Home and The Other Side

My dear friend,

This past month has been an emotional rollercoaster. A lot of deep reflection and thinking about my past, a lot of sadness and suffering. But also the feeling of joy from community and togetherness.

My uncle, the oldest sibling of my dad, unexpectedly passed away while I was in LA. It’s hard for me to describe how everything made me feel. Obviously sad. But it also brought back a lot of memories of my dad’s passing as well. There were moments last month where I would just sit in my room and cry. I hadn’t done that in a while. I wanted to be supportive to my cousins who I am close to, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to talk about how I handled my father’s death, but I didn’t want to be intrusive. Damn, I thought going through all this pain myself would make me better at comforting other people who are going through the same thing. But I remembered, at that moment for me, nothing really mattered. I didn’t care what people said. I don’t even remember half the things people said. I just remember people being there for me. Their presence, their support, is what mattered.

I booked a flight home for the funeral. The funeral home was the same place as my dad’s. My uncle was also being buried right next to my dad and my grandparents. As I was on the plane home, I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the sadness. For the traumatic memories. I wasn’t ready to see my family in mourning. I wasn’t ready for the first hug. I wasn’t ready for the…crying. All of the crying. I wasn’t ready to relieve everything. But I had to do it. It wasn’t about me. I needed to be there for my cousins like they were there for me.

Pulling up into the funeral home felt like I was getting ready to relive or confront one of the most difficult times in my life. The half baked memories of the funeral home kept running through my mind. I walked up and in and it actually looked, unfamiliar. Different than what I remembered. Family was asked to arrive early. I was greeted by a couple of my uncles, their energy was light. Then I opened the door into the next room and it felt familiar again.

The energy was sucked completely out of the room. First the chanting. It was the exact same recording that played over and over again in my living room home for months after my father passed. Immediately, I saw one of my aunts, we hugged and the tears started coming. And coming. And coming. And I went on from person to person, hugging each of my cousins and aunt, whose father and husband, had just passed. Then went on to other family members who I saw there. I then found a chair and sat in silence until other people began to arrive.

The entire experience made me confront some things that I hid away for a long time. I realized how little I actually remember from my father’s funeral. I realized that 8 years later, my family still doesn’t like to talk about what happened and how everything happened. I re-read my father’s letter he left for my mom before he killed himself. I could feel how much he was hurting in a way I hadn’t felt before. Even in that moment, he wasn’t thinking about himself though. He was thinking about us. He felt like he was a burden to all of us.

As I left Minnesota, I reflected on the sadness and pain of death. I never believed in an afterlife until my father died. Now I keep thinking about how my dad would be waiting for uncle Phillip in the afterlife. While there were moments of great sadness that weekend, there were also many moments of comfort and joy through being with family. One of the things both uncle Phillip and my dad would constantly stress was the importance of family. The importance of taking care of each other. While my family can be difficult and problematic in many ways, when it comes to being there and taking care of each other, no one does a better job.

I left and I went directly to San Diego where I was set to cross the border into Tijuana to help the migrant caravan. The first thing I noticed about Tijuana was that it very much “feels” like a border city, meaning that much of the infrastructure, the life, and the economy in the city are tied to being a city that borders the United States. I noticed it right away – merchants, sellers, and prostitution catering toward American tourists. High level of homelessness, many who were deported from the US. Families from Central America walking on the streets with luggages and backpacks waiting to be processed by US authorities. Federal law enforcement on pickup trucks driving around with officers holding big guns in the back. And a giant wall that divides the two cities of Tijuana and San Diego.

Days felt like weeks in Tijuana. I remember my first night laying in bed and feeling thinking to myself, “I don’t remember the last time I was this exhausted.” I mostly volunteered in a community space for migrants. The space was about the size of an apartment or a small office. It had coffee, food, wifi, toys, chairs, a bathroom and a shower for migrants to use. It wasn’t a luxurious space, the walls and the floors were concrete, the shower only had cold water, and the ceiling leaked when it rained. Regardless, it was one of the few community spaces for migrants to go where they were treated like human beings – no lines, no interrogations, no names on lists, phone numbers, etc – just a place for them to rest, enjoy music, snacks, and be in community.

Banner and snack table in our community office

Every morning, asylum seekers would gather in a plaza called, Chaparral, near the entrance to the US. There, they waited for their number to be called to be processed by US authorities. Each number represents about 10 people and each morning, about 4-5 numbers will be called, but sometimes more, and sometimes less. I wrote in my journal the about my first morning at Chaparral:

This morning was rough. Meaning I cried a lot. I got up early and went to accompaniment. There were already tons of people there when I arrived at 7:30. Volunteer lawyers were out everywhere talking to folks as they stood in line waiting to get a number or as they were waiting for their number to be called. I walked and I found Monica talking with a family. ‘We’re going to accompany them today,’ she said. They were a larger family, mom and dad, plus 4 kids. They were a little more well-off, you could tell with their suitcase and how they dressed.

The oldest daughter was 11, which meant she was old enough to be split up from her family. At least that’s what Monica said. Their number was called, we waited with them in the line next to the gate before they entered the van to leave. One of the lawyers was speaking loudly to a crowd of asylum seekers who were also waiting to leave. She was speaking in Spanish, I didn’t fully understand, but she was explaining the process to them, giving them tips about what to expect and what to do in various situations. “You’re only allowed to wear one shirt so wear a warm one,” she said. “The cell will be cold.” She started talking about something else and mentioned a number of times about how it was illegal. Tears started to stream down her eyes as she continued to speak. People began taking off their shirts in exchange for a warmer one. Some people wrote down phone numbers on their arms. I assumed it was numbers of loved ones or sponsors in the U.S.

It was time for them to go. The family we were accompanying walked to the other side of the gate. As they waited to load onto the van, I saw the father go up to each of his kids individually, he said a prayer, and kissed them on the forehead. He then said a prayer to his wife and kissed her on the cheek. They entered a caged van with other families. I wondered what was going on in their minds. Nobody had any idea what would happen, including us. We didn’t know if they would be allowed through. As I watched, I cried. Some kids were still smiling and playing with their toys. Some looked unsure of what was happening. What strength these families have. To travel so far, with so many unknowns, fears, and dangers, and to come to this moment and still not know what will happen. They’re so much stronger than us.

In Tijuana, $10/night is the difference between sleeping on the streets in the rain vs having a bed and shelter to sleep in. These were some of the things we were dealing with on a daily basis. Finding housing for families. Money to buy diapers for kids. Food to keep people from starving. It felt like I was in constant crisis mode. I felt the constant tension in my mind and heart of wanting to provide for everyone who needed help yet at the same time knew it was entirely unsustainable. I found myself helping some and saying no to others without any clear system in my mind for when to do it. It felt sad and disappointing. Yet at the same time, I found a great happiness and comradery in the community. Getting to know each of the individuals and their stories. Working together to create a hospitable space. Looking out for one another.

I will never forget my experience in Tijuana. So much of the work there was just about giving people a sense of humanity and stability in their lives. Food, playing cards, coffee, art, rest. The little things that we are always taking for granted. As I was getting ready to leave, I walked over to Chaparral to enter the border crossing into the US. As usual, people were gathered there waiting for their numbers to be called. I saw Diego, one of my best friends I met in Tijuana. Diego and I volunteered in the office together the entire time I was there. He’s 30, just like me. He was a very caring, gentle, and soft spoken man. He’s an asylum seeker who had already crossed into the US but because of a new administration policy, was sent back to Tijuana to wait for his court hearing. I went over to say my goodbye to him for the third time that morning. We hugged one last time. I cried again. “I’ll see you on the other side,” I said to him. I wasn’t actually sure he would make it over. But I had to have hope.

Some things that I’ve noticed in the past month:

  1. The power of community. In both instances of crises, trauma, difficulty, the thing the helped us all survive was family and community. Community is what helped gave us all a sense of hope, stability, and love. In these times, we all took care of each other, looked out for each other, fed each other, worked and played with each other. No one person came and “saved” the day. It was the people working together to do that. Community is one of the most powerful tools we have to overcome our challenges, but often we’re so focused on our individualism that we forget about what it actually feels like to be in community with people.
  2. By my third day in Tijuana, the main volunteer coordinator had left, and I was essentially the running the community space with another volunteer. I was very nervous about not knowing what to do, how to do things, etc. But when the time came, it was like I was on auto-pilot and I knew what needed to be done. If I didn’t know, I was able to figure it out. Within 3 days, I went from knowing nothing about the process or the space, to essentially running the place (with the help of others of course). It’s a good reminder that we don’t need to have all the answers before we take leadership. In fact, we rarely ever do. Nervousness and fear of the unknown and fear of failure are a part of the process. Figuring it out as you go is also a part of the process. It’s also a good reminder that, as we prepare the leaders of tomorrow, they don’t in fact need to know everything either. They just need to trust in themselves to be able to figure it out. And we need to trust them to do that. Figuring it out yourself is a part of the leadership process.
  3. My entire organizing career, I had been working on systems change work. This was my first time really in the trenches of crisis management/direct service work. It provided a different perspective on the realities of being able to provide for people’s immediate needs. Like how can we ask people who are directly impacted to participate in systems change if they can’t even feed their families, if they don’t have a home to live in? I see a greater need for organizing and direct service work to be aligned. I’m not quite sure why it’s not. What would it look like if this work was more aligned? How much more powerful could we be? What does a more holistic approach to world building look like?
  4. In 3 weeks, I left LA to go home for my uncle’s funeral, I went to Tijuana to help the migrants at the border, I went on a family vacation, and now I’m back in LA. These past three weeks I went through a rollercoaster of emotions and environments (physically and mentally). I’m amazed at my ability to adjust so quickly to each new place. And honestly, I feel a bit guilty and sad about it. When I returned to the US from Tijuana, I noticed how easy it was for me to return back to my “normal” life. I felt guilty that I was going on a vacation with my family while so many others, including many new friends, were struggling to even get by at the border. It’s a privilege that I’m able to do all this. It’s a privilege that I have this fellowship. But honestly, I’m struggling with it.
  5. I was really happy with the reactions I received from my first blog post. The affirmations felt nice, many people told me I should write more. So actually, I do want to write/blog more. But honestly, posting a blog gives me a lot of anxiety. I get anxious that my writing is bad or that I will say something stupid or problematic. I get anxious that someone will disagree with something I say and engage in a heated conversation with me. I’m nervous that I will start strong and then fizzle off like what I’ve done before with previous blogs. IDK. I need to dig into this. I think this fear is important to recognize and even more reason to do it.
  6. I feel bad when I’m not out meeting/talking to folks, like I’m wasting time or my day or something. IDK like I feel kinda in a funk right now.

Anyway, looking forward to chatting with you.

❤ ❤ ❤


2 thoughts on “Home and The Other Side

  1. Nick, I loved this post so much. It was raw and honest and I believe it will resonate with everyone who reads it.
    Your testimony of grief wasn’t POLISHED or GENTLE; it was ORGANIC and UNTREATED which is what made it so POWERFUL. We all face grief in different capacities and in different times of our lives, but its this commonality we have with it that proves our humanity. You are so brave and you are changing the world! Continue to share your stories (LOLs, TBHs, and ALL) because they will continue to yield dividends for others.

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