Growing up in Tahoe as a Mexican immigrant, Xochitl Alondra Perez-Luna, 24, faced immense challenges. Despite her hardships, she embraced the opportunities that life presented. As an immigrant, athlete, and grieving sister, she is a special needs advocate who is bridging the community’s cultural gaps. This is her story.
Crossing the border
When Xochitl was 3 years old, her family attempted to emigrate to the United States from Mexico. Her father had hoisted her onto his shoulders, while her mother carried Xochitl’s 1-year-old baby brother, Kevin, in her arms. They trekked through the desert, hoping that their destination would provide a better future.
Xochitl sat in the sand as her parents stapled cloth to the bottom of her shoes, so she wouldn’t leave traceable footprints. “I could look up and see helicopters flying over, and a lot of lights, and it was very deserted,” Xochitl recalls. “There were a couple bushes, and I remember us hiding, putting the bushes over us to hide and then my memory kind of goes blank a little bit,” she said. They had been caught; Kevin’s crying had given them up.
The next thing that Xochitl remembers is being in jail with her family. They were all sent back to Mexico City. One week later they tried to cross the border again.
This time, Xochitl remembers, her parents gave her brother medication to put him to sleep so he would not cry and expose them. They made it across the border and to a house that Xochitl called “the drug house.”
To help them cross, migrants resort to paying so-called coyotes — people who smuggle illegal immigrants across the border. The payment is required in cash, in full, upfront, and there is no guarantee or reimbursement for unsuccessful crossings. Xochitl’s family paid twice — a total of $30,000, since it took them two attempts.
Xochitl recalls that her mom and Kevin were the only ones with a mattress in the drug house, which was run by coyotes. Her mother deescalated a situation in which a man was accusing Kevin, who was a year old, of stealing his cocaine. “They have people that will manage the house full-time, and then they have the coyotes going back and forth, getting more people,” Xochitl said. “And then the people that do the drugs are a whole separate thing.”
When they left the house and embarked on the next part of the journey, coyotes instructed Xochitl’s family to get into a car with other immigrants. They were told to lie down horizontally and stack on top of one another — men on the bottom, women and children on top. “I remember being cramped in a car, driving up to Tahoe and making a bunch of different stops, dropping off different people,” Xochitl recalled.
Growing up in Tahoe
The coyotes brought Xochitl’s family to a place so beautiful, they were mesmerized — Lake Tahoe.
Xochitl’s first memory of Tahoe is walking with her mom and brother in Kings Beach, pushing a stroller of dirty laundry to the laundromat. It was cold and snowy; she was wearing all the winter clothes she had.
“I remember going to the store and Kevin being like, ‘I want a piece of candy’ and I wouldn’t say anything because I knew pretty early on we were broke,” Xochitl said. “I remember my parents not eating as much or not eating enough because they wanted us to eat.”
Xochitl attended Kings Beach Elementary School until the fourth grade, when she switched to Tahoe Lake Elementary. “I remember very clearly, in my second-grade class every single kid in that room was Mexican and across the hallway, every single kid was white.” When she switched to Tahoe Lake, she was the only Mexican in her class; that school exposed her to more opportunities than she was experiencing at KBE.
In middle school and high school Xochitl participated in basketball, lacrosse, volleyball, track and field, and cross country running. “I always thought that if I walked one foot into the forest, I would get sucked in there and die, and it’s just not that way,” she said. “I remember moments when I was running with my homies out there and I’m just like, this is so peaceful. It feels like a breath of fresh air. It feels like air you can’t get anywhere else. In that moment, I thought, ‘I would not change my life or my childhood for anything.’”
Xochitl lived in Tahoe undocumented until her junior year of high school, when she came to the harsh realization that she would not be able to apply for college without a social security number. She did well academically and going to college had always been her goal. She was able to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. The policy allows for temporary protection from deportation for unlawful immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. DACA provides sufficient documentation for work permits and college applications. The policy began during the Obama administration, and Xochitl was granted deferred action prior to Donald Trump’s election, when the policy was temporarily shut down before being reinstated by the Supreme Court.
Xochitl attended California State University, Long Beach, where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in American Sign Language and a minor in Spanish. She also played on the university’s lacrosse team. She graduated in four years, while paying her own way through college using money she made cleaning houses.
Xochitl’s college years were challenging. The Covid-19 pandemic started while she was a junior, at which point she moved home to Tahoe and finished her classes remotely. During her senior year, her brother Kevin died of a drug overdose.
Kevin graduated from North Tahoe High School one year after Xochitl did. When he was in high school, he had surgery on his ankle and was given opioid pain medication — Xochitl believes that was the birth of Kevin’s drug addiction. He had also been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, and he suffered from anxiety and depression.
Kevin passed away inside a drug rehabilitation clinic less than three weeks after checking in. He took Xanax that was tainted with fentanyl.
The day Kevin died, Xochitl woke up thinking about him, not yet knowing what had happened. With Kevin on her mind, she decided to get her family breakfast at a place she would usually go to with him. “The whole ride there, I just couldn’t shake it, I just kept thinking about him.” She came home and had breakfast with her family before her parents left for work. When the police showed up at her house, Xochitl recalls them asking for her mom; her first thought was that her mom was going to get deported.
Without telling Xochitl why they were there, the cops left to find Xochitl’s parents on their way to work. Xochitl followed, expecting to see them arrest her mother. The police had already told her parents that Kevin had died by the time Xochitl arrived. She pulled up to see her mom sitting on the ground hysterically crying. “I was in shock,” Xochitl said. “I wasn’t even crying because he was dead. I was crying because my mom was crying.”
Becoming an educator
After college, Xochitl worked in special education at North Tahoe High School. She hopes to be the advocate in the school system that she wishes her brother had had. “He was a tough kid, and I get it; it’s hard to work with kids like that, but there were even teachers that would talk about him behind his back.” She says that the kids that other teachers label as “trouble kids” or kids that are more difficult are her favorite kids to work with. “I think working in special education is really gratifying because there’s a lot of kids that don’t have the ability to move, don’t have the ability to communicate, don’t have the ability to do anything; and I sit there and I wonder what they’re thinking, I wonder what they’re feeling.”
Xochitl says losing Kevin has made her more patient and more understanding. “I wish I would’ve just loved him,” she says. “And that’s probably all he wanted; he just wanted to be loved.” Now she makes a point to tell the kids whom she works with that she loves them, and makes sure that they know they are cared for.
This fall, Xochitl will be attending Sonoma State University to pursue a master’s degree. She hopes to return to Tahoe to work in education once she finishes it.
Xochitl is a passionate contributor to the community, especially at the intersection of Mexican culture, sports, and youth. Last year, she coached the high school girls’ lacrosse team, and she’s currently working as a Nordic ski coach. She says that much of the Hispanic community does not partake in sports and recreation programs. One of her motivations is to help bridge the gap and expose the Hispanic community to different opportunities the area has to offer. “We’re trying to build this connection between Americanized sports [and the Hispanic community]. Clearly, there’s a bunch of resources, but the Mexican community doesn’t know that, so we’re trying to create more exposure, specifically for Latina girls and girls in general. I think women are not appreciated enough in sports. I think women are bosses and they’re strong as hell. And I think we deserve way more credit….
“We still haven’t connected the bridge. We’re really close, but there’s still a gap there. One community doesn’t communicate with the other,” she said. Xochitl’s goal is to connect our communities through patience, love, and understanding. She wants us to come together as one while showing acceptance and appreciation for where we all come from.