CHULA VISTA, California – After President Donald Trump’s administration began enforcing its “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers, the flow of migrants arriving at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown San Diego was reduced to a trickle. This posed a big question – what to do now? — for the two energetic women who had organized the Bus Station Project providing aid and comfort to asylum candidates about to travel to the homes of American sponsors.
“There were two weeks that we went to the bus station and there was only one family (needing assistance) and that was it,” commented Mimi Pollack, co-founder with Paula Sassi of the Bus Station Project. (see previous articles 1) and 2).
“So we decided to see how else we could help,” Pollack said. “Asylees are being bottlenecked in Tijuana, so I started checking out shelters over there as well as organizations on this side of the border that are working with the shelters.” A mutual acquaintance put Pollack and Sassi in touch with Bertha Alicia “Birdie” Guiterrez of Chula Vista, a social activist who has been committed to helping the poor and the hungry since she was a young teenager learning at the feet of United Farm Worker Union organizer Cesar Chavez.
Gutierrez heads an organization called “Bridge of Love Across the Border” which collects food stuffs, toiletries, clothing, blankets, and other supplies for the migrants now living in shelters in Tijuana while they await their dates for court hearings to determine if they are eligible for asylum in the United States.
On Tuesday, August 20, I accompanied Pollack and Sassi from Pollack’s home in La Mesa to Gutierrez’s rented storage facility in Chula Vista where she keeps donated goods pending distributions twice every week in Tijuana. Sassi and Pollack brought a variety of goods, among them clothing, blankets and some diapers, which they had obtained from direct donations and through purchases at local garage sales.
After loading bags and bags of donated goods into the storage facility, the three ladies and I repaired nearby to Zorba’s Greek Restaurant, where, over a buffet lunch, Gutierrez told the story of how a famous hunger strike Chavez had conducted in 1972 in Phoenix, Arizona, led her to become involved in various anti- poverty and social action projects, including Bridge of Love Across the Border.
She said that she was born to a family of farmworkers – her father having been hired in Mexico by farmers in New Mexico as part of America’s bracero program. Family members hired themselves out as farm workers, accepting work wherever crops were being harvested. When she was 12, her family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, “the hardest place in the country to work in the fields.”
In 1972, then 14, she and her parents lived near the Santa Rita Center in Phoenix, where Chavez fasted 24 days to draw attention to the plight of underpaid and overworked farmworkers, who then were on strike. His fast was a nationally celebrated occasion, prompting visits in solidarity from such celebrities as Coretta Scott King and members of the late Robert F. Kennedy’s family.
The fasting Chavez “changed my life completely in terms of my way of thinking,” Gutierrez said. “For those who think, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about that?’ well, that’s when it hit me – here was a farmworker willing to risk his life so the rest of us could have something better. I decided at that moment in my life, if one person could make a difference, then so could I.”
Gutierrez started small, “doing school drives, clothing drives – it became a way of life for us growing up,” she said.
While Chavez was able to help farmworkers, there nevertheless lingered in Arizona what Gutierrez described as an atmosphere of discrimination and racial profiling.
She told of a man with whom she had shared a house. “He was a Vietnam veteran, who had been awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star,” Gutierrez related. “He was giving his girlfriend a ride home, when he got pulled over during one of the roundups” organized by then Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. “Arpaio would choose a certain barrio and he would station RV-type vehicles around it, fitted with cells inside – mobile jails – and then he would bring in police, and round up any person of color. My roommate got pulled over, beaten up, because they wanted to draw blood from him, and he refused. They almost broke his nose. He kept telling them he was an American citizen. They were looking for ‘undocumented’ people – I don’t use the word ‘illegal.’ He ended up going to jail. They processed him, and then they let him go. They dropped all the charges, of course.”
Incidents like that, and others, “affected every one of us,” Gutierrez said. “It didn’t just affect undocumented people. We care about our community We care about our neighbors, undocumented or not. It affected everyone.”
In response to the roundups, the Mexican-American community (some of them proudly calling themselves Chicanos) began to organize. “All of us who grew up in this movement supported each other,” she said.
Pollack (a Jewish community member who writes frequently for San Diego Jewish World) recalled an instance when family friends were driving from New Mexico through Arizona to San Diego “to see us, and were stopped by the Border Patrol.” The husband was a third-generation American and the wife’s family had lived in New Mexico for eight generations. Nevertheless, she said, the Border Patrol officer demanded to see their papers. “What papers?” they responded. “We’re Americans.” Their children didn’t even know how to speak Spanish. Eventually the Border Patrol let them go.
About 11 years ago, Gutierrez moved to California and before long she was urging fellow activists in San Diego to beware that Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 – which eventually was declared unconstitutional by the courts – not be the subject of a copy cat law in California. SB 1070 had made it a misdemeanor for aliens to be without proper documents in Arizona, and authorized local law enforcement officials who had a “reasonable suspicion” to stop individuals to determine their immigration status. According to Gutierrez, the measure enabled law enforcement officials routinely to harass persons of color.
The social activist also became involved in protests in cases in which people of Hispanic background were fatally shot or beaten to death by Border Patrol agents under suspicious circumstances. She cited the 2010 case of Anastasio Henandez Rojas, whose fatal beating by Border Patrol agents was videotaped and became a cause celebre. Additionally, she cited the case of Valeria Tachiquin in 2012, a mother of five, who was fatally shot through the window of her car by a Border Patrol agent. In that case, the Border Patrol said Tachiquin had struck an agent with her car, after one tried to remove her ignition keys.
When Central Americans began their marches to the U.S. border, Gutierrez said she and fellow social activists decided they should create an organization to render humanitarian assistance to the migrants.
“The story that got me to turn my focus to this [in May 2018] was that there were a number of trans-migrants (transgender migrants) who came with the caravan. Right after they arrived there (in Tijuana), they were attacked in the shelter and held at gunpoint. Then they ran to the Caritas Shelter [run by Catholic Charities], and that night someone took a mattress and put it on the door and lit it on fire. They literally tried to set the whole building on fire, while the trans-persons and all the children and families were inside there. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to help them.’”
The shelter the transgender refugees had relocated to needed almost everything – toiletries, clothes, diapers – and Bridge of Love Across the Border began collecting and supplying them.
After ten months, that shelter was receiving help from a variety of organizations, so much so that Gutierrez decided she could turn her attention to other shelters – one in particular started by refugees to help other refugees. The group created its own diner in Tijuana, where refugees can get a meal and where they can find bins of shoes, toiletries, blankets, tents, first aid kits – whatever they need — while they wait, many of them homeless, for the opportunity to present their requests for asylum in the United States.
Besides collecting materials for the Bridge of Love Across the Border organization, Sassi and Pollack have found other avenues to assist the refugees.
Sassi, for example, sorts clothes at the Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in the University Town Center area. That church is part of the Rapid Response Network, headed by Jewish Family Service, which tends to the needs of refugees who are legally admitted to this country.
Sometimes, said Sassi, items do not meet the requirements of the Rapid Response Network, and she is permitted to donate them to Bridge of Love Across the Border.
Sassi also goes to numerous garage sales, buying some items and spreading the news to sellers about her work with Bridge of Love Across the Border. She said it is not uncommon for the sellers to say, “Come back later, and what we haven’t sold, we’ll be happy to donate.”
Pollack meanwhile has been volunteering as a driver who takes refugee families from the Rapid Response Network’s downtown shelter to the airport, assisting them through preflight procedures and boarding. Pollack happily presents stuffed animals to those families with children whom she assists.
The Bus Station Project, Pollack says, “is in transition.” If ever there is again need for volunteers to meet non-English speaking families at the bus station to explain about rest stops and bus changes en route to their final destinations, Pollack and Sassi plan to return along with bags of toiletries, maps, clothing, and toys.”