Sheri Leigh: Benicia Teens Offer New Ideas, Hope for Lasting Change for Life after La Migra Games

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

By Sheri Leigh, first published in the Benicia Herald on May 26, 2024

I first met Spencer Ball in February of this year when I went to the Kyle Hyland Teen Center to speak to the students there about the offensive game.  He was refreshingly enthusiastic about finding exciting alternatives for teens to do in Benicia, rather than engaging in the game (La Migra).  As I talked to the students about the potential dangers and racist undertones of the game, Spencer fired off a plethora of different ideas, opening the door for progressive planning and teen engagement.  

Spencer Ball is an 11th grader at Benicia High School and a natural leader.  He helps his parents with their business and has a strong interest in mechanics and becoming an entrepreneur.  He is even considering a career in politics.  Spencer was one of the two Fiestas Primavera Scholarship recipients, writing a winning essay about the impacts of the La Migra game on our community. [Ed. Note: A copy of this essay will be posted later today, on May 28, 2024.]

Shortly after starting high school nearly three years ago, Spencer heard about La Migra.  The intensity of the pandemic was just ending, and the game had just resumed with a fervor and ruthlessness born from young people being cooped up and isolated for so long.  He noticed that the students were really into it.  Some of the kids wore all black, complete with dark balaclavas to minimize their visibility in the dark while running.  Some of the chasers carried airsoft guns that resembled military grade weaponry.  One student even rented a U-Haul in the anticipation of capturing and deporting a lot of “illegals.”  Spencer talked about hearing that some captured “escapees” were zip-tied to a fence or dropped off in San Francisco.  

“I understand and like edgy games, such as Cops and Robbers, where the thrill factor is high, but there are problems with La Migra,” 16-year-old Spencer Ball told me when we met over coffee at Starbucks in April to talk about other options for teens in the community.  He wants to reinvent the game in a safer, more structured, and non-racist way.  “Kids need to have activities that are exciting and free from adult involvement, but being unkind to one another isn’t the way to do it.” Spencer shared that he and his friends already play a simulated war game in the Community Park wilderness area using nerf guns, and they love it.  Everyone watches out for each other.  They all know who is playing.  They establish reasonable rules, and they follow them.  Any of the friends can include whomever they want, and they all have an equal standing.  “We can open it up school-wide to anyone who wants to play,” he suggested.  

Spencer and Solano Aids Coalition Executive Director Mario Saucedo at Benicia’s Fiestas Primavera on March 28, 2024. | Photo by family.

Spencer also talks about the loose use of racist and sexist words used by the kids.  He notes that there is a lot of desensitized “humor” at school.  He mentioned that some of the students yell out words that would never be used in more civilized situations or around their grandmothers. 

Spencer notes that even under the best of circumstances and with all good intentions, these words can be obnoxious, offensive, or frightening to a lot of people when they hear it: “We need to stop giving the words power. We shouldn’t let these words affect who we are or react to them.  The same with bullying.  Social media has played a big part in this problem.  I’ve been bullied.  Standing up for yourself is one of the only ways to stop it.  Speak with confidence.  Surround yourself with caring people.  If you find the courage to hold your head up, self-esteem will follow.” 

Often easier said than done, for many, but absolutely correct in an ideal world.  

“We need to come together as a community,” Spencer tells me.  I nod.  His goal is to inspire and develop more inclusive, less dangerous, and yet fun activities for teens and to be that agent of change.  I look forward to what Spencer and others like him bring to Benicia.  

A copy of Spencer’s prize-winning essay about the La Migra game will be posted later today, on May 28, 2024.