Lionel Largaespada on La Migra: A “Game” vs. Family Values

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

By Sheri Leigh, October 13, 2023

As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, I met with several community leaders about their views on the La Migra “game.” Former Benicia City Council member Lionel Largaespada was one of them. I was particularly interested to hear what he had to say since his family background is Latin American. He agreed that this topic was important enough to meet with me, a stranger, to share our values and ideas. We met one morning at Rrag’s Coffee Shop for a pleasant hour of discussion. While there, nearly everyone who passed us stopped to say hello to Lionel, and it was clear to me he is a well-liked and respected member of our community. 

Former Benicia City Council Member Lionel Largaespada spoke with Sheri Leigh about La Migra. | Photo provided to Vallejo Times-Herald, courtesy of Mr. Largaespada, in 2018.

Former Council Member Lionel Largaespada is very familiar with the challenges of being from an immigrant family. His father is from Nicaragua, his mother is from El Salvador, his step-mother is from Cuba, and his step-father is also from Nicaragua. They all immigrated to the United States as teens, leaving behind countries that offered less opportunities for themselves and their families. His step-father (who immigrated as an adult) studied hard in his adopted country, the United States, and became a doctor.

Mr. Largaespada , the oldest of eight, was born in San Francisco. As a child, he moved around with his family to many other areas of the country, including Omaha, Bensalem (outside of Philadelphia), and Atlantic City. Eventually, his family settled in Hercules, CA, where he completed his public education. 

Mr. Largaespada and his wife moved to Benicia 18 years ago when they were planning to start a family. The schools here had an excellent reputation, the crime statistics were low, and the small-town atmosphere seemed like a good place to raise children. The couple now have two daughters: the younger is a sophomore at Benicia High School, and the older daughter is a Benicia public school alumni now a freshman at Arizona State University. 

A lawn with kids running away.
‘La Migra’ is slang for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is the name used for this controversial game based on ICE agents deporting undocumented immigrants. | This image is from a 2018 video showing footage of the Game starting.

Mr. Largaespada first heard about the La Migra “game,” about seven years ago. An upset parent came to a Benicia City Council meeting to express his concern at this racially offensive, unofficial, yet traditional “game” the high school students were playing. The concern of this parent captured Mr. Largaespada’s attention – both as a community leader and as a parent of two young girls.

In Mr. Largaespada’s opinion, the concept of high school upperclassmen versus lowerclassmen is a legacy that has been going on for generations. He respects and honors the fact that the title, La Migra, and the simulation of an immigration raid can be triggering and racially offensive, particularly to those who have experienced or been threatened by immigration operations.

However, this is not what bothers Mr. Largaespada the most. What concerns Mr. Largaespada most is the evident disconnect between parents or guardians and the young people who choose to get involved in this game. 

In the matter of raising children, Mr. Largaespada is a strong advocate for teaching respect for others and oneself, and teaching kindness. Words and actions matter. The mimicry of the very painful and sometimes brutal chasing and apprehending of immigrants by ICE agents steps beyond the boundaries of decency. In his opinion, the parents and guardians of the students playing the “game” don’t know where their children are that evening, what they are doing, or are completely unaware of the details and impacts of the game being played.

Some Benicia High School students have taken action against the game, posting warnings to discourage peers from participating. | This image is a still from a 2023 NBC Bay Area report.

Mr. Largaespada feels strongly that words matter, and calling something La Migra, which incites fear on one end and domination on the other, is not respectful, compassionate, or kind. There should be no place for the violence, verbal assault, or recklessness this game incites among our youths. Mr. Largaespada also believes that parents should be held accountable for their children’s behavior. He would support a mandated sensitivity training for the student apprehended while engaged in the game . . . AND he would support the same training for their families. If parents and guardians maintain a loving and disciplined relationship with their children, teaching them strong values, establishing clear boundaries, and maintaining good communication, Mr. Largaespada believes that the La Migra game would not have a place in this community or anywhere. 

As his own girls approached high school, Mr. Largaespada and his wife had some very serious conversations with them about what behaviors they expected of their children. There would be no tolerance of any disrespect of any kind – no vandalism, no deliberate miscommunication or evasiveness, no bullying, AND no involvement in the La Migra “game.” They were instructed to watch out for their friends as well. If a friend or acquaintance was getting involved with bad behavior of any type, the Largaespada girls were to try to neutralize things or walk away. And they did. 

We all have a part in making Benicia welcoming, inclusive and safe. And for many, it feels that way. For the most part, our community is made up of caring individuals who elect responsive and caring leaders. But it should feel that way for all of us, regardless of age, gender, color of skin, religion, political leanings, abilities, and anything else that makes us unique. Parents and guardians play a huge role in shaping the behavior and values of our children. And our children grow up to become members of a community contributing to the overall community in which they reside – for better or for worse. 

Share your story
If you would like Sheri to hear and share your perspective on the ‘La Migra Game,’ please contact her through the Benicia Independent. Remember that it is your story that is critical for others to hear, not your name, unless you would like to be identified.
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