Last week, I was in San Diego for a few days and it brought back some memories of my twenties that I’ve packed away for many years.

I spent a majority of my twenties (nearly a decade) in San Diego in the 1990s. It was a coming of age for me in the movement and my identity. It was inspiring and brutal at the same time. To be honest, I’ve had a lot of hesitation returning to all this. I’ve been back a few times since but nothing like this time around.

I learned a lot about myself in San Diego. I learned about how to live on my own, how to get through college (UCSD!) while trying to be a full time activist. I learned about friendships, relationships and love. I learned about politics/politricks, radical, horizontal and often ultra left politics. I learned about being invisible as an Asian. I learned about movement toxicity, burnout and my limits as a human being.

I also learned about the practice of meditation, joys of spoken word and video editing/documenting stories of my family and social movements. We organized major walkouts and direct actions. With the passage of NAFTA, I saw the rise the Zapatistas. I learned how to blend organizing and electoral strategies. I grew up a lot here.

To ground this even more, San Diego is a border region. Behind the veil of the beaches and nice weather, it was and still is a high and low intensity warfare zone against immigrants and refugees. This is at the core of US imperialism and capitalism.

The 1990s, one could argue, was one of the most conservative eras in the country with the dismantling of affirmative action, rise of the prison industrial complex, the targeting of immigrant, workers, youth, and queer folks. (see footnote below)

Sure, we have “turned” this state around to become the progressive beacon of the nation but the 1990s were some difficult and traumatic times. Many of us forget how backward California was.

And in San Diego, white nationalism was also alive and well. From the Tom Metzger of the KKK in Fallbrook, near San Diego and “Lighting up the Border” to the Minutemen and personal attacks I encountered, xenophobia was explicit and visible. These are some of the memories I unpacked.

But something shifted for me last week. I was disarmed by the open hearts from the good people on the ground still organizing everyday in San Diego. Specifically, the humility and strength from Pedro Rios, American Friends Service Committee and Ramla Sahid, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americas. We were brought to the US and Mexico border and heard many stories from border crossers and border victims.  Many of us from different movements were here for the Solidarity Summit coordinated by the Open Society Foundation.

Almost immediately, I was full of rage. I returned to my 1990s younger self. From being on stolen land and the US border to the Muslim ban, I remember post 9/11 when even more walls were constructed. I recall people and families disappearing. This used to be normal/normalized for me as a young organizer.

It also reminded me of my privilege and responsibility. I remember what propelled me to commit my waking moments to fight injustice and to be a martyr; it was also what burnt me out, several times over.

“It also reminded me of my privilege and responsibility. I remember what propelled me to commit my waking moments to fight injustice and to be a martyr; it was also what burnt me out, several times over.”

But the body and mind is more resilient than we think. Each time, I learned more about myself and what i needed. I learned to trust my instincts. I learned to be stronger in different ways. I (eventually) learned that we needed short and long term strategy to move the needle even an inch in this militarized border town. I learned to build organizations, broad unified fronts and movement infrastructure because there was virtually nothing. I learned to experiment and plant seeds for future generations.

All these experiences are what made me a sharper organizer when I came back to the Bay Area in the 2000s. I constantly return to the long arch of change. From the small jabs to the tiny cracks that lead to the major blows in the system.

Before, I would look back at all this with some judgement and self-doubt, like I did not do enough or that the work did not matter enough. But coming back and seeing all that has grown and shifted, the movement infrastructure, the fire and heart in the eyes of organizers, the San Diego vibe and hunger to turn it up is all so real and powerful.

These lessons and memories feel so relevant to our current political moment.How did we organize under Pete Wilson for nearly a decade? What was our long and short game? How were some loses actually wins? How some were loses really loses? Who did we bring into the movement? How did we take care of each other?

There is more to learn and re-learn from my younger self and we all have stories within us. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m the same person and evolving and transforming everyday. I’m sending much gratitude to the freedom fighters in San Diego for re-igniting this important part of me. <3

Footnote: In the 1990s, California passed some of the most racist and xenophobic ballot initiatives including: Proposition 184 (3 strikes), 187 (Prohibited services to undocumented immigrants), 209 (Eliminated of affirmative action), 227 (Ended bilingual education), 21 (Lowered the age to be tried as an adult to 14 years old) and 22 (anti-gay marriage). Prop 187 and 227 were eventually ruled unconstitutional.