It took a group of 13 William & Mary students less than 10 minutes to cross the border from Spain to Gibraltar during a recent study abroad trip, a detail Giselle Figueroa ’23 found remarkable. 

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Figueroa couldn’t help but think of the troubles her parents and grandparents went through to make it to the United States. And she couldn’t help but think of the number of Africans who died when trying to migrate to Gibraltar via the Strait of Gibraltar or the thousands of Spanish laborers who were kept out of Gibraltar for years by a closed border. 

Border crossing into Gibraltar
Border crossing into Gibraltar (Kate Marston photo).

“We’re clearly in a position of privilege because we’re able to cross foreign borders so easily,” Figueroa said. “In retrospect, I think about how ironic it is that, as American citizens, it’s easy for us to cross international borders, yet our borders are so difficult to cross.” 

Figueroa was among the students who made the trip to Spain and Gibraltar this past spring break as part of the Embedded Spain and Gibraltar Program sponsored by the Reves Center for International Studies with funding further enhanced by W&M alumni. 

She was one of four student travelers who are first-generation children of Latin American immigrants raised in the United States. 

Another one of those students, Astrid Garcia Giron ’23, was born in El Salvador and was a little girl when she came to the United States with her mother. When she recently became an American citizen, Garcia Giron said she was excited to be rid of the Green Card that categorized her as an “alien.” 

“The word alien is very problematic because it others you and demeans your worth as a person,” she said. 

Going abroad to the area around the Spain-Gibraltar border fulfilled a desire of Garcia Giron’s for a more up-close exploration of cultures and racial issues in other countries. And it helped the students see for themselves how other countries regulate their borders.  

“An American passport is something that is so coveted by so many,” Garcia Giron said. “We could go anywhere we wanted with no questions asked.” 

By talking to natives of Spain, Gibraltar and nearby Morocco, the W&M students learned about the difficulties immigrants faced in those areas. 

“We could see a lot of the parallels between that border and the border here in the U.S., how it has separated families, the politics surrounding borders, the deaths around the borders and just how easy it is for us to be able to cross borders,” Garcia Giron said. 

Students pose in front of lighthouse
William & Mary housemates, from left, Carolina Rivera ’23, Giselle Figueroa ’23, Astrid Garcia ’23 and Elizabeth Gomez ’23 are first-generation children of Latin American immigrants raised in the United States. (Courtesy photo)

‘Am I actually here?’

Figueroa’s parents and grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico looking for work and a better life. To be able to travel so freely and have the experiences she’s had is something she values greatly. 

“I pinch myself sometimes and ask, ‘Am I actually here?’” Figueroa said. “Sometimes I feel like my parents are living vicariously through me because I’m accomplishing the dreams that they weren’t able to.”

Garcia Giron and Figueroa are housemates with two other first-generation children of immigrants — Elizabeth Gómez ’23 and Carolina Rivera ’23, fellow classmates and Gibraltar travelers — and they often share their stories, struggles and triumphs with each other. 

“We have these conversations often, and we always end up crying,” Figueroa said. “We bond over shared immigrant trauma and these feelings of being guilty and not belonging.”

Garcia Giron, a history and Hispanic studies major who is interested in getting into public policy, said she is motivated to maximize her opportunities because her parents sacrificed so much for her. 

“We feel so guilty being here away from home, but at the same time, it’s what our parents want for us,” she said. 

Figueroa is an international relations and Hispanic studies double major. She hopes to go to law school to perhaps study immigration law. 

“The topic of immigration is prominent in my life, and it’s something I am passionate about,” Figueroa said. “Before this class, my point of view was focused on North America and South America, but we saw essentially the same thing going on in Europe, and I was oblivious to it.”

Wild monkey in Gibraltar
Gibraltar boasts the only wild monkey population in Europe. The monkeys were the topic of two of the students’ research projects. (Photo by Carolina Rivera)

‘1,000% immersed’

Gibraltar is a major tourism destination. In addition to the massive Rock of Gibraltar, a monolithic promontory that rises over every corner of the small British Overseas Territory, Gibraltar is known for its wild monkey population. 

Garcia Giron was reminded of this almost immediately, as one of the monkeys jumped on her. 

“I was 1,000% immersed,” she said. “It felt like we were really engaged with Gibraltar’s culture, not just reading, seeing pictures or videos about it.” 

While abroad, the students spent time in the area between the Rock of Gibraltar and several key cities in the adjacent, long-contested territory on the Spanish mainland known as Campo de Gibraltar, in the province of Cádiz. 

“Tourists go down there to go to Gibraltar and see the Rock of Gibraltar and its wild monkey population, but the Spanish side of the border historically has been very disenfranchised economically,” said program director Francie Cate-Arries, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Modern Languages & Literatures. 

“It suffered a lot of repression during the dictatorship (from 1939 to 1975 under Francisco Franco). And it’s just a very complex, culturally and historically rich area that, I have to say, you usually don’t study very much on its own.” 

The Embedded Study Away format is an intense six-week, on-campus academic study of a topic that the students then experience first-hand on site. After their return, students have another six weeks to integrate that experience with ongoing research projects. Throughout the week, the group was also led by Arantza Galiardo, a Spain-based co-professor for the program.

“As a double major, an entire semester abroad would have been hard for me to do,” Figueroa said. “Being able to have that short study abroad experience was perfect because it was during our spring break. I’m surprised we were able to fit so much into just one week.” 

Each student explored areas of independent research subsequently showcased in an end-of-semester interactive digital StoryMap platform. The students created these media-rich online portfolios with the assistance of Mike Blum, program manager for faculty engagement in W&M’s Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. The individual research portfolios are here

Rock of Gibraltar
The Rock of Gibraltar rises over every corner of the small British Overseas Territory. (Photo by Arantza Galiardo)

Strength and courage

The students’ projects cover a wide range of topics. Garcia Giron and Elizabeth Gómez researched Gibraltar’s wild monkey population. Garcia Giron explored the relationship Gibraltar’s residents and tourists have with the monkeys and how that was affected by the pandemic. 

Figueroa studied migrant women in the Campo de Gibraltar region as well as Gibraltar, the resources available to these women, or lack thereof, and the sometimes-horrible conditions they are working under. 

The group visited Fundación de Solidaridad Amaranta, a center offering assistance for women immigrants and victims of violence, and spoke with Ilargi Mayor Alfoja, a services coordinator who shared the experiences of the migrant women. 

“She was just a force of nature,” Cate-Arries said. “Part of her fervor was having the opportunity to tell the story, and she was also just delighted to have a visit from these students. The irony, of course, was we were so deeply grateful to be received with the generosity and time commitment and care that we were.” 

Julia Ashworth ’23 is also researching immigration. Her focus is on the ways people in these areas communicate about immigration, particularly the passage from Morocco and the coast of Africa to Gibraltar and Campo de Gibraltar. 

Part of her research was visiting the Gibraltar Garrison Library and going through stacks of letters written by immigrants sent home to their families that described their day-to-day lives. 

“There is a lot of fear of immigrants in Spain, but a lot of people don’t really see the strength that it takes for these immigrants and the courage that it takes for them, whether it’s crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in rafts that could easily sink or just trying to live daily as an immigrant in a location that doesn’t want you,” Ashworth said. 

The group spoke to Sumaya Acheddad, the daughter of a Moroccan immigrant who was one of 5,000 laborers brought in by the Gibraltar government when Franco closed the Spanish border in 1969.  Acheddad said the immigrants were there only to fulfill a purpose, and they were always considered second-class citizens. 

“She was so eloquent about her father’s personal history,” Cate-Arries said. “It was just spellbinding to sit in her presence.” 

Other research topics include the heavily-accented Spanish-English language mix of the region called Yanito. Also, some students explored food culture, news media, education, the Muslim community in Gibraltar and the healthcare system. 

One of the most memorable experiences for the students – who were traveling and experiencing international encounters for the first time post-COVID, and many of whom had never been abroad before – was a meet-up with 19 seniors in a Spanish high school, IES Sierra Luna, in Los Barrios, which is known for receiving one of the highest number of immigrant families in southern Spain. 

This encounter was featured in a Spanish speaking newspaper/magazine

“They had this very romanticized idea of what the United States is and what our life here is like, and going in, we had a very romanticized idea of Spain and Gibraltar, of this kind of tourist Utopia. But, again, things weren’t like that,” Garcia Giron said. 

Being able to see the struggles and successes of the Spaniards and Gibraltarians was a valuable experience, Garcia Giron said. 

“This is why travel abroad is important because it’s not just about the culture or pretty things you can take pictures of, it’s about learning about the people,” she said. “That’s why I appreciated getting to talk to real people, not just tourists.”

, Communications Specialist