On a cold, blustery day in Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park my toddler son Dino and I had the opportunity to connect with some college students from Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland who were in San Diego for their annual Project Mexico trip. Project Mexico is a program of the university’s Center for Community Service and Justice.
The Center’s website states that Project Mexico provides undergraduate students with an opportunity to immerse themselves in a 10-day intense service and educational exchange with the peoples and communities of Mexicali and San Diego. During their stay in Mexico students participate in community directed projects and engage in cultural and social activities and education programs that address topics such as immigration, the environment, human rights and political and economic issues.
On the last day of their stay in San Diego the students and their advisor were given a tour of Chicano Park by Rigo Reyes of Los Niños International (he’s also a co-founder of Chicano Park and Los Amigos Car Club). After the tour they helped repaint the fading Four Directions Native American mural under the direction of master muralist and Chicano Park co-founder Victor Ochoa. The week prior Dino and I bumped into Rigo at the park. I mentioned that I’m looking for stories related to Barrio Logan for my column here at the San Diego Free Press. He invited me to come by and do a story on the students for this column.
Even though it was cold and windy the students seemed enthusiastic to help work on the mural. So enthusiastic that many of them ended up with paint on their clothing and faces. With enthusiasm at full force the students used the paint and brushes provided by Victor Ochoa and went to work. The more daring of them climbed up the ladders that Victor brought. Though many didn’t have any artistic experience that didn’t stop them from participating.
As the painting went on I did my best to watch over Dino while he ran all over the park as I took photos and interviewed students. Luckily one particular student, Jennifer Cisternas, a half Ecuadorean half Chilean Spanish major from Long Island, New York took a liking to my boy and helped keep watch over him as I went about my business. For being only 18 months old Dino has a way with the ladies and flirts at every opportunity.
Andrea Goicochea, director of Project Mexico, gave me a little insight into the program and the students:
“[The goal of] a Jesuit university is to educate the whole person and to be a global citizen and to understand the issues and ramifications of many policies, especially those which our country has a lot to do with. [The students] need to get out there and meet people and learn first hand and put names and faces to the issues. [The program] has been pretty much centered on border issues and immigration but we include the whole aspect of community development and economic issues, trade issues, cultural diversity. Being from the east coast and being in San Diego and Mexico is just a huge transformational educational experience for these students. It’s definitely changed their perspective of what they want to do with their life and how they can contribute and understand deeper issues. Many of them come from undiverse, privileged white areas. Very protected. This is usually one of the most meaningful experiences they have.”
While on their trip the students went to Mexicali and did some work at an elementary school. They mixed concrete and planted green areas so the kids wouldn’t have to play soccer in the dirt. In San Diego they took a tour with the Border Patrol. To balance that out they met members of the Border Angels and helped them place water in the desert for migrants who illegally cross the border to prevent them from dehydrating.
The Project Mexico students, and Americans in general, have been constantly bombarded with extreme nativists views on immigration through politicians and the media. With this trip they finally had the opportunity to learn about the Mexican side and their views on immigration and the reasons for it. This balance of views is important as America will soon debate the potential legalization of millions of undocumented people. Exchanges like these are vital to having an honest dialogue about immigration and it’s ramifications.
As the afternoon wore on I talked to Victor Ochoa about what he thinks of these students who made the trip west. Victor said that “it’s very important that we not only work with the immediate community but with other communities. These students are coming all the way from Maryland. They’re doing not only work here but they are submerging into the life of the border area. They go back to their communities really knowing Chicanos, Mexicanos.”
And that’s what it’s about: learning. These students came with open minds to learn about a culture they’ve only read in history or anthropology books. Or seen in a negative light on the evening news. They came to engage and get their hands dirty.
I asked Jennifer, the student who took a liking to Dino, what she thought of Chicano Park. She said that “Chicano Park is very interesting. It was really neat that Rigo was able to show us more and talk to us a little about the history. It really shows the pride and how much work has gone into this park. Not just through the murals but fighting for and being able to call this park Chicano Park.”
She got that right. The community of Barrio Logan and other communities came together to fight for the creation of this little piece of land in the shadows of cold, grey concrete. The people fought and transformed what was once ugly into something beautiful that is admired throughout the world.
I also asked student leader Ryan Zadara what he thought of our park. He stated: “I think it’s great. For me it shows that all people are equal. And that people should be able to have their own identity in some way. I look around at all of the pieces of art and think it’s really great that they can come here and express themselves. Even if other people don’t agree with it. They have their own sense of community here. Community is one of the most important things that a group of people can have.”
Community is one of the most important things we, as human beings, can have. And Chicano Park is the community center not only of Barrio Logan but of all Chicanos in San Diego and all people that respect art and culture.
Most of the students on the trip had never been to the west coast or even heard of a place called Chicano Park. Most were white and relatively affluent. But here they were in a Chicano space painting a mural with Native American significance. It was a true cross cultural experience that I’m sure they won’t soon forget even after they graduate and move on with their lives. They’ll always remember the experience of being a part of our community and their paint will forever be on a bridge pillar within the heart Chicano Park.