By Jess Dankenbring, '17
“It was real world in every sense, from policy up in Washington to going down to the border and walking across, visiting the fence, laying water around the desert for migrants who were coming across,” says Ted Peebles, Latin American and Iberian Studies professor. “There’s really no substitute for actually going to the border and seeing it. You can read about it. You can see films about. You can even meet with people like we did. That’s all part of it, but that travel experience of going to ground zero, as it were, and seeing how it plays out on the ground gives them the experience of tying it all together.”
Students in the Sophomore Scholars in Residence class Living on the Frontera spent the fall semester learning about globalization at the border; immigration policy in Washington, D.C.; and immigrants and immigration experts in the Richmond area. The students focused on the political, geographical, economic, social, and cultural consequences of border issues on international, national, and local levels.
Then this past January, Peebles took those same students to the California-Mexico border to experience some of those immigration issues firsthand. While there, students were able to visit the Trans-Border Institute and meet with Elsa Saxod, an Advisory Council Member for the institution. They discussed some of the cultural, political, and economic issues that occur on either side of the border.
Luka Klimaviciute, ’16, was one student who made the trip to the Tijuana border. She was so inspired by her experience that she made a separate trip to Agua Prieta near the Arizona-Mexico border where she volunteered for three weeks at an organization that offers resources to migrants who have recently been deported.
“A really powerful moment was on my second to last day,” Klimaviciute says. “I met this kid who came to the United States by himself when he was 12. I didn’t want to ask how he made that trip because it was from Southern Mexico all the way to Texas. We studied enough about that area in class that I knew it probably wasn’t the most pleasant trip of his life.”
She listened to his story. His Spanish was broken, and he had an American accent. Cooking was the only skill he had upon arriving in the United States, so he decided he wanted to be a chef. After a lot of hard work, he finally got a scholarship to go to culinary school, but during his first semester he was pulled over while driving to school. Because he was undocumented, he was deported to Agua Prieta.
“We studied a lot of this in class and we read a book about an actual boy who had a similar experience,” Klimaviciute says. “But seeing it in person and watching people deal with it as a regular part of their lives, that’s very powerful for me.”
Students were also able to understand the impact of immigration on the Richmond community. Throughout the semester, students engaged with other speakers to enhance their understanding of the subject and how it all comes together. They spoke with Joyce Bennett ’07, who received the David C. Burhans Civic Fellowship to work for the Richmond Hispanic Liaison office. She discussed sending communities, which are a social support system that focuses on both the migrants that are leaving the area and the family members that are left behind, as well as the impact of immigrants in Richmond. Jen Lawthorne, an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University who visited a village in Mexico and made a spur-of-the-moment documentary film, described how some of the people crossing the desert would eventually settle in Richmond.
“That inspired the students, too, because they saw how this kind of study can pan out over time, people who get involved in these issues, and what you can do with it.” Peebles says. “In the case of Joyce, it was very academic. In the case of Jen, it turned into something academic but she actually became a documentary filmmaker.”