By Sheri Leigh, October 13, 2023
I wanted to get a feel for where Benicia’s elected officials stood on the issue of the La Migra game. I met with Benicia Mayor Steve Young and Vice-Mayor Terry Scott together one afternoon in Mayor Young’s office at City Hall. I spoke to City Council member Kari Birdseye, whom you have already read about. Over the last few weeks, I interviewed three more Benicia officials (past and present) – Benicia Unified School District (BUSD) Board Trustee Amy Hirsh and former Benicia Council Member Lionel Largespada at Rrag’s Coffee Shop (at separate times), and BUSD Board Chair Sheri Zada, who graciously offered her home as our meeting point. If you know your politics, you know that the policies and principles of some of these individuals are more conservative, and some more liberal. Their platforms are sometimes polar opposites. However, it is clear to me that all of them care deeply about this community. All of them were pleased to share their perspective with me, and all of them were very concerned about the impacts of the La Migra game on our public safety, on our young people, and on the racist implications of the game. I was impressed! The question now is what can our community leaders do to help our young people make better decisions?
Benicia Mayor Steve Young remembers first hearing about the La Migra game about two and a half years ago, when there was a news report citing its controversial nature. Vice-Mayor Terry Scott had a more recent indoctrination, learning about the game when a town hall meeting was called in late spring of 2022, after a particularly brutal, La Migra game–related harassment event occurred involving a truck full of junior and senior high school students and two non-participating and unaware young people. Both the mayor (who was in office at the time) and the vice-mayor (who was not yet in office) were present at the town hall in question and both are greatly concerned about the impact of the game.
When I talked about the need for more opportunities for young people to have outlets for their energy and creativity, they agreed. Vice-Mayor Scott talked about a challenge his small childhood town faced years ago when teens were stealing family pumpkins from porches and smashing them before and during Halloween, and how the town responded by creating a seasonal pumpkin smashing game – intentionally adjusting the focus from seasonal vandalism to healthy competition.
Although the La Migra “game” targets individuals rather than pumpkins, in both situations teens are seeking adventure, and some become the perpetrators of harm as they do so. Can we find a similar solution for Benicia?
We talked about expanding community awareness and cultural celebration, particularly for the Latinos who make up a significant portion (~13%) of our population. They were open, and even enthusiastic, about the possibilities. Both agreed that there are very few City-sponsored cultural events, and those that we do have, such as Benicia Black Lives Matter’s Annual Juneteenth Festival and Benicia Performing Arts Foundation’s Diversity Festival, exist mostly due to the tireless efforts of organizations operating with volunteer support and community funding.
We could certainly do more.
At one point in the conversation, Mayor Young asked me pointedly, “If there was no racist component to this game, would you still be passionate about it?”
It only took me a moment to respond. Yes, the racial implications are offensive and particularly triggering to certain groups of people, but there is a lot more at stake. Among other issues, the game invokes hazing and bullying. Individual and public safety is at great risk. Mayor Young agreed.
Our discussion closed with ideas, opportunities, and commitments. Mayor Young and Vice-Mayor Scott intend to follow up with more public communication as the game’s date draws nearer, and be open to alternative cultural celebrations to proactively provide opportunities for appreciating, participating in, and understanding the traditions and values of our Mexican and Latin American friends, families, and fellow residents.
Both BUSD Board trustees Sheri Zada and Amy Hirsh were quite aligned in their opinions, even though I interviewed them separately. They believe the school district, although legally unable to take disciplinary action against students participating in the games, has a responsibility to introduce and educate students about racial sensitivity and cultural awareness. They agree that the families in this district should be made aware of the game through school channels and learn how it impacts our community.
They both strongly support the efforts of BUSD Superintendent Damon Wright to diminish the game’s power by working in tandem with the police and other City agencies, educating and empowering school staff, informing school district families of the game’s dangers (multiple times!), enlisting the aid of the students who understand the potential harm, and personally attempting to discourage students from participating.
When I suggested that the schools could possibly do more to educate the students about the challenges of modern day immigration and to offer more opportunities for young people to develop a sense of community and purpose, both Chair Zada and Trustee Hirsh committed themselves to take a closer look at the curriculum and do what they could to expand discussion on this topic.
When I interviewed Lional Largespada, former City Council member, I learned that he is a first-generation American from a family of Latin Americans. He offered strong opinions about how damaging this game is to our community. His perspective is more focused on family values and the role families play in shaping the activities of our children. Because I haven’t yet fully covered that perspective, I will be dedicating an entire upcoming article to my interview with former Council Member Largespada.
I am very grateful to report that we have a strong contingency of leaders in this community who care about public safety, underlying and blatant racism, diversity, and treating one another with respect and kindness. They are mobilizing to find solutions to fill the gaps in our community activities and education that will inspire more sensitivity, awareness, and most importantly, respect and concern for one another. The response of our leaders to this particular concern of the La Migra game”restores my faith in the commitment of those elected and the potential of our local government to resolve the endless challenges that threaten the well-being of our community.
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