By Pablo Jaime Sainz
Although I’ve lived in Tijuana for more than three years now, only after taking the “U.S.-Mexico Border Region” class, offered by the Latin American Studies Department at San Diego State University (SDSU), did I begin to grasp the diversity the city has to offer.
Taught by Victor Clark-Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, the class is unique in the SDSU catalog of classes. While most courses at SDSU are taught within a traditional classroom, where students sit on a desk and listen to the professor’s lecture, the “Border Region” class is anything but that.
First of all, the class takes place in Tijuana, for a very particular reason.
“When I was invited to teach a class about the border at SDSU, I thought, ‘If the border is just 20 minutes away, why not teach the class right at the border?,’” said Clark-Alfaro, who has been teaching the class since 1998. “That way, the students can have the experience of meeting the border itself.”
But the class has something even more interesting: Instead of seating at a classroom environment, each week students go to a different place to meet their guests.
And the topics treated each class give voice to themes rarely treated at a traditional class: One week students meet with a group of transsexuals, another week the speakers are female prostitutes who work at Tijuana’s Zona Norte, or red-light district.
Then there are also weeks when students meet with Tijuana’s authorities to talk about security issues, or when students go to the house of a Mixteco Indigenous family from Oaxaca to celebrate Day of the Dead.
“The fact that we offer a class where we give transsexuals the chance to tell their story or the fact that we go to real places to see how people really live in Tijuana, makes this class interesting for most students who want to learn about the border,” Clark-Alfaro said. “My idea is to turn the class into an adventure for the students.”
Indeed, Latin American Studies 580, the official name for the class, has become very popular among SDSU students.
“Every semester I have between 25 to 40 students enrolled,” Clark-Alfaro said.
Something that was fascinating for me was that although the class is completely in Spanish, about half of the students enrolled are White students who are really fluent in Spanish.
Another aspect I find interesting is that about four students are international students. This year, for example, there are two exchange students from Germany.
One of them is Philipp Greter, a student at the University of Colonia who is majoring in Latin American Studies. Philipp is studying at SDSU for one semester and said his experience in the United States has been enriched thanks to the “Border Region” class.
But even I, a person who thought knew Tijuana better than most, have benefited from taking this class.
After visiting El Bordo, the place where dozens of immigrants wait for the Border Patrol to change shifts in order to try and cross the fence illegally, I began to understand the economic difficulties many Mexicans face everyday.
Also, after talking with Juanita, a Mixteco Indian from Oaxaca who speaks little Spanish, I learn that not everybody living in Tijuana sees the world the way the majority of Mexicans do.
“This course has a micro-perspective against other courses with a global emphasis, and includes material not commonly taught in any campuses on either side of the border,” states the class’ syllabus.
Without a doubt, this “difference” is what has made it one of the most rewarding and controversialcourses in the Latin American Studies Department at SDSU.
“I always receive good feedback from students and even professors,” Clark-Alfaro said.