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From Tijuana to Temecula To LA: A Fronterizo's Struggle For A Sense Of Belonging

RILA lead image 4/16
Juan Ricardo Gomez outside his former high school in Temecula last year.
(Courtesy of Juan Ricardo Gomez)
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I'm a proud fronterizo. I'm a Mexican immigrant from the border region.

I was born and raised in Tijuana, but often spent time in San Diego, where many of my family members live.

I moved to California in my junior year of high school to live with my uncle and his family in, of all places, Temecula.

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I didn't know much about this town in southwestern Riverside County, because when I had previously visited, we mainly stayed at my uncle's home, where I spent time with my cousins and other family members.

As I learned, Temecula has little in common with most other cities I had visited in SoCal, like Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego. The town is known mainly for its vineyards, the Pechanga Resort Casino, and quiet stretches of suburbia.

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Balloons above the vineyards during Temecula's annual balloon and wine festival. | Photo by chip morton via Flickr

When I officially enrolled in my new high school, I didn't feel "different," per se.

I realized it was my first time studying in another country, but I'd been visiting San Diego all my life, and my English was decent, since all my schools in Mexico taught me the language. I didn't feel intimidated.

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RILA photo 4/16
A school photo of Juan as a young child in Tijuana.
(Courtesy of Juan Ricardo Gomez)

Those feelings quickly changed as I started interacting with the students and staff.

My school was primarily white, and the Latinx students seemed like they weren't into their culture at all, as if they were embarrassed by it. And in a way, I understand why -- they wanted to "fit in" with the dominant race and culture in school. They wanted to blend in. It's not the first or last time that I would see that type of situation.

About 33% of the school's students are "Hispanic," according to GreatSchools.org. But most of the Latinx students I knew at my school barely spoke Spanish, and if they did, they tried to avoid speaking it.

One of the first students I spoke with was Latino. He was in my psychology class, and he knew based on my accent that my first language was Spanish. So he began speaking with me in my language, but every time someone came close to us, or when he introduced me to his other friends, he avoided it as much as possible, switching to English.

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Now, I understand that he probably didn't want to make his friends feel left out by speaking a language they didn't understand. But in this case, I could feel that he felt ashamed by speaking Spanish, you could see it in his face and tone each time he spoke it.

I rarely got to speak my mother tongue with anyone there, not even at home. My uncle, who is Mexican, has a Filipino American wife, and their children never learned Spanish.

All my teachers were white, which wasn't strange for me. I had never experienced racism of any kind as a visitor.

But it's different when you actually live in this country.

"This equation is two 'x' variables, or should I say Dos Equis, like the beer, am I right, Juan?" said my high school math teacher in class.

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Another teacher said, "Juan, you can take your test at home and translate it with your Spanish dictionary." I usually never spoke with other students in that class, but I'm pretty sure I spoke enough times with my teacher for him to know that my English was good enough to understand his class, which was marine biology.

I don't know how far they thought Tijuana is from Temecula. But it's just a 45-minute drive, and their assumptions about me felt offensive.

Tijuana border road
A road in Tijuana, with the U.S.-Mexico border to the left.
(Photo by Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash)

It dawned on me pretty recently: My teachers and classmates looked at me as a foreign exchange student, perhaps -- not someone who lived there.

One of my "friends," or should I say a kid who sat with the people I was with during my lunch breaks, was someone who had white skin but had a Mexican mother, as I recall. He always liked to make racist jokes, calling me and another friend "beaners," which I tried to convince myself wasn't hurtful. But who would not feel hurt hearing one of the most offensive comments that one can make to a Latino? It seemed like he did it to feel superior.

I never felt like I belonged at my school or in Temecula, in general.

And as I have learned more about racism in America, and its history and culture with regard to immigrants and people of color, I realized upon reflection that this might be because what I was experiencing were microaggressions.

When you are young and naive, as I was at age 17, you don't notice these things.

Now, a few years later, I'm an early career journalist and a student at Cal State L.A. My experiences and education since then -- especially classes about race and gender, Chicano studies, and the history of Latinx communities -- have helped me deconstruct these earlier experiences, and learn and grow from them.

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Juan reporting as a journalism student for Cal State L.A. on how the pandemic affected the U.S.-Mexico border.
(Juan Ricardo Gomez)

As a proud Mexican living in the U.S., I now hold onto these experiences to take what I can out of them.

They inform me of the kinds of racism, often much more apparent, that happens to people I report on, as well as misperceptions about my culture. And ultimately, they fuel my passion for telling the stories of under-covered communities.

So, I take what I can out of these hurtful personal experiences from when I first moved here, and then I will simply let them go, so I can be a healthy, happy and productive student and journalist -- one who feels he does finally belong.

Today, my sense of belonging doesn't come from that year I lived in Temecula. Today it comes from all the hard work I've done ever since leaving Temecula. I don't have hard feelings for the city; I still occasionally visit and enjoy my stay.

Now I'm virtually living in L.A, where I continue my studies at CSULA as unfortunately, like all of us, I've had to adapt to this new COVID-19 era. Meanwhile I'm physically living in San Diego, where I have found a true identity and passion for one city.

As a young, immigrant Latino, this is just a minor setback from the bigger picture. Hopefully, in the next couple of months, I can call myself an "in-person" resident of Los Angeles and continue building my career here.

A version of this story appeared in Cal State L.A.'s University Times.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Juan Ricardo Gomez was born and raised in Tijuana. When he was 17 years old, he moved to the U.S temporarily, then returned to Mexico. He moved back to the U.S. at age 19, studying journalism with a focus on broadcast news at San Diego City College, then transferring to Cal State L.A., where he is now pursuing a bachelor's degree in journalism.

For now, while the pandemic lasts, he's in online classes in L.A. while living and working in San Diego as a story producer. He hopes to move and start in-person classes at Cal State L.A. before too long.