About two months ago, I said goodbye to some of my best friends. I wrote letters, crafted poems, and put together gifts to express how much each of these friends and coworkers meant to me. Then, with a tight jaw and head full of mixed emotions, I stepped on a plane and left Tucson. I said goodbye to a city that opened my eyes to oppression, nurtured and empowered me. I said goodbye to a program that encouraged me to live a deliberate and examined life. I said goodbye to an intentional community full of colorful, diverse, and loving characters. I said goodbye to a set of written agreements that dictated how I should live: simply, spiritually, and with a focus on cross-cultural service.
I got on a plane heading for, what they call, “the real world.” As I sailed through the sky, I thought about all the wonderful experiences I had shared during my year of mission. Grateful for the opportunities to travel to border towns in Mexico, hike in the Grand Canyon, and retreat in the forest of New Mexico, I felt warm inside. I have never been so quickly and strongly welcomed in a community as I was in Tucson. I am so thankful for my Young Adult Volunteer community, my BorderLinks coworkers, and the Tucson social justice community. Many of my peers had moved to Tucson specifically to get involved in immigration work and are deeply passionate about their work. One of the things I miss most about being in Tucson is having a directed sense of purpose. On the border, problems were so explicit and immediate. This was overwhelming at times, but I had a clear sense of my role in raising awareness of border issues.
Now, back in the San Francisco Bay Area, I belong to a community where people have a wider variety of interests ranging from literature to technology to education. Transitioning back into not-so-intentional living has been a positive change, but definitely a challenging adjustment. I feel almost as if my eyes were focused on a 250-piece puzzle. This puzzle of immigration and race issues was complex, all consuming, and important. Many of my friends and coworkers were gathered around me helping put pieces together and pointing out challenges. Moving back home has forced me to zoom out from this 250-piece puzzle and see where it lies within a much larger puzzle. I don't know what puzzle I am working on now. Above me are people working on a segment of the puzzle that is focused on creating new efficient apps. To my side, people are working on improving public education. Below me people are designing new luxury apartments. We are all working on our own puzzles and sometimes we forget that they are all connected, making one huge infinite puzzle.
Even so, I have merely moved out of one bubble or community and into a another one. I stepped out of border-focused activist central into startup technology-mania. Obviously there are many cultures, subcultures and ways of living in Tucson and in the Bay Area, but here are some of the differences I have noticed. Instead of seeing Border Patrol trucks, I see luxury busses filled with Google employees. Instead of thinking, “How can we spend so little?” I think, “How can we spend so much?” Instead of eating expired food, I eat organic food. Instead of hearing “Resist!” I hear “Disrupt!”
Yet many things are the same. Many social issues that were in Tucson are also in my hometown of San Mateo. Being on the border has opened my eyes to things I wouldn’t have noticed before. For example, last summer I read many articles about the wave of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border. Little did I know that many of these migrants came to San Mateo and enrolled in the local high schools. I only learned this recently while speaking to a local principal about potential job opportunities. Sometimes you are most blind to what is happening in your own city.
When I feel disconnected or confused, I sometimes think about my coworker in Tucson, Gabriel.* During our educational trips, we would often cross the border into Mexico to learn more about the culture, economy and community. After crossing, Gabriel would take over guiding the group and teaching us about the local issues of his hometown, Nogales, Mexico. Gabriel and I quickly became friendly, as he invited me to his church and introduced me to his family. Together, we led and organized several trips. One day, while we were driving he asked me where exactly I lived in California. When, I said, “San Mateo,” his eyebrows raised in surprise. “I was there last summer,” he said. “There wasn’t work here so I went to San Mateo to work as a gardener. I lived with my daughter on Tilton and San Mateo Drive.”
Although familiar, his words made me feel uncomfortable. I suddenly realized that while I had been working on building bridges of understanding on the border, I had forgotten about the dynamics of my hometown, San Mateo. Last summer while I had been fundraising and preparing to my year of mission, he had been working as an undocumented laborer cutting grass and blowing leaves. Maybe we had passed each while walking around San Mateo downtown and did not know. Thinking about this saddened me, not because of the missed connection, but because if we had met in San Mateo, I’m not sure we would have developed a friendship. It is unlikely we would have gotten the opportunity to work together as peers.
Due to economic, cultural, and social boundaries, our paths would probably not have crossed in San Mateo, even though we lived just a few blocks from one another. The border wall of El Camino Real separates my wealthy, white neighborhood from his working class, immigrant neighborhood. In many ways, we could have lived parallel lives, on two different tracks that barely cross. I would have missed opportunity to learn from him and become a part of his life.
During my year of service, I though a lot about the borders, visible and invisible, that are present in our everyday lives. I also thought about Jesus’s defiant efforts to break barriers and welcome all to the table. I am still exploring what this means for me, especially in San Mateo, but I think that unity and understanding are built through relationships. Gabriel taught me about his home and, without trying, opened my eyes and taught me about my own home. After spending four years away at college and a year working in Arizona as a YAV, I am now discovering my home again. Thanks to people like Gabriel, I am more aware of border issues both in Tucson and in San Mateo. Although there are new buzzwords, new puzzles and a new community here I am confident that I’ll find my place. Through this transition, I am trying to remain positive, patient, and, well, graceful.
*Name changed for privacy