I always thought the first time I visited California would be for a family vacation to Disney Land, sightseeing in Hollywood or relaxing on its famous beaches. Instead, my first trip to California consisted of volunteering in San Diego, and the sights I saw were San Diego’s border with Mexico and struggling day laborers standing outside, hoping to be picked up to work.Over fall break, I had the opportunity to go on Villanova’s first service break trip to San Diego, California. It was a mission trip that primarily focused on immersing ourselves and volunteering within the immigrant population of San Diego.
“More than any other immersion trip I’ve been on, this trip to San Diego showed me each of the precepts of Catholic social teaching alive in our world,” said Christine Gallagher, the campus ministry intern who served as the advisor for the trip. “Above all else, we met people actively working to recognize the human dignity inherent in all of us.”
Before the trip I didn’t know much about the issue of immigration or the diversity of stories surrounding it, but I left with a refreshing new perspective and a journal full of the combined musings of myself and the many passionate people I met.
We traveled to Chicano Park, a place where we would return to several times throughout the week, to learn about its history and relation to Chicano culture. As we pulled up in our caravan of four sedans, hundreds of murals flooded my eyes. Rigo Reyes, one of the facilitators of the trip, then gave a talk at the park concerning its development and the importance of all of the murals. He spoke about the identity of a Chicano and how that identity was fought for and captured at the park.
Reyes elaborated upon the various terms used to describe Latinos in the United States, such as Mexican, Spanish, Hispanic and Chicano. He also argued, however, for the importance of specificity in labeling ethnic background and emphasized how he and his fellow Chicanos are insulted when they are referred to as anything but a Chicano.
“Labels have been put upon us by the system, not by us,” said Reyes. “Calling me Hispanic is insulting to me because it does not recognize the indigenous side of who I am. It just recognizes the European side of my identity.”
According to Reyes, Chicanos have a mixture of indigenous blood that is connected to the Aztecs, along with Spanish and Mexican blood. He also said Chicano often refers to people who were born in America, but have Mexican parents. Reyes himself was born in San Diego, but was raised in Tijuana Mexico until he was seven years old and returned to California.
Reyes also explained how Chicano Park was meant to capture the Chicano culture. It features a variety of different murals created by Chicano artists that portray their conceptions of identity. He also commented on the park’s long history of struggle on its road to creation, which eventually came to fruition on April 22, 1970.
“Every single step in building the park has been a struggle, but I think that reflects the Chicanos’ struggle as well,” Reyes said. “We are so thankful now that we have a place that we can call home.”
After a few days in San Diego, my group and I also came to know Chicano Park as home. We returned to the park for lunches certain days and also had the opportunity to work with local artists to restore one of the murals in the park.
A drastic turn away from the perspectives of immigrants during our trip occurred when we took a tour of San Diego’s border with Mexico with Border Patrol.
“Seeing the boarder gave me a visual of what everyone had been talking about,” Michaela Gaziano, one of the senior leaders of the break trip, said.
After listening to various organizations and people discuss the challenges of being an immigrant and gaining U.S. citizenship, the Border Patrol offered a fresh perspective. They focused on communicating their dedication to keeping America safe from crime and ensuring equal opportunities for everyone.
“When people circumvent requirements, I find it extremely unfair to those who try and do things the legal way,” said Border Patrol Officer Dan Smoak. “But if I lived in those third world country conditions, would I spend every day trying to cross over into the U.S? You better believe it. But you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences.”
After listening to Border Patrol’s view on immigration, I left sympathetic toward America’s immigration policies. When I was introduced to struggling day laborers the next day, however, my perspective was once again muddled.
As we drove to three different locations where Mexican day laborers were standing outside hoping to be picked up for work, my conception of immigration was expanded, but it was not clarified.
“I want to dress nice, smell nice, have nice shoes, but I can’t have that,” said one of the day laborers.
As the day laborers voiced their dissatisfaction with the immigration system, members of our group also became increasingly dissatisfied with our perceived powerlessness in changing immigration law.
“After we struggled so much with the issue of immigration, talking to the immigrants who had actually crossed the border made the issue much more tangible,” Gaziano said about our time with the day laborers. “Immigration is such a complex issue that you can’t just see one perspective, and I struggled a lot internally because I couldn’t pinpoint one thing to solve immigration.”
“We feel supported,” said one of the day laborers when asked how he felt about our group stopping to talk with him. “Usually people only stop to talk to us if they have a problem with us. We get very lonely.”
Consequently, both our group and the immigrants expressed gratitude for the simple change in daily interaction.
Over the course of the trip, we also had the opportunity to interact with refugee students at a local high school and hear their experiences and stories about how grateful they were for the educational opportunities in the U.S. We helped students work in their school garden and aided a local farm with its daily routine since the trip also focused on nutrition and sustainability. All of these experiences helped provide a comprehensive view of the issues revolving around immigration and identity.
I think most of the time people do not recognize how much of an effect they have on others because many people do not always vocalize their feelings or appreciation. But to see how much I have influenced people in just a week and to feel so changed after listening to the many stories on my break trip, proves how influential people can be in a lifetime if they make a commitment to listening to the voices of the unfamiliar.
““I think it’s easy in college to get wrapped up in everything going on in your own life, but if college really is meant to prepare you for the real world, experiences like break trips are extremely important because they help broaden your outlook,” Ali Hagar, the second senior break trip leader said.
For me, the break trip proved how service is not just giving up oneself to others, but also finding oneself in others. And the sights I saw in San Diego were far more eye-opening than Hollywood or Disney Land could ever be.
By Jen Bradley ’13