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The Tijuana Diaries

High Impact Leadership Trip Members

The High Impact Leadership Trip (HILT) program at Concordia is a student-led trip drawing focus to a certain issue, promoting leadership opportunities and change upon arriving home. In 2013, five students, Ashley Thompson, Marina Frestedt-Latourelle, Kate Schiffman, Taylor Tielke, and Kari Simmons, accompanied by their faculty advisor Dr. Andrew Lindner, travelled to San Diego and Tijuana to study immigration and inequality during their stay at Casa del Migrante. Here are their personal accounts of an impactful event on their trip.


Andrew M. Lindner (Professor/Adviser) 

For me, the 2013 High Impact Leaming Trip to San Diego and Tijuana was an object lesson in letting go. Having led a number of Concordia's Summer School Abroad programs, I know what it means to lead a group of students on a program away from campus. It means researching in advance which mode of transportation to take, when it leaves, and how much it costs. It means leading the group to tours and meetings, planned months in advance, and generally having some sense of what to expect. It means selecting lunch spots decisively and making sure the meal is over by 12:49 PM at the latest, so that you'll have time to get to the group's next destination. Leading an off-campus program involves a set of responsibilities that would delight any control freak. And in San Diego and Tijuana, I had none of them. For most of the program, I was a fellow learner who just so happened to pay for things.


During the fall of 2012, two students ( with occasional advice from me) organized our program in collaboration with Darin Johnson, a campus pastor at San Diego State University, and Transformational World Opportunities (TWO), a non-profit that promotes global understanding through immersive experiences in Mexico. When those two students were unable to attend, Taylor Tiel­ke and Kari Simmons, two of the students who had signed up for the trip, volunteered to take on the leadership roles.


So, as we stood in the lobby of the San Diego air­port on the first morning of our program, and Taylor and Kari turned to me to ask how we might get to Agape House on the SDSU campus, I just shrugged my shoulders. Rather than shirking my responsibility as a faculty leader, I was doing my job by forcing them to figure it out. And that's what they did. After a quick cab ride, we took the Green Line trolley from Old Town to the SDSU stop and walked a couple of blocks to our destination.

Maybe it seems like a trivial task, but global learn­ing shouldn't let students -to borrow a phrase from the Beatles -"relax and float downstream." Over the next week, we learned about the Latino community in San Diego, shared meals with immigrants in Tijuana, and spent an afternoon at a rural Mexican orphanage. Through these experiences, it was obvious to me that all five of the students grew in their abilities to feel comfortable in the presence of difference, to navigate urban spaces, and to be leaders in the logistical and substantive work of engaged travel. 


The Border by Ashley Thompson

As we crossed from the U.S into Mexico, my heart was pounding out of my chest like something was going to happen, like they were going to stop me for anything that looked even remotely sketchy. Clinging to my passport,just in case, I headed up a flight of stairs with the group and walked right past border control. We were stopped when they saw Taylor's bag, but they let him quickly go, realizing there was nothing wrong. It was simple really; all we had to do was walk along a wall and we were there, in Mexico.


We had settled at Casa de! Migrante and were politely offered a brief tour of Tijuana. As we drove around, we looked at all of these beautiful rolling hills, but they were always interrupted by this border, this stupid border, wide and white, tall with barbed wire, or rundown, rickety, and fence-like as it came. Once in a while, someone would be sitting by it, alone, watching cars fly by. Our guide explained that these people had given up hope, jobless, 
deported, poor, nothing. They just sat along the wall.  

We later arrived at the beach. The ocean is perhaps the most beautiful thing in this world and the sand was like silk on my toes. Yet every time I looked right, there was that rickety dumb wall. Why was it there? It went all the way into the ocean with a patrol car sitting nearby. What were people gunna do? Just swim out and around it and have the car pull up and take them away? It was like this constant re­minder that we're separated all the time. How discouraging it must be when you're desperate for help and you see that wall, that car, that big city in the distance.


We decided to walk across the border to get back to the States, fully aware of the sea of cars that sat still at the borderline waiting to enter the U.S. We were actually told to plan out what we were going to say as we waited for what seemed like forever in line. Just say you're on a trip. If they ask why, say for school. Don't go into detail. Don't act nervous.


I went first, worrying about my biracial complexion. "Passport? What's your name? How long were you here?" We had been there for a week, no not a week, a few days; we were in San Diego first. I guess it was actually three days. I struggled to arrive at the real answer, but I just couldn't find the words. The patrol looked at me suspiciously, starting to dig deeper: "What trip? What school? Spring break huh?" It was dreadful - waiting, smiling, answering, feeling my heart pound, pound, pound. This was nothing like the first time we crossed. He opened his mouth again, but a beeping noise went off in another lane and a man was escorted out of line. The officer looked back at me and waved me through. I couldn't help but think that with those few hurried steps, I was walking away from something big. Feeling so ... angry. 

Broken Stereotypes at Casa del Migrante by Marina Frestedt-Latourelle

During our trip we spent three days in Tijuana, Mexico at the Casa Del Migrante. The Casa Del Migrante is a place that allows males to stay up to ten days after being deported from the United States back to Mexico. Before leaving for the trip our group had a few meetings. In one of the meetings we discussed stereotypes we might have about the immigrants. This helped us become aware of our preconceived stereotypes and not bring them into our conversations with the men at Casa Del Migrante. Some stereotypes brought up were that the deported immigrants were poor English speakers, not hard workers, and not the most intelligent people.


When we actually arrived at the Casa Del Migrante we were brought up to the volunteer quarters where we would be sleeping. After some time to settle down, we went to the main floor to learn how the men were checked in. The men are picked up at the border by a van and brought to the Casa Del Migrante. When they first ar­rive they go through a question session for their house fi Jes, their pictures are taken, and they are given identification cards. These cards are a big deal: showing one to the police can keep them from being arrested for loitering during the day when they are sent out from the Casa Del Migrante to search for work or a way out of the house.


After we learned about how the men were checked in we went into the kitchen and were set up to help serve the men's dinner. We took turns eating and serving in shifts. While we were eating we sat with the men and got to have our first conversations with them. We quickly learned that many of these men spoke fluent English and were in fact very smart. Throughout the dinners and evenings we spent to several of the men and learn about their lives and how they ended up being deported. After only a few minutes of speaking with some of the men many of our stereotypes were broken. Many of the men had lived in the United States for over ten years and had families that they wanted to get back to, or successful jobs that they had lost. While some of the men spent their time at the Casa Del Migrante trying to contact family in Mexico, others spent it trying to get back into the United States. One man told me that he had been living in the United States for 34 years before being deported for a speeding ticket. He had become successful in construction and had a wife and kids back in the U.S. He desperately wanted to return to both his family and his work. 

Neighborhood Happenings by Kate Schiffman

We had been in Mexico for a day by the time we travelled through Tijuana to see how both the rich and poor live. The van we drove in was one of those twelve-passenger vans that I had spent so much time in for youth group activities when I was in high school. The five of us students, our faculty advisor and our guide, a native of Tijuana, all piled into the van and set off. 

Even though it was barely mid-morning, it was already warm as we raced through the hectic streets towards the richer neighborhood. Our guide explained that the houses we were about to see were probably owned by businessmen and women, that they were going to be fairly well kept and that the neighborhood would be quiet. This was hard to believe while seeing the disrepair and general chaos that was happening around us on our way. Tijuana is a very busy city with many people on the streets at all times of the day doing everything from socializing to selling food. The neighborhood we pulled into was quiet with no one on the street, and the stuccoed houses seemed closed off and empty, which was so different than the rest of Tijuana. The difference was jarring and I wondered, what was the difference that made these homes seem quiet and calm in the chaos that can be a large city like Tijuana.


Next we set off to the poorer section of Tijuana. I was already nervous about visiting here because I had been to this neighborhood, or one similar, before. When I was a junior in high school I had travelled to Tijuana for a mission-trip where I had built a house in a neighbor all too similar to the one we were about to precariously drive into. In Tijuana, the poor live in the dump because there they can scavenge enough things to sell in order to feed their family. All of the houses are either in extreme disrepair or were never full structures to begin with. All of the roads are made of dirt and unstable. Sickness runs rampant because of how much trash is around. When you do see a car it is usually a large, nice truck and would signal that something illegal might be happening nearby, according to our guide. There are many children around who are not in school and will grow up to own a house in this very neighborhood.


Last time I was here, I didn't know any of that. I thought I was doing good by building a house for people in need. That is what happened, but would I have felt differently at the time if I had known that I was building a house in a dump?


We pulled up to a beautiful community center that was sitting among the run-down houses like a pearl in a clam. The women who owned the community center showed us their facilities and talked about their great need. Even at the best place of help in the area, the operators had a hard time finding the help that they needed. There were not enough supplies, doctors or food. Yet the women who worked there were hopeful. They had forward momentum in their lives. Their children went to school and may one day have a better house than they did. They could not con­ceive of leaving this place, nor their children leaving but they had an income and hope that tomorrow might be better. 

Happiness in Destitution by Taylor Tielke

Of all the events in the San Diego and Tijuana trip, the most personally profound experience was visit­ing the poorest neighborhood in Tijuana. Having visited the wealthiest neighborhood in the city, I expected that the poorest would be in blocks of overcrowded, low income apartments. That was far from the truth. The lowest in­come neighborhoods in Tijuana, as well as other Mexican cities, are located on top of previous city dumps. Houses were built of varying materials and with families living in one or two bedroom houses. Never before have I seen such haphazard structures, homes with no running water which were assembled with materials varying from scrap metal to plywood, and each house was powered by electricity stolen from power lines. 

Touring one of the houses revealed additional aspects of living conditions. The houses provided extremely small living quarters, and basic necessities like beds and refrigerators took up most of the space in the houses. No room for bathrooms and no running water. Of course it is common knowledge that there are people, even in developed countries, that live without access to clean water. Everybody reads about global poverty but few see it first hand, and what I imagined true poverty to look like paled in comparison to what true destitution looks like. At one point in the tour, our guide discussed how most of the people living in the neighborhood were content. Not only that, but they saw living in the neighborhood and collecting recyclables as the best it would get for most of the inhabitants. Dr. Lindner and I shuddered and discussed this idea at lengths. How can it be that people can be happy living in such destitution? And how can this lifestyle - collecting and selling recyclables and other valuable items collected from landfills -be the end goal? From the American perspective, this didn't make sense! How could people be happy with such conditions? Despite the difficulties understanding how people could see this as being the end goal, our tour guide provided some insight. For most of the families, they still tried to get out but accepted that this was going to be the lifestyle for their parents and most likely for their children as well. Some do make it out. Children once in a while go on to attend universities and higher education opportunities. But most children drop out to help provide for the family. The poorest remain so with few exceptions. 

Looking back, these concepts were difficult to grapple with as the norms in the neighborhood are different than those here at home. In the United States, there is the expectation of higher education with the cultural norms of independence, whereas in Mexico, poorer families have less access to basic education and higher education, and the cultural makeup places greater value on families than individuals. What Andrew and I couldn't understand is that norms of the United States and Mexico in some regards are polar opposites. Americans grow up and embrace the idea of economic and social mobility; the American culture stems from the 'American Dream,' but in the slums of Tijuana, there was no seen commonality to the idea of the' American Dream.' Even now, the idea that the poorest had resigned and accepted their destitution as the 'best it will get' still brings shivers. People in the United States are taught to rise, but in Mexico it seems that the poorest are taught to survive.

The Orphanage by Kari Simmons

We got to go to an orphanage late in our week in San Diego and Mexico. We drove for about an hour, alter­nately napping and conversing about what we were most excited for. We were headed out of the very urban and overpopulated area of Tijuana and into the rolling hills and sparsely populated rural area, a welcome change for the people born and raised in a small town like I was.


When we finally arrived, we drove down a long gravel road into a beautiful olive farm where the breeze blew the limbs and boughs of the olive trees peacefully. The sunlight was warm and a very welcoming companion as we continued our escape from the frigid Fargo/Moorhead area. We entered the gates of the orphanage and took a tour of the village-like property where the children stayed together in small homes resembling cabins, separated by gender of course. They all ate and went to school in one building that was central to the property. We were lucky enough to spend the afternoon playing with the children and tasting freshly picked olives that were to be packaged and sold that afternoon from the orphanage's own "factory."


They had a full basketball court that provided a few hours of quality entertainment, as well as an opportunity to form friendships and valuable bonds with the children that many of us still often think of in certain quiet moments of the day. We picked teams and attempted to communicate the start of the game all in Spanish. The most valuable word during the game being "Aqui!", meaning, "Here! Give me the ball!" The children were eager to show their skills to us and they competed like it was game seven in the NBA finals, each one more determined than the last to emerge as the most valuable player of the two teams. Most of us were not extremely skilled athletically, and it was most enjoyable to watch our faculty advisor, Andrew Lindner, try to juke out 6 year olds without success. We continued up and down the court all afternoon; learning their names as we went, doing silly things to distract each other, realizing how completely out of shape we were. As the afternoon continued and we got bored of our game of basketball, we followed with the usual childhood games like tag, hide and seek, and of course the old standby of soccer.


After a while, we sat down with the young children and ate a meal prepared for us. It was absolutely hilarious trying to carry on conversations with the children in our broken and uneasy Spanish learned from limited hours in a classroom; I can see the humor now that I am not in that moment. The children couldn't understand how we didn't know how to say what we wanted to say to them and, frustrated with us, they became enraptured with taking silly pictures of themselves and just about everything in the room on our phones and cameras.


For us, many of these candid snapshots ended up being the most valuable memories we were able to bring back to the states with us. Not the memories of the great authentic Mexican food we ate, not the adventure we had of going across the border and back, but the real people whose lives we affected and whose lives affected us. The pictures were memories of the time we had with the children whose families would not be coming to pick them up at the end of the day. We got to be their sunshine for a few hours that day and that is something that none of us want to forget. 

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