From Tijuana to Temecula

My struggle for a sense of belonging

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Juan Gomez sits reflecting on a rainy day at his high school. Photo courtesy of Juan Gomez.

Juan Ricardo Gomez, Community News Reporter

I’m a proud fronterizo — or border student.

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 in Southern California, Temecula.

I didn’t know much about the town because when I previously visited, we mainly stayed at my uncle’s home, where I spent time with my cousins and other family members.

As it turns out, Temecula has little in common with most other cities I had visited in SoCal. The city is known mostly for its vineyards, the Pechanga Resort Casino, and quiet stretches of suburbia.

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’ve been going to 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.

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

My school was mostly white and the Latinx students seemed like they weren’t into their culture at all, as if they were embarrassed by it.

About 33% of the school’s students are “Hispanic” according to GreatSchools.org.

Most of the Latinx students I knew at my school barely spoke Spanish, and if they did, they tried to avoid it as much as possible.

I rarely got to speak my mother tongue with anyone. 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 since I had never experienced racism of any kind as a visitor.

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

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

As I learned more about racism in America and the country’s history and culture, I realized on reflection that may be because of the micro-aggressions I experienced. 

“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.

Another teacher said, “Juan, you can take your test at home and translate with your Spanish dictionary.”

I don’t know how far they think Tijuana is from Temecula. But it’s just a 45-minute drive and their assumptions about me were offensive.

It dawned on me pretty recently: My teachers and classmates looked at me as an foreign exchange student, not a resident of Temecula.

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

My experience as an early career journalist and my Cal State LA education — especially classes about race and gender, Chicano studies and the history of Latinx communities — helped me deconstruct these experiences and learn and grow from them.

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

They inform me of the kinds of racism, often much more obvious, that may be happening to people I cover as well as misperceptions about my culture. And ultimately, they fuel my passion for telling stories of under-covered communities.

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

A version of this story appeared in LAist’s “Race in LA” series.

Community News reporters are enrolled in JOUR 3910 – University Times. They produce stories about under-covered neighborhoods and small cities on the Eastside and South Los Angeles. Please email feedback, corrections and story tips to [email protected]