Category Archives: Benicia Unified School District

La Migra: Another Parent’s Perspective

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

By Sheri Leigh, January 11, 2024

A while ago, I spoke to a close friend who recently moved to the East Coast from the Benicia area.  As we were catching up, I mentioned my efforts to educate our community about the La Migra Games.  At first, she didn’t know what I was referring to, and as we discussed it further, she got it.  Not only was she aware of the game, three of her children, who are now adults, had participated as “undocumenteds” while in high school.  Despite our closeness, my friend and I sometimes have completely different perspectives. This was one of those times…

My good friend, whom I will refer to as Alice, was a long time Benicia/Vallejo resident but has since moved away.  Alice has several children, and like their mother, her children are smart and adventurous. They enjoy outdoor activities and extreme sports when the opportunity arises.  The younger ones attended Benicia public schools, including the high school, spanning from about 2010-2019.

As underclassmen at BHS, they were each challenged to participate in the “La Migra Games” by the seniors who were hosting, and three of them took it on. They loved the idea of a long distance (three-mile) chase game at night where they needed to use their skills and wits to get to the other end of town without being caught by students posing as ICE officers. However, since the chase was what appealed to them rather than the pursuit, they only participated as underclassmen running from their older peers.

Benicia High School staff, administrators, and students have taken steps to prevent students from participating in the game. | Uncredited image.

The eldest of the three, and the one who was at Benicia High School first, was probably the biggest thrill seeker of the family.  He apparently had an amazing experience playing the game and encouraged the younger ones to take advantage of this opportunity when it was their turn.  One younger brother and even younger sister followed suit a few years later.  All of them individually made it to the “safe” zone without being captured, and felt the same exhilaration as did their older brother by their accomplishment.  They each shared their experience with Alice, who appreciated that her children voluntarily participated in something that required ingenuity, bravery and physical endurance.

When I brought up my concerns about “La Migra,” it was clear that Alice did not connect the name of the game with the actual event. She really didn’t know what it was called until my clarification, although I’m sure the kids did.  This family is of white European heritage and their ancestors have been in the United States for several generations now. The kids don’t have the perspective of a modern immigrant family, so the name, “La Migra” didn’t trigger them the way it does some others. Once we discussed the impact of the name, Alice could definitely see how the title and the assertion could be offensive.  She suggested that changing the name and the premise  to something less racially charged and continuing the tradition would be the appropriate thing to do.

I need to mention here that this family has deep roots in the military.  Two of Alice’s three children who played the game continued on to serve our country, while the youngest is still contemplating service.  Being in the military includes participation in potentially dangerous games, in preparation for real life military missions.  Neither the kids nor Alice were concerned with the individual and public safety.  She dismissed my points that there is no roster, that no one is formally accounted for, that the parents don’t necessarily know where their children are during the game, and that the game is played on public streets and encroaches on private property.  She ascertained that if there were formal rules, it would require adult supervision – something that would definitely minimize or even eliminate the independent and thrilling nature of the game.

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.

As we discussed it more, Alice suggested that the City could let the community know that this game is happening and that we should all exercise more caution that evening rather than try to shut down the game.  She sees the game as a unique and important opportunity for teens to participate in an activity which requires them to use their emerging survival skills – something that could be valuable later in life.

One of the few things that did capture Alice’s attention from my extensive list of concerns was that some young people who aren’t voluntarily playing the game are being targeted, with severe trauma often being the result.  We agreed that some identifying and visible article of clothing or accessory could be worn so that everyone can unequivocally know who is playing and who is not.  She felt that, as in life,  there should be a code of ethics among the students. Only those who self-identify as a participant should be chased.

And finally, much to my personal relief, Alice was absolutely concerned about the alleged increasing violence, including the use of gel pellet guns, as part of the game.  For this, she put responsibility directly on the shoulders of the parents or guardians of the young people who opt to use verbal or physical assault as part of their chase tactics.  She feels that parents need to establish a strict moral code and that children should never be allowed to use weapons, whether real or “toys,” irresponsibly.

Use of gel pellet guns by teens is on the rise, with sometimes violent or even deadly consequences. Youth caught firing pellets at people or animals may be charged with assault and battery or animal cruelty. | NBC Boston.

I care very much about my friend and her family, and I want to hear her perspective and consider this into the equation.  From their point of view, there are good reasons for young people to have the opportunity to participate in a game that promotes excitement, fear, exhilaration, and wits, as long as it’s done voluntarily and with honor.  The question remains – how do we provide something like this for our young people without inciting racism, bullying, violence and, as I will continue to emphasize, unsafe conditions for those involved and for the public?

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.
Reach out to Sheri:
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

(This is not a live line. You will be sent straight to voicemail.)

Benicia marches for Ruby Bridges

Students from Robert Semple Elementary School walk from Francesca Terrace Park in support of Ruby Bridges during Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day in California on Tuesday in Benicia. | Chris Riley / Times-Herald.

School system honors Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to attend whites-only school in 1960

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Thomas Gase, November 14, 2023

In 1960 Ruby Bridges became the first African-American child to attend formerly Whites-only William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis. Today — 63 years later — students in Benicia are making sure nobody forgets.

Students in the Benicia High School Unified School District took part in a day to raise awareness for Bridges after learning about the civil rights activist in school during this year. For students at Robert Semple Elementary School, that meant walking from Francesca Park to the school while carrying signs and wearing T-shirts supporting Bridges.

The third annual event has grown in size every year, thanks to organizers like Kashanna Harmon-Lee, Laura Cohen, Krista Heredia and Rozalind Sinnamon.

“This is something good for Benicia and I’m really proud of the support of what everyone shown,” Harmon-Lee said. “The kids learn about Bridges’ life and these are kids that maybe didn’t know anything about Bridges previously. Each year the parents become more involved. So I’m very proud and very humble about the community effort.”

In early 1960, Bridges was one of six Black children in New Orleans to pass the test that determined whether they could go to the all-White William Frantz Elementary School. While two of the six decided to stay at their old school, Bridges went to Frantz by herself, and three other children (Gail Etienne, Leona Tate and Tessie Prevost) were transferred to the all-White McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School.

U.S. Marshals escorted Bridges to and from school. As soon as Bridges entered the school, White parents pulled their own children out, and most teachers refused to teach while a Black child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Bridges — Barbara Henry, from Boston.

For over a year Henry taught her alone, “as if she were teaching a whole class.”

Students walking on Tuesday morning — along with teachers and family members — wore swag and T-shirts provided by UA Local 342. In total there were approximately 450 purple T-shirts made showing support for Bridges.

“Rich (Patten) reached out to the school and it’s been honor and privilege funding this effort,” UA Local 342 business agent Dave Herwat said. “It’s amazing to be more than just a labor union in this cause and to be an actual prescience in the community. If there is an opportunity to spread the wealth, then this is certainly the way to do it.”

Student supervision aid, Chelsea Bearce, walks with students during Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day in California on Tuesday in Benicia. | Chris Riley / Times-Herald.

One of the students wearing the swag was fourth-grader Gianna Patten, who also made a sign showing support for Bridges.

“I knew about her before this event but I like her (Bridges) because she never gave up,” Gianna said. “Even when people were yelling at her she never gave up.”

Sinnamon was also thrilled to be part of the third annual event.

“This is something I got behind three years ago and it’s grown a lot ever since,” Sinnamon said. “It celebrates diversity, it a teaching lesson to kids and adults and there is just so much forgotten and overlooked in history that we have to remember. We have to remember that it’s, ‘we the people and we still have power.’”

Benicia City Councilmember Kari Birdseye was happy to be involved with the event.

“I’m so proud of the parents that have been involved and this all started on the shoulders of a few people and it has evolved into something much bigger,” Birdseye said. “This is not just a walk. There is so much education around this. It promotes freedom, love and it is a great thing for the country and community.”

Robert Semple Principal Christina Moore said she let her teachers decide the role of how Bridges would be educated in classrooms.

“The pride I have is unmeasurable. I cannot express the gratitude and honor for being apart of something so meaningful in our community that was brought along by our parent group,” Moore said. “I love the beautiful posters, the writings about Ruby Bridges, the solidarity with all of us wearing all the shirts together. It’s all beautiful.”

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.
Reach out to Sheri:
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

(This is not a live line. You will be sent straight to voicemail.)

La Migra: Our Leaders United

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

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.

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.
Reach out to Sheri:
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

(This is not a live line. You will be sent straight to voicemail.)