick with me for a long time. That night I and three other students slept upstairs in the tower, which was basically completely outside. It shocked me that a migrant could sleep in the conditions we slept in most of the time without a sleeping bag because the entire time it was freezing cold and windy. It made sense to me how they could die on the journey solely from the temperature changes, because in the desert it went from extremely hot to extremely cold very quickly, which could easily be fatal if you were not prepared or did not have the resources to protect yourself. Overall I think this trip was very eye-opening and I learned so much. I would recommend to all the students in our community to take advantage of our relationship with “Shoulder to Shoulder” and go on one of their programs, either through the school or directly through the program!