While drawing attention to the fear and uncertainty some of the United States’ neighbors to the south have been feeling in recent months, a Los Angeles Times article published on April 24, 2017, also shared the story of Calexico Mission School (CMS). This Seventh-day Adventist school is perched on the California border between Mexico and the U.S. What began as a 30-student, one-teacher classroom in 1937 has grown into a K-12 institution with 300 students.
“Our school’s 80 years of educational legacy is a testament to the fact that God is using Adventist education to touch young lives in incredible ways,” says Oscar Olivarria, school principal and former student. “And no wall, policy, currency, language, or political agenda can stop God’s work.”
Humberto Wong, a Stanford University-trained radiologist who attended CMS from kindergarten through ninth grade, shares, “My father also went to CMS in the 1960s, and he and his brother became Seventh-day Adventists due to this experience. My mother converted when she and my father got married; my brother and I were raised Adventist and went to school every morning across the border from Mexicali just like the LA Times article describes.” Wong’s mother retired a couple years ago after serving many years as the school librarian shortly after Wong finished at CMS.
The Southeastern California Conference church region school’s mission statement clearly defines the responsibility the school has undertaken. The school exists “to show children Jesus, nurture their love for Him and others, teach them to think, and empower them to serve.”
“The school’s mission statement does encapsulate my experience,” says Wong. “And Bible class really helped to reinforce Christian principles in those formative years.”
An Average School Day
Up to 85 percent of the student body is comprised of Mexican students who cross the border each school day. Most are not Adventists. Some walk from street corners where public transportation (buses or taxis) from the city of Mexicali drop them off. Some drive to the border in parent carpools “on good days” when traffic into the crossing checkpoint isn’t too heavy. Winding passageways lead them to the border and the short walk from the checkpoint to the school.
“The temperature was often more than 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] as we walked to school,” says Carlos Quiroz, who attended the school from kindergarten through ninth grade. “It was fun, though, walking to school with friends, piling six of us in taxis sometimes.”
Not only do the children of CMS deal with the heat, they also live with the stress of bi-culturalism. And Quiroz remembers disruptions, on occasion, from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — then known as Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) — when non-students who would try to blend in on campus would be forcibly removed. “You know how some kids would play ‘cops and robbers’? Or ‘cowboys and Indians’? We’d play ‘La Migra’ [a colloquial term for ICE]. That was how we dealt with things, how we internalized it.”
Exchange Rates and Opportunities
For the parents who send their children there, the financial burden can be great, but the effort well worth it. “Like those kids in the LA Times story, we would watch the exchange rates. It was a concern,” Quiroz says.
Olivarria, who is completing his first year as principal, sees this daily with current students. Earlier this school year, parents experienced anxiety with a tuition increase of almost 20 percent, after the peso-dollar exchange rate went from 18 to almost 22 pesos per dollar within the first semester this year. Realizing that the students were also anxious, one teacher encouraged her students to pray. For several months, they prayed each day “for the dollar to go down.”
“In all my years living here I have never ever seen the peso close such a large gap on the dollar,” says Olivarria, admitting early skepticism. “But in the three weeks that followed, the exchange rate dropped to an even lower rate than what we had at the start of the school year. Moreover, this favorable rate has been steady since March, which is giving new hope to our families.”
"Despite the physical barriers that may separate their homes, the boys and girls who study at CMS share the same dream."
Quiroz, who now resides in northern California, says, “My family always valued education and opportunity. My dad grew up in the jungles of Panama and [eventually] settled in Mexico. And education was always a priority — a way to find the opportunity to create a better life.” Quiroz works with a nonprofit organization on outreach — and has continued to value education and teach those principles to his own child. He and his wife are excited their daughter just finished her sophomore year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“The students at [CMS] share a unique experience,” says Quiroz. “And, for me, the school was family. The teachers understood the students, and the teachers were often like the students: bilingual, and bicultural.”
A Path Forward
Living through similar situations with financial and immigration concerns, Olivarria says that seeing what happened this year after students prayed “was an amazing lesson taught by my little sixth graders — never limit our infinite God.”
And he adds, “This is the reason I’m back at CMS. I’m honored that God has put in my heart a desire to share Him with these kids and that I get to be a part of this wonderful ministry in my own home.”
“With so many people living in fear, CMS provides a vital, well-rounded education and a path forward for children living along both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border regardless of their nationality,” says Dan Jackson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD). “Despite the physical barriers that may separate their homes, the boys and girls who study at CMS share the same dream, to gain the tools necessary to not only make a positive impact on their respective communities, but to inspire other generations to seek a life-transforming education.”
“The latest interest in the border, along with the abundance of media reports brimming with fear, which, by the way, only magnifies such sentiment, has allowed us to share a refreshing perspective—that is not really new—right from the epicenter of all this talk,” says Olivarria.
And Olivarria adds, “Our focus at CMS has always been to counter any remark that provokes worry with God’s promises to bless and love His children. This is the eternal truth that existed before countries and borders, and is just as true today as it was then.
“Our commitment to echo God’s Word will always be a part of who we are and what we do.”