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Satellite College Campus Helps to Heal the Scars at San Ysidro Massacre Site

Times Staff Writer

The structure is no longer there, the scene is altered, but the event that unfolded five years ago at the San Ysidro McDonald’s restaurant remains etched in the collective memory of San Diego.

It was there, on July 18, 1984, that a crazed gunman wielding an Uzi, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol entered the fast-food restaurant at 522 W. San Ysidro Blvd. and began shooting in the worst mass slaying in American history. The gunman, James Oliver Huberty, was shot and killed by a police sharpshooter, but not before he casually executed 21 people and wounded 19 others.

Scene Hardly Recognizable

The scene now is hardly recognizable to those who witnessed the horror of that day.

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Where the McDonald’s Golden Arches once beckoned hungry patrons, there is a satellite campus of Southwestern College, an “important contribution” to San Ysidro, said San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner, who represents the area.

“It’s an incredible success story,” Filner said. “Out of this massacre came an educational institution that is serving the needs of San Ysidro, and they did it with . . . great speed and efficiency. It has really worked well.”

The Southwest College Education Center at San Ysidro gives students the opportunity to experience introductory, college-level courses and earn credits that can be transferred to a four-year college, said Serafin A. Zasueta, dean and director of the center. “These students are excited to have the opportunity to go to college.”

On a recent day, students milled about the tiny campus, chatting before disappearing inside for their 10 a.m. classes. A placard, prominently displayed in front of the school, reads: “This site reserved for a

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memorial to honor victims of the tragedy July 18th, 1984.” A new McDonald’s is open down the block, less than a quarter of a mile away.

In spite of the ever-present memory of the 1984 massacre, many students and teachers say they feel the site is now a source of regeneration for the San Ysidro border community, and an appropriate tribute to those slain.

Legacy to the Children

Dora Rugama, 48, a San Ysidro schoolteacher and a student at the center, said: “Many of (the victims) who were killed were children. It’s a legacy to them and to their families to keep going forward.”

English teacher Gary Howard of Escondido agreed that the center memorializes the massacre victims of the past while encouraging progress.

“The process of learning is an ‘active memorial,’ ” he said. “What better expression of life than education? Learning is about people progressing and moving forward. Learning is putting life back into the community.”

Nevertheless, when classes began last September, some students, such as Rugama, were troubled by the specter of the massacre.

“We discussed (the tragedy) last semester when classes began, but there was just this feeling I had because I saw the whole (massacre). I was watching from nearby,” Rugama said, pointing across the adjacent parking lot. “I wasn’t against this, but inside I kept thinking, ‘I remember that day.’ ”

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Shortly after the massacre, McDonald’s razed the restaurant and donated the land to the city of San Diego. After three years of haggling between council members and San Ysidro residents over options that included transforming the site into a memorial park or selling the commercial site--the asking price was more than $300,000--the council voted in 1987 to sell the land.

Received No Takers

When the council received no takers, the parcel went last February to Southwestern College in Chula Vista for a mere $40,000 and a requirement that it erect a modest memorial to the massacre victims.

That requirement brought passionate division to San Ysidro when first introduced. Some thought a memorial was an appropriate way to remember the slain victims, others believed that any kind of memorial would be a tribute to the murderer instead of the murdered.

But, said Filner, “what was a very divisive issue has become a very important contribution to the community.”

The school has yet to install the memorial, for which the college held a student design contest when the campus opened. The winner, Roberto Valdes Jr., a 20-year-old former Bonita resident, won $500 for his design, a sculpture of 21 marble, tiered hexagons, symbolizing the 21 victims, surrounded by a simulated waterfall, Zasueta said.

The funding for the project, estimated at $48,000, is still being negotiated between the president of Southwestern College and the city manager, said Allen Jones, chief of staff for Filner.

“When the original agreement went through, a condition was the requirement to construct a modest memorial. The cost estimates that have come in are a little higher than the school anticipated, so they are hoping to see their funds added to city funds,” Jones said.

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No Complaints from Relatives

“The $40,000 went to a fund for park and recreational improvements in San Ysidro. Some funds from that money might be available if the design and the function of the memorial incorporates and provides for public use,” he said.

Filner said his office has not received any complaints from relatives of the massacre victims about building an educational center rather than a memorial park. “Everybody is thrilled with the classes,” he said “They are classes the community has indicated the desire for having, and the enrollment has shown that.”

The center opened in September with an enrollment of 360. By the spring, it had 750 students, about 60% of them from the immediate San Ysidro area, with an additional 25% from peripheral areas such as south Chula Vista and Imperial Beach, Zasueta said.

As a result, the center has had an 80% student retention rate, “extremely high, given the ethnic composition here,” Zasueta said. “The campus is 84% minority, the highest risk group you could be educating in terms of the national dropout rate.”

Zasueta said he at first feared that enrollment would be low because of the lingering memory of the massacre.

“There’s a grief cycle. It’s very emotional, but the community has embraced (the center) as something that can further the survivors’ dream or ideal,” he said.

“There was a great deal of concern, a lot of dissension about how the land was going to be used, but it’s turned out for the best.”

But some students still have an irrational fear of the possibility of a repeat massacre at the site, according to English teacher Howard. He does his best to reassure them.

Students mention their fears to him and say: “ ‘Could it happen again?’ I don’t think it would. This center is an emblem of peace now.”


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