Gracias A Dios

Diners gathered around a Mexican feast.

Lessons learned during USD’s 2015 Tijuana Spring Breakthrough

Heightened anticipation kept our group of 29 energetic, even though we were tired from a full day of service and sports. We were all eager to welcome our host families to the end-of-the-week fiesta.

Many of us were working to prepare dinner. The smell of freshly grilled carne asada and the steady sound of chopping filled the air. There was much laughter as one group transformed a pile of avocados into a giant bowl of fresh guacamole. Mismatched tables and chairs were gathered from around the chapel to seat the 70+ people we were expecting to join us in celebrating our group’s last night in La Morita.

The moment was bittersweet: it was the first time most of us had seen our host families since departing from their homes two days before, but it was our last night in a place that had very quickly become home.

The families arrived one at a time: one bearing cupcakes for the group, the next laden with gifts and treats for their new brothers and sisters. All brought smiles and enthusiastic embraces. Some of the families arrived early to participate in a worship service; we joined them in the chapel.

All of the USD students were called to the front, alongside community youth who taught us dance moves to several praise and worship songs. As we looked out at all of the now-familiar faces of our families we danced without inhibition, the qualms of leaving our newfound home forgotten in the joy of movement.

Breathless from dancing, everyone moved out to the patio to enjoy the dinner we’d worked to prepare. It was wonderful to reciprocate the hospitality we’d encountered countless times throughout our week. Once we had served all of the families, we ourselves were able to break bread, a concept that had come to hold great value. The animated sound of eager conversations and children playing filled the air.

One last time, we experienced the simple joy of being with one another and the people who now called us daughters and sons.

A true fiesta ensued with one of the host dads leading an impromptu Zumba session, and more dancing broke out as the tables cleared of the now empty plates and cups. All too soon, families began to say their goodbyes. An outsider would have assumed we were age-old friends making a difficult departure, but in truth, we were strangers-turned-family in a mere six days.

What made our goodbyes so difficult is hard to pinpoint. Based on the number of hours spent together, I should be far more attached to some of my labmates than to the beautiful people I was now saying goodbye to. Nonetheless, I was deeply moved when my nine-year-old “brother,” Moises, asked if I was going back to their home the following morning. The answer was “no.”

The only comfort I could offer were promises of continued connection via email, Facebook, and potential future visits. My “mother,” Rosy, parted by promising me a place in her thoughts, prayers, and heart, and five-year-old Matilda firmly grasped my neck and kissed me on the cheek.

As I’ve reflected more on this connection, I’ve come to realize that this very real love that we shared had everything to do with the mutual openness that my host family and I met each other with. This allowed for a truly genuine interaction and let me be present for them in an authentic way, without fear of judgment or the need to fit in.

The connection we had with host families made the rest of the week’s activities that much more impactful. The context of shared laughter and smiles — coupled with having lived a day in the life of my family — provided a visceral connection with the people of this wonderful community.

I left Tijuana with something much more substantive than some abstract idea or statistic that one is usually faced with when learning about immigration and border politics and issues.

One thing I know for sure: as my family left, they took a piece of my heart along with them, which will remain with them in my Tijuana home. — Emerald Dohleman ’16

Each year, University Ministry takes a group of students to the Tijuana Spring Breakthrough. To learn more, go to