Spring 2015

This category contains 25 posts

Transgender activism gains momentum in San Diego


After their meeting’s discussion winds down, students in the Gender Committee gather around member Havien Edmonds, center, to watch a funny video on his phone.


ighty students crowd inside history teacher Kurt Dearie’s classroom at lunchtime with an abundance of pizza, vibrantly unusual hair color and lively discussion.

It’s just another Wednesday at Carlsbad High School’s Gender Sexuality Alliance.

The alliance and an offshoot support group are making fundamental changes in how their school sees, treats and understands students of transgender experience whose gender does not align with the one they were assigned at birth or whose identities are not encompassed within the gender binary of “male” and “female.”


Transgender (trans)
Term to describe a person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Trans is shorthand, either used to describe a transgender person or as an inclusive term to the wide variety of identities underneath the transgender umbrella.

With an asterisk, an umbrella term adopted by many trans activists to encompass the diversity of identities within the gender spectrum.

A catch-all category for gender identites that are not exclusively masculine or feminine.

Term to describe a non-transgender person.

A commonly used gender neutral pronoun, among many.

Gender Non-Conforming
Term to describe some people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininty. Not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender; nor are all transgender people gender non-conforming.

The student committee reflects growing momentum of transgender activism in San Diego. Due to recent legislation, student activists can now demand change, such as the designation of an all-genders bathroom at their high schools. Still, the movement is not without its hardships. The committee, which started meeting this school year, has already experienced despair with the suicides of two transgender students at neighboring high schools.

Fighting that loss includes writing those identities into the history books. The forward momentum of transgender activism motivated a historian from Julian to come out and get involved in her community so young transgender people growing up can see themselves in a history that has too often forgotten their predecessors.

From Gay/Straight to
Gender Sexuality

Dearie began advising the Gay/Straight Alliance in 2002 after a handful of students asked him to. The school administration feared backlash from the community and initially declined the request to start the club.

With Dearie’s committed advisorship, and despite vandalism and harassment that plagued the club in its first few years, the meetings steadily grew.

It’s right up there as one of the cool clubs to join.”
Krista King

In 2008, Krista King, a graphic design and photography teacher, joined as co-advisor.

“When I started, there was still a lot of bullying,” King said. “It was still scary for students to cross that line to come into the club meetings and the majority of members were allies, but now more students are willing to be out and visible with their identities.”

Since King’s involvement, she’s witnessed the club grow exponentially.

“GSA has really changed the culture of our school,” King said. “It’s right up there as one of the cool clubs to join.”

The rise in the club’s popularity highlighted the limited focus on gay and straight sexual orientation reflected in the club’s name. Dearie, King and the students wanted something more inclusive.

“We changed the name to Gender Sexuality Alliance last year because that encompassed everybody,” Dearie said.

MULTIMEDIA Kurt Dearie, Krista King and students in The Gender Committee talk about their club’s major goals and accomplishments.

Learning curve

The Gender Committee started as an offshoot support group last fall and has become a hub for transgender activism that influences the school’s policies.

“I lacked a lot of knowledge so I asked the students if we could have a second group on Thursday so they could educate us about gender and also have a place to vent and talk where they can be themselves,” Dearie said. “It’s really a student-led grassroots movement.”

Dearie welcomes the students’ activism.

It’s really a
student-led grassroots movement.”

Kurt Dearie

“It feels more beneficial to have a small group of people, specifically people who don’t identify as cisgender for the most part,” said Fiona Cisternas, 16, an officer of the GSA and the Gender Committee. “To get together to talk about those specific issues and challenges facing them.”

The advisors and students say faculty has been surprisingly responsive, especially under the leadership of new principal Josh Porter. This year alone, students in the committee have gotten official name changes, admittance to the appropriate locker rooms and a new all-genders single-stall restroom.

“We had to get all of the faculty to approve giving up this staff bathroom on this side of the school,” King said. “Some were hesitant because staff bathrooms are limited as is, but we can’t complain about having less when these students have none.”

The all-genders restroom was the student committee’s first major accomplishment as a group.

“Now we have a gender neutral bathroom so non-binary kids can feel comfortable,” said Trinity Serafin, 15, a member of the Gender Committee. “I’m non-binary and when I go into the girl’s bathroom and see a row of girls I’m like ‘Nope, this is wrong for me!’”


Kurt Dearie, left, in his classroom during a meeting of the Gender Committee. Co-Advisor Krista King looks on.

In addition, the student committee frequently has training sessions with staff about the concerns and needs of transgender students.

“We want to do more teacher training, not only with newer teachers, but the older ones with tenure too, who maybe haven’t been trained in five years and don’t know anything about the new demographics at our school.” Cisternas said.

Trainings open a dialogue between students and teachers about the correct ways of handling a transgender student’s concerns, such as bullying, a student’s chosen name and preferred gender pronouns, facilities that student is allowed to use and the elimination of class activities that rely on the gender binary like boys vs. girls games, among others.

“I’m cisgender and I’m privileged.” King said. “Sometimes I catch myself saying things to them that I’ve had straight men say to me all my life like ‘Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Why?’ but about gender, and I realized that’s exactly the wrong response.”

In addition to training their own faculty, the GSA works with California State University San Marcos to train teachers in their graduate program and assists neighboring schools in creating their own clubs.

“We went to Sage Creek [a high school down the road] and helped them start their GSA, which was really cool,” Serafin said. “It was really exciting because we’re spreading!”

Tough subjects

In the past few months, two transgender students from nearby high schools, Sage-David and Taylor Alesana, died in separated accounts of suicide. Both were active at the North County LGBTQ Resource Center, which many students from the Gender Committee also frequented.

The club was hit hard with the news of Sage-David the day before a meeting in early March. Students walked into the room hugging each other, some with tears in their eyes.

Forty-one percent of adults identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming report attempting suicide, according to a study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Williams Institute.

That’s 10 times more than the overall national average. In comparison to lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide, the statistic for transgender people still sits 10 to 20 percent higher. Across demographics in the study, younger transgender respondents are attempting suicide more, at 45 percent for people 18 to 24.

“Those statistics do not surprise me,” Dearie said. “Statistics show that a first attempt is a strong indicator of successfully committing suicide, and that horrifies me.”

The GSA conducted an anonymous survey of the students involved and out of 50 participants, 14 reported attempting suicide.

Fiona Cisternas, left, discusses their ideas regarding another member’s proposal of starting a clothing drive for transgender people in San Diego, which could include the purchasing of chest binders and/or breast forms.

Overnight transition

The shift toward a focus on transgender rights was something Dearie said he saw happen almost overnight, but it seemed inevitable.

“I’ve always had transgender people in the GSA but they seldom have identified themselves that way,” Dearie said. “It’s usually when they come back to visit years later that they tell me.”

They’re starting to come out and express their gender at school; and schools and communities are not prepared for it.”
Kurt Dearie

It’s a change that comes with shifting the conversation from sexual orientation to gender identity.

“Past teacher trainings would mostly focus on sexuality and now we’ve seen a really big shift towards, not only people identifying as sexualities that aren’t heterosexual, but people identifying with gender identities that aren’t cisgender.” Cisternas said.

More inclusive legislation allows for greater transgender representation in the media and that is having a direct effect on students, Dearie said.

“Because of changes that are happening both in their knowledge and publicity, with high profile people coming out as transgender, they’re starting to come out and express their gender at school; and schools and communities are not prepared for it,” Dearie said. “At the same time, I’m also optimistic because it is that coming out and backlash that will allow it to go forward.”

Dearie says his observation of transgender student activism resembles what he witnessed when the GSA first started.

“Transgender students are where lesbian, gay and bisexual students were 10, 15, 20 years ago as far as the discrimination, the lack of knowledge and understanding,” Dearie said.

Meredith Vezina, a historian documenting San Diego’s trans history, also sees the parallels.

“The transgender movement is really where gay liberation was in the 1970s,” Vezina said.

Through her research, she noticed that the presence of transgender women of color at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots, like Marsha P. Johnsnon and Sylvia Rivera, are often debated because those events were not documented.

Building a History

The historian, 63, works to ensure her community is no longer erased within that history.

At Lambda Archives, San Diego’s archive for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender history located in University Heights, she builds what looks like a television set in their reading room.

“As you can see, I’m sort of a one woman show,” Vezina said.

Meredith Vezina prepares her camera, which she learned to operate while working on her military oral history project.

She met her wife, Ellen Holzman, while conducting research for her master’s thesis at San Diego State University around 25 years ago. They hit it off and wanted to start a women’s history journal. After seeing the lack of funds in women’s history at the time, they focused on military history and continue to do that work today.

Vezina kept her transgender identity private for most of her life after that, living in Julian with Holzman and working on the military history project.

It’s that work that has supplied her with the equipment and funds to produce the Trans* Oral History Project.

After seeing the rise of transgender personalities in the media like writer Janet Mock and actress Laverne Cox last year, Vezina realized she no longer wanted to live in hiding and decided to get involved with her community’s activism. With her background in history, she started at Lambda Archives but realized quickly the lack of resources there regarding transgender history.

Vezina, right, interviews Paul, a transgender man, for the Trans* Oral History Project. He appears on the monitor Vezina set up in the Lambda Archives’ reading room to conduct interviews.

“When I first started doing this, I had this idea in my head that I would be interviewing older trans people that would tell me about the ’60s and the ’70s,” Vezina said. “Now that I’m a little more entrenched, I realize I’m the older trans person.”The realization that there were not many older transgender people to interview forced Vezina to shift gears.

The value I see here is that 10 years from now, we’ll have something to look back at.”
Meredith Vezina

“The traditional oral interview would be like ‘What was San Diego like in the 1970s?’” and there’s none of that for trans people, or very little of it,” Vezina said. “We’re focusing on the present.”

It’s an approach that focuses on building history for the future.

“The value I see here is that 10 years from now, we’ll have something to look back at,” Vezina said.

Having lived separated from her community for so long, Vezina is actively researching and learning about the current practices of transgender activism.

“There’s a whole new way of doing things and a whole new vernacular, and I’m still learning,” Vezina said. “The whole idea of there being a spectrum of people along the binary never occurred to me and wasn’t something I even considered until a year or 18 months ago.”

MULTIMEDIA Vezina talks her motivations, the Trans* Oral History Project and filming the narratives of transgender San Diegans.

In addition to filming the videos, Vezina is creating a similar support group to the Gender Committee for elderly transgender people to discuss healthcare and other issues. Like at Carlsbad, educating the public and recording the experiences of transgender San Diegans is paramount to Vezina’s approach to the justice and liberation of transgender people.“The idea here is to reach the good people and let them know about us and once they know about us, they’ll see we’re nothing to fear,” Vezina said.

The videos will be included in the Lambda Archives and Vezina has also been contacted by San Diego State to share the content. She plans on making these videos publicly available on a website she is developing called Trans* Narratives.

For Vezina, it isn’t just about letting these stories hide inside a resource center.

“I want to get these videos out there so the people I interviewed can say, ‘You followed through, we aren’t just sitting there on the shelf,’” Vezina said.


San Diego commercial drone companies await FAA regulations for business to soar

Commercial drone companies and proponents are impatient — they have been for a while.

The unmanned aerial vehicle companies in the San Diego region are part of what is considered a burgeoning industry, but they await official regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration to be truly prosperous.

San Diego has been dubbed the hub of the U.S. drone industry, primarily because of two giant manufacturers of military drones for sale in the area: General Atomics and Northrop Grumman.

The region, however, is also home to numerous commercial drone companies. Their primary clients include:

  • Farmers, who use drones to monitor crops
  • Realtors, who use the devices to market and showcase properties
  • Filmmakers, who use them to get innovative shots
  • Law enforcement officials, who use them in search-and-rescue missions or during fires.

The unprecedented uses seem endless, and drone companies are certain local business will take off once they receive clearance.

But for now, commercial drone flights are illegal; the FAA banned them in 2007 to create rules to safety implement the growing number of drones into U.S. airspace.

A drone and protoype from Chula Vista-based Action Drone before the devices were tested in an open field. At the moment commercial drone uses are limited because of an FAA ban.

A drone and protoype from Chula Vista-based Action Drone before the devices were tested in an open field. At the moment commercial drone uses are limited because of an FAA ban.

“There’s a lot of talent here in San Diego, and we know this market is going to continue to grow,” said Jesse Gipe, manager of economic development for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. “Certainly the hold up is not technology, certainly it’s (a lack of) regulations.”

Hobbyists who don’t make money from drones are allowed to fly if they operate the device within 400 feet from the ground, stay away from airports and populated areas, and maintain the drone in sight (learn more at dronepedia.xyz).

In February, the FAA proposed a set of long-awaited regulations that would allow commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds to fly in daylight at less than 100 mph and at a maximum of 500 feet in the air. In addition, the pilot would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical test and obtain an operating certificate.

Most commercial drone users would be able to abide by the regulations, and backers of the industry say the regulations are fair.

“We’ve tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a press release at the time. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

The regulations will likely take about a year to 18 months to be approved.

Multimedia: Darryl Annunciado, CEO of Chula Vista-based Action Drone USA, took his hobby and created a commercial drone company. His company is one of many in the region that is eager to be prosperous.

Meanwhile, in recent years at least 15 San Diego area commercial drone companies or users have received warnings from the FAA for using or testing drones.

Drone advocates understand the FAA’s role is to worry about airspace safety; however, they say the entity is not acting nearly as fast as other countries.

Darryl Anunciado, CEO of the Chula Vista-based Action Drone USA, said about 50 percent of his company’s clients are abroad.

A boost to the economy

The increasing number of companies emerging, as well as their under-the-radar status because of the FAA ban, makes it difficult to know how the drone industry could contribute to the local economy.

Department of Defense contracts for drones contributed about $1.3 billion to the San Diego region during 2011, according to a National University System Institute for Policy report.

While the institute solely analyzed data from the defense industry, Kelly Cunningham, who helped compile the report, said the economy in San Diego would benefit when commercial drones uses are approved.

“The potential economic impacts are huge for San Diego, especially with the head start and expertise already developed here for the military,” she said.

Last year San Diego applied to become home to a national drone testing site but was beat out by six other states the FAA chose.

The agency more recently put out a research grant opportunity to have a university — along with other colleges, drone developers and government agencies such as NASA and the Department of Defense — study how to best integrate drones into airspace. The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., a key group that coordinated the effort in California, wanted UC San Diego to be the lead university of the research. UC Berkeley took the spot, but UC San Diego will remain a part of the project. The FAA will announce the grant recipient in mid-May, Gipe said.

Meanwhile, The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. is in the last stages of receiving funding for an aerospace study in partnership with its sister organization in Los Angeles that will in part look into the drone industry in San Diego and Southern California. Gipe said the study is expected to be released in June.

Concerns about drones  

Privacy issues pose perhaps the greatest setbacks for the industry and its future. The camera-equipped devices, which can be operated from a distance, lead people to believe they could be spied on or photographed without their knowledge.

The San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, San Diego Veterans for Peace, the Peace Resource Center of San Diego have led anti-drone movements and hosted events to create awareness about the topic.

Several state legislative measures, including one from the San Diego area, address the issue.

Assemblywoman Marie Waldron of Escondido co-authored a bill signed into law last year that makes it illegal to invade a person’s privacy and take pictures with a drone.

Waldron introduced a bill in December that would create a task force to study the industry needs and create regulations for California by January 2018.

Two other new bills aim to limit law enforcement’s use of drones by requiring officials to obtain a warrant before using a drone for surveillance except in emergencies. A similar bill last year was approved by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Gipe understands privacy concerns, but said drones don’t pose as great of a threat to privacy as other aspects of our daily life that we have adapted to.

“I would suggest that the Internet has been the single biggest invasion of privacy of our time,” he said.

Another prominent concern is safety. Because the devices can be operated without being in the line of sight, and into the airspace, people fear the devices could crash or obstruct airspace.

Gipe said technological challenges include securing the devices so they’re not hacked or crashed, but these are not “strong setbacks”

“We don’t not build tanks because we’re afraid tanks are going to be used against us,” he said.

Annunciado believes people’s fears will be appeased once the FAA approves commercial use and the devices become more common. Unlike other companies and enthusiasts who prefer the term unmanned aerial vehicles, Annunciado chose Action Drone as his company’s name in part to fight the stigma. He’s convinced the positive benefits associated with commercial drones such as the ones his company produces are endless.

The future of fur in fashion: Millennials steer towards faux fur

Fur as a fashion statement has come and gone within the fashion industry. Recently, seen in high-end fashion magazines, fur has been making a notable appearance, but with a more modern twist. Because of increased regulations, protests and education on animal cruelty, the demand for real fur within the fashion industry is declining, especially among younger generations.

Popularity of fur vests and other accent fur pieces have been increasing over the past few years.

Popularity of fur vests and other accent fur pieces have been increasing over the past few years.

The influencers

There are many influential people in the fashion world who continue to play an important role in the survival of fur in fashion. Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, is among these people. She is known to feature fur on many covers and editorial pictures in her hugely successful fashion magazine.

As technology and reliance on social media have increased, the emergence of another important fashion influencer for younger generations has risen: the video bloggers (vlogger).

Remi Cruz, a popular YouTube vlogger, has become an influential role model for her viewers. She is a fashion and make-up video blogger; whose main viewer demographic are girls ages 12 to 16 years old.

YouTube vlogger, Remi Cruz, has become an expert within the fashion industry by making fashion videos and make-up tutorials.

YouTube vlogger, Remi Cruz, has become an expert within the fashion industry by making fashion videos and make-up tutorials.

When it comes to fur in fashion, Cruz says that faux fur is the way of the future. Younger generations, like Cruz’s fans, are starting to see the harm that occurs at the sake of wearing fur, but many still like the look of fur as accent pieces.

“For me and my viewers, real fur is not really an option,” Cruz said. “Not only does it condone animal cruelty but it’s also extremely expensive.”

Cruz says that she still likes the idea of fur as a fashion trend, that is faux fur, it gives an image of luxury and class to any outfit.

Celebrities, models and designers are important influencers in the fashion industry as well, whether they are against the use of fur or for it, they can have a huge impact on society, especially the millennials.

Designers, such as Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Alberta Ferretti, showcased fur in their collection this year. Some of the biggest influencers, celebrities such as Karlie Kloss, have even been seen sporting fur.

In contrast, many designers have taken a fur free pledge when it comes to their designs and collections. Ralph Lauren is among the many designers who have chosen to go fur-free. Penelope Cruz and other celebrities have also taken a stand to try and eliminate fur as a fashion statement

Protests on fur in fashion

In today’s fashion industry, some still see fur as luxurious and fashion forward, however, others see the act of using skin from an animal to design clothing as barbaric and cruel.

According to The Humane Society of The United States, more than 50 million animals a year are harmed and killed because of the fur industry.

It is a common misconception that fur is actually a byproduct of the meat industry, according to Born Free USA, a national animal advocacy nonprofit organization. Instead fur farms are created specifically for taking the fur from animals and are usually done differently than in the meat industry, as to not damage the fur.

Ellen Ericksen, an independent activist who volunteers with PETA, has help organize and run numerous fur protests throughout San Diego, demanding regulations on the fur industry.

Ellen Ericksen is an independent activist who spends her time organizing protests and a vegan lifestyle.

Ellen Ericksen is an independent activist who spends her time organizing protests and a vegan lifestyle.

Although restrictions within the United States have helped in the fight against fur-farming, the majority of furs used in America have been internationally imported from places with little restrictions on how the fur is cultivated, according to Ericksen.

Fashion Valley Mall has been the target of several fur protest over the years. Many of the stores within the mall, such as Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, are large sellers of fur in San Diego.

“We have had people and kids of all ages come and help protest with us,” Ericksen said.

Social media has helped millennials have a voice against animal cruelty and spread awareness to society, Ericksen said.

“Kids are our future,” she said. “It’s important that they are being exposed to the realities of the fur industry so that we can make change.”

Multimedia: Animal rights activists protest in San Diego County against the use of fur in fashion.

Fur for the economy

Many countries and their citizens around the world rely on the continuation of the fur industry for their economy, for example 80 percent of the population in Kastoria, Greece are employed by the fur industry, according to the International Fur Federation.

For Dee Dee Kiser, owner of Millard’s Fur Service, fur has been a way of life for the past 42 years. She spends her days repairing, sewing and storing numerous fur garments, from purses to coats. As San Diego’s last furrier, Kiser has a vast knowledge on types of fur, how to properly care for them, and their costs.

A graph showing how the number of animals farmed for fur over the years has declined. Graph created by Environment Statistics Yearbook 2013 Statistics Finland.

A graph showing how the number of animals farmed for fur over the years has declined. Graph created by Environment Statistics Yearbook 2013 Statistics Finland.

Owner of Millard’s Fur Service, Dee Dee Kiser, is one San Diego’s leading experts on fur repair and maintenance.

Owner of Millard’s Fur Service, Dee Dee Kiser, is one San Diego’s leading experts on fur repair and maintenance.









“In the 80’s a lot of fur protests were going on, [fur] fell out of favor all over,” she said. “Then restrictions in the U.S. were implemented on all farms that were not humane, which brought sales up again.”

Multimedia: Dee Dee Kiser describes the work she does in the fur industry and the ways she has had to adjust her company to the changing trends.

The future of fur

Despite protests, fur made a comeback this season in the world of fashion. Traditional styles have been on the decline as new styles made from different types of fur are becoming more popular.

For designers and furriers like Kiser it’s important to stay fresh, youthful and on top of the trends in order to market to younger generations.

A sample of Kiser's work with fur, using beads as a way to appeal to a younger market.

A sample of Kiser’s work with fur, using beads as a way to appeal to a younger market.

“We’re starting to take furs and condense them down so they become vests, they become maybe hoodies something that matches the style of what the youth are wearing,” Kiser said.” Not so much the traditional look with the big heavy collars and big heavy cuffs.”

Fur trim has also become a huge trend, with just a little bit of fur on the collars or as an accent on accessories. Kiser said the use of color on fur has been the biggest difference. Furs now come in blue, red, purple or any other color desired by millennials, Kiser also uses beads to try and make fur more youthful.

“It’s all about making it fun and exciting,” she said.

Fur is notorious as being an expensive and luxurious item that in the past was unaccessible to younger women and men. However, consignment stores and hand-me-downs are making it easier and more affordable for millennials to partake in the fur trend, says Kiser.

Fur coats brought into Kiser's store by customers for her to tailor them.

Fur coats brought into Kiser’s store by customers for her to tailor them.

“I have a lot of people who will bring in fur from the second market or fur that was their aunts or grandmothers,” Kiser said. “They will ask me to take off the sleeves or shorten the length to make it look more like the style.”

Frock You, a consignment store in San Diego, is among the few stores that sell fur at reduced costs. Aubrey Juarez, a sales associate at Frock You, says that fur sells in San Diego have actually been declining.

“It’s so warm in San Diego,” Juarez said. “So we can’t get as much for them compared to what they’re normally sold for.”

A large portion of customers that buy real fur and faux fur at Frock You are actually younger adults, however according to Juarez, a lot of millennials come into the store and buy vintage clothing and furs to wear to festivals like Burning Man and Coachella, she said.

Fur has become more of a dress up and fun statement piece worn occasionally, which is why faux fur has been more popular for the fur trend.

“Faux fur sells a lot better at our store,” Juarez said. “It’s cheaper and of course then it doesn’t involve any ethical issues.”

Tax filing: Should you do it yourself online or use a professional?

Carmen Arzate is an undergraduate student who started doing her taxes on her own two years ago, when her parents could no longer claim her as a dependent.

Arzate works on filing her taxes. She said she will use TurboTax again next year because it offers her everything she needs.

Arzate works on filing her taxes. She said she will use TurboTax again next year because it offers her everything she needs.

After researching a few of the most popular online tax preparers and asking her friends what they prefer, she decided to use TurboTax.

Arzate admitted to being nervous the first time she did her taxes because of her fear of numbers. But she quickly overcame her anxiety.

“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” Arzate said.

Between working three part-time jobs and attending college, the 23-year-old student said she appreciates doing her taxes on her own because of how inexpensive it is.

“I’m a student. I can’t afford to pay someone to do my taxes,” Arzate said.

She is not alone.

Due to ease and affordability, more and more taxpayers are deciding to self-file their taxes.

VIDEO: JMS Reports interviewed people in the Gaslamp District two days before the filing deadline. The responses were almost evenly split between doing it yourself and seeing a professional.

Online makes it simple 

Last year, more than 45 million people prepared and electronically filed their own returns, an increase of 4.6 percent, according to the Internal Revenue Service official website.

Guided step-by-step instructions on programs such as TurboTax, TaxACT and ezTaxReturn are one of the reasons for the increase in do-it-yourself filing.

TurboTax’s official Twitter account informs customers about their new app. The app allows users to file taxes anywhere from a cell phone or tablet computer.

TurboTax’s official Twitter account informs customers about their new app. The app allows users to file taxes anywhere from a cell phone or tablet computer.

“I need it to be broken down for me,” Arzate said.

Arzate said she likes TurboTax because it gives her detailed explanations about each section of her tax return.

H&R Block also offers a software program that has links throughout each page which answers questions about which deductions qualify.

TurboTax, H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt all allow people to upload information from their W-2 forms, instead of loading data individually.

Ted Considine, a certified public accountant who owns his own practice, said for some people doing taxes online is a better option.

According to Considine, a taxpayer should be able to file on their own if they make less than $60,000 dollars a year, does not claim any dependents and does not own any property or investments.

“As long as someone is confident and knowledgeable about taxes and technology,” Considine said. “There is no reason not to file your own returns.”

If a taxpayer owns their own business, got divorced, married or had a child in the past year, it is best to hire a professional, Considine said.

SLIDESHOW: Vincent Winter files his taxes through H&R Block the day before the deadline. Winter reads through the questions before filling out each section.

Simpler is not always better

Some accountants warn that because these programs are so simple, users do them in a rush.

Michael Koda, a full-time restaurant manager and part-time H&R Block associate, said people still make mistakes on simple returns.

People could also be missing out on some refunds.

“Absolutely. People have to be missing out,” said Stephen Blum, a finance professor at San Diego State University. “Money is lost.”

Koda said he often finds money people were unable to find.

Koda helps a man with his taxes. The man is a bartender and needs help making sure his tips are declared correctly so he is not audited.  Photo by Amber Bjorstrom

Koda helps a man with his taxes. The man is a bartender and needs help making sure his tips are declared correctly so he is not audited.
Photo by Amber Bjorstrom

After his employees found out he became certified to prepare taxes, they brought him old tax returns to look over.

“A couple of them thought they might be able to get more money back,” Koda said. “They were right, but it was too late.”

People generally do not want to sit around and read the tax code for credits and deductions. Even if they do, they need to know how to apply it, Koda said.

“The government doesn’t want to throw money at you,” Koda said. “So they make it ‘not so obvious.’”

Considine agrees and says he has clients who come to him after trying to file their own return.

“I’ve seen many different cases,” Considine said.

Although the people he sees who file their own returns usually have simple W-2’s, he still gets clients in his office to check their attempts. Others are unhappy with the end result and are looking for a way to get a larger refund.

Affordability is key

Some of the largest online do-it-yourself tax preparation service companies are: TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxACT.

The cost for each depends on the complexity of the return. Companies use various edition packages to determine the prices.


A price comparison for the most common editions among TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxACT. All TurboTax and H&R Block editions are more expensive than TaxACT.


All three companies united with the IRS and Free File Alliance to provide free federal filing. Free File Alliance is a nonprofit partnership of the top tax preparation services.

The federal free editions are for basic 1040EZ/1040A returns. State returns vary depending on which state you live in.

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TaxACT offers an Ultimate Bundle option. It includes the deluxe edition plus a state return. It has many of the other common features such as, stock imports, charitable donation imports and deduction assessors.

Hiring help may put you at ease

Tax professionals are far from extinct, though. Despite technological improvements, according to the IRS, a preparer files almost 60 percent of individual returns.

Many circumstances send taxpayers to get professional help. Some people do not have a choice. Owning property, having a baby and getting married are all examples of reasons people might seek professional assistance to avoid common penalties.

Blum said H&R Block does a pretty good job with preparing taxes. They also offer tax courses and internships for college students who wish to be in the field.

Some taxpayers are hesitant to pay for tax help because the price is double or triple compared to doing them on their own.

Taxpayers interested in hiring a professional to complete their 2014 tax return can expect to pay an average of $273, according to a survey by the National Society of Accountants. But the cost could be as high as $500 an hour.AccountantvsTax

Caitlin Clark, 26, was an online tax filer until she got a new job last year and started making more money.

Clark decided to open up a Roth IRA, a tax-qualified savings account that allows her to put money towards retirement.

The additional paperwork and financial statements were confusing to her and she did not want to risk getting penalized.

Clark said she went from paying $40 when she did her own taxes, to now paying a little over $100 for an H&R Block associate to file them.

“The price difference does not matter to me,” Clark said. “Getting them done professionally gives me a better peace of mind.”

Watch out for tax scams

Taxpayers can be victims of identify theft, false money promises and return preparer fraud, whether they file on their own or with a professional.

“The biggest problem today is tax fraud,” Blum said. “People are filing other people’s returns and refunds.”

The IRS releases a list every year of annual tax scams, reminding taxpayers to be cautious during tax season. The information they provide can be used for identity theft.

Tax fraud through the use of identify theft tops the IRS list this year. It usually occurs when someone uses a social security number or name to file a tax return and claim a refund.

Tips from the IRS to protect your identity online

  •      Use firewalls and anti-spam/virus software on personal computer.
  •      Change your passwords often.
  •      Secure personal information in your home.
  •      Don’t carry your Social Security card or documents with your Social Security number.

The FBI is currently investigating cases of fraudulent returns filed from TurboTax. Some states reported a higher number of people attempting to steal refunds. Intuit, the San Diego-based owner of TurboTax, released a statement saying the personal information was not obtained from their system.

“We want to assure our customers and taxpayers generally that TurboTax is safe and secure, and we’ve taken every necessary and appropriate action to safeguard customers’ information,” said Julie Miller, a spokesperson for Intuit.

Blum warns that anyone can be a victim of identity theft, even if they paid to get their taxes professionally prepared.

“All you need is a social security number,” Blum said. “It would not be that hard for me to get your social security number right now.”

Blum says taxpayers need to know who they are taking their taxes to because there is a big difference between accountants and tax preparers.

Considine said he recently met with three people from the same office whose tax preparer fraudulently prepared their returns. The office’s clients are now being audited for 2012 and 2013.

“There are many unlicensed tax preparers who are damaging the industry,” Considine said.

So, who can taxpayers trust?

Do the research.

If you have had a trustworthy family accountant for years, stick with that person.

If you are unable to afford an account and prefer to do things on your own, don’t be afraid to ask questions. All tax preparation services have 24/7 hotlines and customer support.

The IRS recommends doing taxes early in case any problems arise.

“In the end, what’s best for each person really depends on the complexity of your return,” Koda said.

San Diego minimum wage increase debate: restaurant owners hesitate to increase their tipped server’s salary

Waitress counts her tip money after ending her morning shift.

A waitress counts her tip money after ending a morning shift. She relies on her tips to make ends meet.


When Nicole Rivera finishes coaching at a local high school, she drives home to see her 2-year-old daughter. Rivera helps her daughter get ready for bed, kisses her goodbye, and then heads across town for her second job as a waitress.

“Thankfully I get to live with my parents,” she said. “I don’t have to pay rent every month.”

As a server, Rivera earns minimum wage and relies on tips to fill in the rest of her budget. She says that her tips are dependent on the section of the restaurant she is serving, the day of the week and the season.

California pays tipped workers the state minimum wage of $9 per hour instead of the federal minimum of $2.13 to $5.00 range. Service workers collect and their tips.

Like many San Diego residents, Rivera benefited from the $1 statewide rise in minimum wages last July. As a 22-year-old single mother, every dollar counts.  However, an increase from $8 to $9 per hour is still not enough to support her daughter on her own, even if she were to work full time.

Increasing salaries in San Diego

Cost of living in San Diego

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, San Diego is the fourth most expensive city for housing in the United States. City residents spend around 33 percent of their yearly income on rent expenses.

MIT’s Living Wage Calculator projects that Rivera must earn $22.83 per hour in order to support herself and her daughter. An annual income below $55,002 before taxes would place her in poverty.

The American Chamber of Commerce Research Association’s cost-of-living index shows that San Diego County’s cost of living is 29.2 percent higher than the nation’s. However, the median income is only 12.3 percent above the nation’s.This leaves a large gap between income and costs.

VIDEO: A single mother describes her experience as a part time waitress for a San Diego restaurant.

San Diegans fight for a raise

Last July, the City Council voted unanimously to gradually increase minimum wage from $9 to $11.50 by 2017. Shortly after, Mayor Faulconer vetoed the measure. Also, about 55,000 signatures were submitted to the City to petition the increase, although experts were concerned about the signature gathering process.

By last October, the City Council agreed to grant the public the opportunity to decide whether minimum wage should increase. Voters will have this opportunity next June.

Although the rise in wages is not occurring at the pace that the City Council has anticipated, minimum wage workers can expect a statewide raise from $9 to $10 per hour by next January.

Effective Date New Minimum Wage Old Minimum Wage Amount of Increase Percentage of Increase over previous wage
January 1, 2016 $10.00 $9.00 $1.00 11.1%
July 1, 2014 $9.00 $8.00 $1.00 12.55
January 1, 2008 $8.00 $7.50 $0.50 6.7%
January 1, 2007 $7.50 $6.75 $0.75 11.1%
January 1, 2002 $6.75 $6.25 $0.50 8%
January 1, 2001 $6.25 $5.75 $0.50 8.7%

CHART: A history of California minimum wage since 2001, according to data from the California Department of Industrial Relations

Salaries for tipped servers

San Diego Council members have faced a backlash from their efforts to increase the minimum wage. The majority of the critique stems from business owners who say that they would not have sufficient funds to compensate workers for higher salaries. Some San Diego restaurant owners say that the salary boost should not apply to waiters and waitresses who earn well above minimum wage through tips.

Chris Duggan, director of local affairs for the California Restaurant Association, an organization that represents restaurant owners, says that a tipped employee can earn upwards of $26 to $40 per hour.

In response to last year’s increase, restaurant owners made adjustments to their businesses that ultimately impacted customers.

“Restaurants absorbed the entire labor cost increase by increasing menu prices, reducing hours and benefits or in some cases eliminating positions,” Duggan said.

He says that the restaurant community would like to see servers paid well, but the City’s expectations are unrealistic.

“Legislatively driving up labor cost at such an accelerated rate when small business already operate on small margins can be detrimental to a small business and thus ultimately the employee,” Duggan said.

Duggan says that San Diegans are are split on this issue because of the possible impact on small businesses. Big cities like Seattle, that recently raised minimum wage, are beginning to see serious impacts to small business, especially restaurants.

SLIDESHOW: A San Diego restaurant owner provides perspective on the City’s attempt to increase minimum wage for all workers, including tipped employees.

Capping tipped workers

One way the CRA is counteracting the increase for tipped workers is by sponsoring California Assemblyman Tom Daly’s bill, AB 669, which would cap the minimum wage for California’s tipped workers at $9.

If passed, tipped workers will not earn the increased $10 rate in 2016. This applies to servers who earn $15 hourly with tips included.

The bill would supersede local minimum wage laws. For servers like Mario Castillo, this bill would be unfair.

“Our tips our taxed already and most of us in this industry work four to five hour shifts,” he said.

The $9 cap would impact all tipped employees who earn above minimum wage as well.

Restaurant chef prepares meal for guest at sushi bar while server grabs plates for his table.

A restaurant chef and waiter work together to serve guests. A rise in menu prices can equate to higher tips, but may lead to less customers.

Castillo says that if he were to earn $11.50 per hour and $4 from from tips, his hourly pay would then decrease to $9 per hour including the $4 tip .

“When people are working more than 40 hours a week, they should never struggle to keep a roof over their heads or feed their family,” said Bryan Kim who represents the S.D. Socialist Campaign, an advocacy group supporting increased wages.

The most common opposition  to raising the minimum wage is  that raising the minimum wage will cause cost-push inflation. As a city raises the salaries of workers, residents will see higher prices for the city’s goods and services.

According to the United States Department of Labor, President Obama has called for the gradual increase in minimum wage to automatically adjust with inflation, which would better help low-income families afford rising prices.

San Diego’s Little Saigon shares Vietnamese culture, creates community

“I come here because the community welcomes me, teaches me and supports me. I want to give back. I want to do the same for others.” – Thu Nguyen, Little Saigon community center volunteer


Thu Nguyen (right) talks with her friend and fellow volunteer Hong Nguyen (left) in the Little Saigon Community Center.

Seventeen-year-old Thu Nguyen grew up in a culture where emotions and passions were hidden rather than embraced and working in the family business was more important than becoming independent or chasing dreams. Sadly, it is this same culture where few people trust the government, let alone strive to make a difference in it.

Thu Nguyen’s lifestyle and view of the world changed when she moved from Da Lat, Vietnam to San Diego, California one year ago. After finding the Little Saigon Community Center in City Heights, she is learning what it means to speak up and pursue her goals.

Many Vietnamese individuals and multi-generation families going through the same experience as Thu Nguyen are given the opportunity to honor their past, build a future and find a piece of home in Little Saigon, a neighborhood City Heights. They can also gain support along the way at the Little Saigon Community Center.

Little Saigon: a piece of home for some, a place of exploration for others

Asia Business Center

In the heart of Little Saigon lies Asia Business Center, where visitors can find anything from central Vietnamese food at Hoai Hue to local Vietnamese newspaper headquarters at Nguoi Viet Today.

Vietnamese immigrants have populated neighborhoods in City Heights since 1975, after the Fall of Saigon. Today, almost 50,000 Vietnamese-Americans live in San Diego County according to the Pew Research Center.

Within a two-mile radius between Highland Avenue and Euclid Avenue off El Cajon Boulevard, there are hundreds of Vietnamese residents and dozens of Vietnamese stores and restaurants. Many residents today say this area was the origin of the Vietnamese community in San Diego, said Frank Vuong, co-founder and Executive Director of Little Saigon Foundation.

In 2013, Vuong and Su Nguyen co-founded LSF and worked with the city to officially designate the streets from Highland Avenue to Euclid Avenue as Little Saigon.

“Little Saigon was founded on the principle of love and the value of service,” Vuong said.

Little Saigon’s purpose is to create opportunities for Vietnamese people struggling to assimilate into American culture. Its goal is to become an ethnic enclave that Vietnamese are proud to be a part of and where others are welcomed.

“The community and surrounding businesses were all-in,” Vuong said. “The people in this neighborhood aren’t focused on money and how it plays into development of Little Saigon. They just want to be proud that there is a Little Saigon.”

Little Saigon is a cultural and commercial district. In the center is Asia Business Center, which includes businesses that offer food, newspapers, and tax and health services. Within the center, a brightly and intricately decorated family-run shop called Fortune City offers household items, decorations and Asian gifts.

VIDEO: Fortune City owner Scott Luong creates and displays lucky bamboo in his store, a family business, located in Asia Business Center. He describes how his store helps fulfill dreams he has for his children.

Also nearby is Pho King, a business that has boomed since Little Saigon’s inception. Pho King’s specialty is a widely popular Vietnamese dish, pho: a noodle soup that consists of broth, rice noodles, meat and herbs. Song Huong Food To Go is another visitor favorite and sells a variety of Vietnamese food, including sandwiches, appetizers, steamed rolls, noodle soups, rice soups, rice dishes and vegetarian dishes.

Community Center strives to give back to the community

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When Little Saigon was officially designated, LSF created a community center in the heart of the area to provide free services and assistance to anyone in the community.

“We respond directly to people’s needs,” Vuong said.

LSF surveyed over 700 people in 2014 who lived in surrounding neighborhoods. The survey asked people what they thought a local Vietnamese community center needed.

The Little Saigon Community Center was the first Vietnamese community center in City Heights, as well as the first in all of San Diego County that provides services and is open every day.

The center also provides volunteer opportunities for high school and college students like Thu Nguyen. Students are given responsibilities in the office and chances to work at community events. They are taught valuable lessons and skills as they pursue their passions and careers.

Thu Nguyen’s dream is to be a businesswoman. As a volunteer at Little Saigon, not only does she get the chance to network and build relationships with community leaders, but she is also given mentorship and guidance in the area of business. When she is at the community center, Vuong coaches her and has her help him complete the tasks of running LSF.

Through her work at the community center, she is developing skills that help prepare her for the future.

SLIDESHOW: Lisa Yen Huynh hosts a flower arrangement workshop at the Little Saigon Community Center to bring Vietnamese women together for fun and bonding.

Little Saigon, big dreams

Although LSF has many events, improvements and developments planned, Vuong said that there is currently no space to support much activity and scarce funds to start implementing ideas.

LSF Vice President Tran Lam is in charge of community event planning and has already made significant progress for the Vietnamese community.

In 2004, she successfully advocated for a Vietnamese language option in the San Diego’s Voter’s Ballot and on the County’s Registrar of Voters website while organizing registration for more 6,000 Vietnamese voters. In 2006, Lam co-hosted the first large-scale San Diego Lunar New Year Tet Festival at Qualcomm Stadium, attracting more than 25,000 visitors. In 2015, visitor attendance grew to more than 30,000.

Lam still has visions for LSF to be financially stable through investments or businesses that will generate sustainable incomes and to have full-time employees to manage programs and day-to-day operations. LSF will host fundraising events and sell tickets to them – each ticket will help LSF get one step closer to reaching its visions.

“I want to live up to our name as a Foundation,” Lam said.

Art, something essential to any culture but something Little Saigon currently lacks, is one of the first things Vuong hopes to implement next.

Happy Buddha statue

A statue of a happy Buddha signifies good luck and fortune. Located on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Menlo Avenue, it is one of the few cultural art displays on the streets of Little Saigon.

Vuong said once Little Saigon’s streets look more aesthetically appealing, LSF will work to place cultural banners on freeway exits and on light poles.

“We want to show off Vietnamese art, sculptures and creative design,” Vuong said. “We want people to see something when they drive around and be inspired to take a closer look.”

Tijuana shelters are safe havens for Central American minors


The U.S. side of the border in San Ysidro. Within the last six months, 9,802 unaccompanied Central American minors were apprehended at the border – up to 500 were detained at the San Diego sector. Source CBP.

Screen shot 2015-05-06 at 9.23.28 AM

Moises Vazquez, once in line for food at Desayunado Salesiano shelter, now serves breakfast for up to 1,200 people each morning.

He is one of the many volunteers at the shelter that caters to immigrants and the needy in Tijuana, Mexico. Vazquez has been a part of the team for a year and lives above the dining hall. He said the shelter is supported with donations – food, clothes, money and time given by the community, has kept the shelter running for 16 years.

Many of the immigrants they serve are part of a mass child migration coming from Central America. There have always been children coming across the border without their parents, but last fiscal year U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) recorded apprehensions of unaccompanied minors reached a record high. The media and immigration experts refer to this phenomenon as “the surge.”

The drastic rise of unaccompanied minors (0 to 17 years old) arriving at the U.S. border from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, also known as the Northern Triangle, has more than doubled each year since the surge began in 2011. In most recent years, there were 20,805 apprehensions in FY 2013 compared to 51,705 in FY 2014.

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Unaccompanied Central American minors (0 to 17 years old) from the Northern Triangle for FY 2011 to 2015. The number for 2015 is preliminary. Source CBP.

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The age ranges of Central American unaccompanied minors traveling to the U.S. for FY 2014. Source Pew Research.

Why did the surge occur?

Many have formulated their own opinions as to why children are traveling 1,600 miles alone. Some believe they are coming to find their parents, while others say they are coming for a better life. The experts believe the main reason the minors are fleeing is due to violence in the Northern Triangle.

Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at University of San Diego, said those in Haiti, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic are just as poor as the Northern Triangle, yet they aren’t fleeing to the U.S. According to Meade, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans are escaping violence, not poverty.

“Their murder rates are through the roof, with Honduras’ being four times as much as Mexico’s during their recent drug wars,” Meade said.

Jill Esbenshade, associate professor of sociology with published work for the Immigration Policy Center, agreed with Meade’s conclusion. She said the minors are also fleeing to surrounding countries like Nicaragua, which is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere.

Audio: Esbenshade said the statistics prove that the minors are fleeing violence.

The Impossible Choice: Leave or Stay and Die

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The homicide rates per 100-thousand people in Central America (2008 to 2012). Source World Bank.

Unbearable living circumstances in the Northern Triangle are forcing the minors to have a “leave or die” mentality according to Carina Carballo, a volunteer who conducted numerous interviews with Central American immigrants in Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala last summer.

Esbenshade said no one feels completely safe in the Northern Triangle because no one is exempt from the violence.

“It’s not just the active gang members that are targeted for violence, but also people related to them or connected to them,” said Esbenshade. “It becomes a much more widespread net of people who are experiencing risk.”

The U.S. Office on Drugs and Crime’s most recent Global Study on Homicide report contains 2013 data that named the Northern Triangle as three of the top five most violent countries in the world. Honduras, rated number one, has a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. For San Diego, that would be about 2,800 murders in one year. El Salvador was number four and Guatemala was fifth.

The Journey North

“La Bestia” (the beast) is a network of freight trains that run from south to north Mexico. It carries products like food, cement and plastic to the U.S. for export; and many times Central American immigrants as well.

The trains do not include passenger railcars, forcing immigrants to ride on top of the cargos. Many get swept under the train while trying to hop on, while others face serious injuries by falling off.

Esbenshade said there are the dangers of the “La Bestia” ride, but there are also the dangers of Mexican authorities and organized criminals that prey on the Central American minors.

“There have been…unidentified cadavers of Central American migrants who are robbed and killed on their journey up,” said Esbenshade. “There’s a lot of abuse and violence perpetrated by the Mexican authorities.”

Organized criminals who control the routes are known for kidnapping, extorting and sometimes killing the minors.

Save Havens Along the Way

MULTIMEDIA: Slideshow of Tijuana Shelters and interview with church volunteer Carballo, explaining her duties.

Despite the many dangers of the journey to the U.S., there are many shelters and churches along the way, aimed to educate and help immigrants. Some provide shelter and assistance to all, while others separate the immigrants by gender.

Many of the churches and shelters in Mexico offer similar support like clothes, shoes, baths, haircuts, food, temporary shelter and medical and legal assistance.

Instituto Madre Asunta is a shelter for women and children, while their partner home, La Casa del Migrante, cares for men. After 1 to 15 days at the shelter, the volunteers either help the immigrants acquaint to Tijuana life by finding a job or they may choose to leave.

Desayunador Salesiano welcomes immigrants from various backgrounds, ages and genders. Velazquez said they receive immigrants from all over, many from Central America and some even from the U.S.

Pastoral de Movilidad Humana de la Diócesis is a church at the southern border of Mexico for Central American immigrants traveling to the U.S. Made up of volunteers like Carballo, they educate the immigrants about the route north and the dangers they may encounter if they continue to travel. Carballo said the volunteers create case files for each individual because many die or go missing on the journey north.

Immigrants branch out through San Diego’s community gardens

Kaythar Almufti stood in front of his tented ground covering, showing off the burlap sunshade he stitched for his garden plot earlier that week and the tiny sprouts underneath it, poking up through the ground.

The sun descended steadily behind him in the early evening as he spoke of his plans to grow Iraqi chard, okra and eggplant in the plot he’s been developing in an El Cajon community garden.

“If you use Mycorrhizae, it will give you giant vegetables, huge ones,” he said. “But to grow anything, plants need heat and a good environment.”

Almufti's aunt, Scuryah Mansoor, helps her husband gather Iraqi chard in their garden plot.

Almufti’s aunt, Scuryah Mansoor, helps her husband gather Iraqi chard in their garden plot.

The competition is fierce among the El Cajon gardeners to produce the best and healthiest-looking vegetables in the garden, Almufti said. But they all motivate each other to keep up the difficult work.

Almufti was an early adopter to the community garden lifestyle, both in Iraq and in El Cajon, where he says he and his family have been growing vegetables since the New Roots Fresh Farm Community Garden opened in 2013.

The garden has brought the community together and allowed them to invest in the land, a sentiment that is shared across community gardens in San Diego as diverse groups join together in these public spaces. These gardens have paved the way toward community building by providing an active public space for gathering and producing fruit, vegetables and plants. The gardens have also led to collective perceptions of increased safety among dangerous areas, and strengthened a diverse network of neighbors throughout San Diego County – following the example of lawn-care days (more at Contractorculture.com).

The first bloom

Judith Jacoby is the founder and co-director of the San Diego Community Garden Network, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote sustainability, education and community through gardening.

She noticed the scarcity of community gardens in the county when she moved to San Diego from New York, Jacoby said.

“When I looked at gardens here, the ones that did exist, for the most part, they were not very community-minded,” Jacoby said. “They were almost always locked and not accessible to people who didn’t have a plot in the garden, and we really see community gardens as, well, for the community.” 

The New Roots Community Farm in City Heights provides greenery in the park-deficient neighborhood. Photo by Camille Lozano

The New Roots Community Farm in City Heights provides greenery in the park-deficient neighborhood.

She also noticed differences in attitudes toward these types of public forums. When she started the network, she found many people in the community garden areas didn’t want them, citing the fact that they didn’t want people they didn’t know coming in and out of the neighborhood. Since then, people have learned to appreciate the diverse company that the gardens bring.

The gardens function as a community-organizing tool so people can learn to do new things and feel a sense of accomplishment in a “fairly simple way through their neighborhood,” Jacoby said.

Kaley Hearnsberger is a Food Security and Community Health Supervisor for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that functions as a resettlement agency in San Diego for refugees to make sure they successfully adjust to their new lives.

She also works as the project manager for the City Heights New Roots Community Farm and said changes in the community have been noticeable.

“The New Roots Community Farm directly impacts the surrounding area by creating green space in the park deficient neighborhood of City Heights,” Hearnsberger said. “It also supports the community by offering spaces for people to grow their own food and even make a little extra money on the side by selling crops at local markets such as the City Heights Farmer’s Market.”

VIDEO: Sitey Mbere and Camarino Fierros share their gardening experiences in the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights.

Almufti’s uncle, Sabah Mansoor, who gardens at the IRC’s El Cajon community farm, is one of these people, who said the garden provides him with happiness and a way to make extra money.

“It’s good,” Mansoor said. “I’m very happy with my garden, we can sell sometimes and make some money.”

Mansoor sells his vegetables at the El Cajon Farmer’s Market on Thursdays when he’s not using it to make Dolma, a popular Iraqi stuffed vegetable dish and other meals for his family and friends. Mansoor said he has many friends he’s made in the garden whom share gardening tips and encouragement.

A safe haven

According to a study by the American Journal of Community Psychology, community gardens have enhanced neighborhood ties and can even increase perceived safety in the areas surrounding these public spaces.

Jacoby said this is reflected in the attitudes of parents in the City Heights community, which houses the first New Roots Community Farm managed by the IRC. The City Heights garden, with a widely diverse population that includes African, Asian and Latino gardeners, sees a gathering of community members daily and a variety of ethnicities and ages.

Because of this, parents feel more at ease with their children out and about in the community.

“It makes the street safer,” she said. “People are always there, and before parents wouldn’t let their kids out past six. Because we have such a diverse bunch of gardeners, it acts as a sort of surveillance for the community.”

A study of community gardens in Houston, published by the American Society for Horticultural Science in 2009, found that while crime rates did not go down in the area, perceptions of reduced crime in the community were apparent.

The study compared randomized areas to areas surrounding community gardens and found no statistical differences in the crime rate, though garden representatives shared that they felt the neighborhood had been revitalized by the gardens and felt “perceived immunity from crime.”


Sitey Mbere snaps sugarcane in her garden plot at the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights.

Sitey Mbere, a Somalian immigrant who owns a plot at the City Heights garden, said tools were stolen from her and other gardeners, so she didn’t consider the space necessarily safe.

But Camarino Fierros, a long-time gardener at the City Heights location said he’s seen young people in the community join in at the garden with their families.

“They come here with their families and work hard and enjoy the garden,” Fierros said. “These kids could easily get into trouble in our neighborhood but they are here instead.”

Hearnsberger said while there is no hard evidence that safety has increased in the surrounding area, the garden has worked as a crime prevention measure by design.

“Any time you create a space that is used by people instead of abandoned, it builds community and thus more accountability,” she said.

Community vines to intertwine

Jacoby said she’s proud of the gardens and the opportunities they provide for residents throughout San Diego County.

“I’m very excited about our gardens,” she said. “They help people to learn how to communicate, discuss, and come to peaceful solutions. They learn more about each other and differences in opinion.”

She said the Gardening Network is now working on finding ways to get the more than ninety gardens across San Diego County to support each other through shared resources and knowledge.

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San Diego: Paving the way for more bicycles

Joven Sibug, bicycle courier and founder of Pedal Pushers, rides his bike at least 60-80 miles a week to make deliveries in the city of San Diego from Mission Valley to the streets of downtown. Pedal Pushers is just one of the latest movements getting more people riding their bikes.

Data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau and analyzed by League of American Cyclists.

Data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau and analyzed by League of American Cyclists.

“I think people didn’t see promise in it anymore especially with things like email and cloud servers coming around but I think there’s still a need and there’s still enough work for at least a few companies in town,” Sibug said. “Business has been good. We’re growing. We’re growing faster than I imagined but we’re growing at a rate I like too that I’m comfortable with, especially since there’s not that many of us.”

According to the data gathered by the League of American Bicyclists in Where we ride: An analysis of bicycling in American cities, San Diego ranks third with the largest percentage of bike commuters with a population of more than one million people, just behind Philadelphia and Chicago.

The same analysis shows that while from 2000-2012, there is a 44 percent increase in riders, it is an overall 4.5 percent decrease compared to the 1990s until now, which means there are less cyclists on the streets compared to two decades ago.

Bike couriers are not only fast but eco-friendly too

Pedal Pushers is one of San Diego’s latest courier services that opened in November by Sibug, an eight year veteran to the bicycle courier community.

From legal services to food delivery, Sibug and two partners work to ensure it’s delivered to where it needs to be.

With the service, he aims for it to be not only an efficient service but an environmentally helpful solution primarily utilizing bicycle messengers, unlike other companies that use all types of vehicles for their deliveries (click here for more information).

“It’s so vivid,” said Justin Vorhees, co-owner and bike courier for Pedal Pushers. “There’s so many different interactions, so many different things to see, so many locations, all that stuff. It just makes it for a lot more interesting work day. It’s great.”

MULTIMEDIA: Joven Sibug and Justin Vorhees talk about their experience working as bicycle couriers for Pedal Pushers in San Diego.

Sibug started his courier career in San Diego for Aloha Bicycle Courier before moving out to New York and ultimately back to San Diego to create Pedal Pushers.

“It’s small, it’s mellow,” Sibug said. “When I first started as a messenger in San Diego there were probably about 20 messengers. Now I want to say there’s maybe 12, so it’s been going down but we’re trying to change that. I think that the point of courier collective is we’re trying to change that landscape and be able to provide for more opportunities for courier work, bike courier work specifically in metropolitan San Diego.”

San Diego to make more bike roadways

Unlike the Pedal Pushers, there are others who don’t ride a bike for a living, they use it to get to work or school.

With roughly 1,400 miles of bike facilities, whether it be shared or exclusive, San Diego provides many paths for cyclists to ride on.

Despite that, it doesn’t mean bike travel is efficient on all roads.

“There’s 1,400 miles of bike facilities but it’s actually kind of a lie because if you look at our map, you’d think you can ride everywhere but that’s not true,”said Chris Kluth, San Diego Association of Governments active transportation manager. “Or else you’d see everyone on them.”

SANDAG acts as a forum for San Diego county decision-making such as public transportation and is pushing the San Diego Regional Bike Plan “Riding to 2050.”

Existing bicycle facilities in SD

The $400 million plan aims to provide a strategy to make cycling a viable option for everyday travel by expanding the number of various paths for cyclists to travel and create programs to keep it sustainable, which would help San Diego achieve its goal to reduce emission of greenhouse gasses, reduce traffic issues and improve public health.

“We need to up our game,” Kluth said. “Our main goal is to make more options for everyday people and everyday trips. The more people you get riding, the more you’ll attract and the more you attract, the safer it is for everybody.”

Bike sharing solution opens up

It can be difficult to persuade people to get on bicycles when cars are a much faster alternative.

Sometimes people only want to ride a few days out of the year or tourists want to take a look around the town they’re visiting. This is where the solution to cater to the masses comes in: DecoBike.

DecoBike is a bike-share program where people can borrow bikes from any of the solar powered docking stations across San Diego. The company currently has 73 stations and aims to have more than 180 stations and 1,700 bicycles that can be accessed 24 hours per day.

Anyone over the age of 18 can rent out a Bike Titan with a debit or credit card starting at $5 for every 30 minutes or can purchase a monthly or annual membership.

DecoBike started in Miami in 2010. For San Diego, the bike-share program was created with an $8 million investment from the company in a partnership with the city in November.

SANDAG’s Kluth believes it makes a good addition to America’s finest city.

“Decobike is a good start and I think it’ll be a good catalyst to get other bike infrastructure going,” Kluth said.

DecoBike customer service representative Levys Martinez said the reception for the bike-share system in San Diego has been positive.

“We’ve gotten pretty good feedback so far since it’s a brand new program to the city and people are liking it,” Martinez said. “It’s a new way of transportation not only to locals but to tourists as well.”

Martinez said he hopes to see DecoBike pick up even more in the future.

“Every time people ride a bike, they always should have a smile on their face,” Martinez said. “We’re just giving nature and life back when we’re not riding our cars. But for the city, I think it’s a great way for transportation, not just DecoBike but any bike. You’ll get there faster and enjoy nature. It’s a great solution.”


This DecoBike station on University Avenue and 30th Street is one of its current 73 solar-powered stations throughout San Diego.

Cycling helps you and the future

By using a bicycle, people aren’t only helping sustain the Earth but get the added benefit of exercising for their health.

Jane Hall, professor emeritus and founding director institute for economic and environmental studies at Cal State University Fullerton said pollution is a threat that affects both the world globally and regionally.

“Clearly climate instability is a growing threat,” Hall said. “The pollution is global but the impacts are local. At ground level, many heavily-populated urban areas suffer fine particulate pollution that shortens lives and increases illnesses and medical costs.”

Paula Morreale, the sustainability coordinator at the University of San Diego, has followed the principle of leaving no trace, reducing waste, increasing conservation efforts and preserving natural resources.

And although Morreale said she believes San Diego has taken a good first step in creating the infrastructure for alternative transportation solutions, she thinks there is still more to be done.

“I think San Diego county is taking a good first step in creating the infrastructure and resources for alternative transportation solutions,” Morreale said. “A lot more needs to be done for bicycle commuting and better road infrastructure to encourage biking and walking.”

City Heights: Keeping alive the sound of music

Children playing violins

Sisters Cheyenne (L) and Sabayn Smith (R), are preparing for their winter session recital at the City Heights Music School

The community might not be described as one of the most privileged in the city of San Diego.

In fact, according to the city’s planning department, many households within the community make less than $10,000 and many of its residents are migrants who speak very little English.

However, walk into the City Heights Recreation Center in the heart of the community on any given Saturday afternoon and privileged is what you’ll be.

From one room come the sounds of violins playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” In others, you can hear voices singing Yiddish folk songs and Portuguese classics or students strumming guitar chords and playing classical pieces on the piano.

In a community with a high concentration of low-income students and a lack of music education opportunity, the City Heights Music School and other music organizations are making up the difference.

MULTIMEDIA: City Heights music director Victoria Eicher describes the benefits of music education for students.

Going beyond the limits

The school, which is supported by the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, offers music classes to students of all ages and cultures despite the limitations that most of these students face.

According to Victoria Eicher, director of the City Heights Music School (CHMS), one limitation is that many students don’t speak English. However, to her, music becomes the universal language that binds.

“Music is a common language and can reach every culture through music,” said Eicher. “Music has the extra benefit of transcending language and cultural barriers to bring a community together.”

Brazilian artist and CHMS teacher Ilana Quiroz understands that teaching capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts class that combines the elements of song and dance, breaks many cultural barriers because most of the songs taught are sung in Portuguese.  None of her students speak the language, so for her, it is a form of unity.

“Kids want to connect,” said Quiroz. “Capoeira is like a community thing. You have to be connected to your peers.”

Students are playing vioin

City Heights music director Victoria Eicher teaches prepares violin students for the winter session recital as parents look on.

According to Quiroz, kids are not the only ones who tend to be her students in class.

“The parents think they are coming for their kids but they actually end up leaving class learning something themselves,” said Quiroz.

Victoria Eicher wants to make sure experiences like the capoeira class can be offered to anyone and makes sure money is not a limitation.

The tuition for each class session is $60; however, according to Eicher, partial and full scholarships are distributed to students thanks to sponsors.

“To me, there’s no difference in ability and potential between a child born in one community versus a child born in another.  The difference is in opportunity,” said Eicher.

Nearby schools are also benefitting from CHMS’ generosity and value in music since funding for instruments and instructors is minimal.

“Eventually, the seed we plant in our Saturday music classes begins to grow and spreads to support other programs (music and other) as our students build a sense of identity, achievement, and confidence.”

The City Heights Music School is able to supplement the music classes at Rosa Parks Elementary School with congas, bongos, and timbales while Hoover High School receives instruments for their mariachi program.

Making up the difference in schools

A similar outreach program is giving students an opportunity to experience music in a smaller group setting and is expanding from what already exists at schools.

Currently, Villa Musica is offering music programs at four schools within the City Heights community and at the Logan Heights Library.

“We are trying to be a supplement because there wasn’t enough (music) in schools,” said Ariana Warren, community programming coordinator for Villa Musica.

According to Warren, music instruction is only being taught to kids in the fifth and sixth grade once a week within the San Diego Unified School District. She sees resources such as time and money as the limiting factors for the students. Now the organization is supplementing instruments and instructors because of lack of funding from the district.

“The kids who are learning instruments are excited and we hope to foster that excitement,” said Warren.

Warren hopes that Villa Musica will be able to continue fostering those feelings but with such small class sizes, funding can be a problem. In recent efforts, the organization has applied for more funding with a new push within Title I schools. Twenty-two of them have been selected to receive funding to team up with a non-profit like Villa Musica to expand music education.

Benefits of music education

Music has a profound effect for students who live in areas like City Heights and come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

According to a 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, students who receive quality music education earn better grades, are more likely to earn a degree and involve themselves in more extracurricular activities. According to information filed by The Ledger Law Firm students tend to have high career goals and pursue careers in medicine, math or law.

“Music allows kids to be expressive and focus on a lot of detail,” said Victoria Eicher. “Once they get good at something they can share their success. It’s a great team builder.”

Students playing guitar.

Guitar students play “Yellow Submarine” in preparation for the winter session recital.


Ron Bolles, retired San Diego music teacher and music education advocate, has seen his fair share of the impact music has made on students throughout his career.

“One of my former music students now works for the district attorney’s office in San Diego and told me that she takes all that she’s learned in my class and goes in to her court cases as if it’s a performance,” said Bolles. “If she hasn’t practiced and prepared she knows she will lose her case.”

Bolles published a book called “Learning That Lasts a Lifetime,” that tells more of his student’s testimonies through the years to help advocate for more music opportunities in schools.

According to Bolles, more music opportunities are crucial to society because music builds a sense of community, but more importantly –identity.

“Our society seems to be very self-centered,” Bolles said, “But when a person participates in a musical ensemble they create, through rehearsals, a beautiful piece of art and understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Identity and discipline are the common benefit seen among many teachers, including those within the City Heights Music School and Villa Musica.


SDO 2.0: The rebirth of the San Diego Opera

For its 50th season, the San Diego Opera featured the classical opera, Don Giovanni. By the end of the performance, Don Giovanni dies. After nearly facing the same fate in spring of 2014, the opera is reborn and ready for its encore.

The Commendatore in Don Giovanni, played by Reinhard Hagen, stands stage left next to Leporello, played by Ashraf Sewailam, who is up-stage, among other cast members, minutes into the production.

Taking the final bow

When news broke in March of last year that the San Diego Opera was planning to close its doors, community members and San Diego Opera performers were devastated. Vocalists from the opera and members of the community came together to mourn.

Ashraf Sewailam, who played Leporello in the opera’s production of Don Giovanni, sees the San Diego Opera as the crown jewel of San Diego. To him, the news was heartbreaking.

“We heard the news and ran to the restaurant where everyone would go during rehearsals, and everyone was there and crying,” he said. “It was like somebody died.”

San Diego Opera vocalist, Reinhard Hagen, didn’t understand how the opera could go from functioning fluidly to crashing and burning.

“I had terrible feelings because I couldn’t understand what happened,” Hagen said.

At the time, the opera was led by Ian Campbell, who was the director for 31 years. Hagen said some pointed fingers at Campbell for closing the opera, but he just felt bad.

“It’s really sad what happened, but (Campbell) did 31 years here and took this opera to a world class level,” Hagen said.

On the other hand, when the opera did announce its closing, Sewailam said he witnessed outreach and support from all types of people throughout the community.

“What really surprised me is that people who didn’t have anything to do with opera felt that it is the backbone of San Diego, and they took it back,” Sewailam said.

Saving the opera

Members from across the San Diego Opera came together to make up the White Knight Committee to save the San Diego Opera. The group created an online petition, a twitter account and a Save San Diego Opera Facebook page.

Chris Stevens, founder and chairman of the White Knight Committee, said the committee did everything they could to get the word out, especially in the first three weeks following the bad news. They ended up getting 21,392 electronic signatures.

“I would say when I started the committee, I felt like we had a 2 percent chance of succeeding,” Stevens said.

Stevens, who also performs with the San Diego Opera,  said the committee consisted of only 20 members, but it was enough to make a change.

Stevens said Campbell’s departure from the stage meant a brighter future for the opera.

“It went from a time of status quo and everything being the same to the excitement and wonder of what we’ll be doing,” Stevens said.

He refers to the resurrection of the San Diego Opera as “SDO 2.0.”

“We are really good at grand opera so it will be interesting to see where we go,” Stevens said. “Opera is suppose to be by the people for the people.”

The San Diego Opera faced a financial deficit this year, cutting back on $5 million in funds.

The San Diego Opera faced a financial deficit this year, cutting back on $5 million in funds in comparison to last seasons budget.

A new scene

San Diego Opera Media Relations Director Edward Wilensky said one thing that’s changed since the rebirth of the San Diego Opera is that there are new groups of people coming to the performances, young and “hip” individuals in particular.

“People are asking me where the bathroom or the bar is at each show 20 to 30 times a night, which is how I know they’re new,” Wilensky said.

Mitchell Sterling, a middle-age man who attended the opera’s 50th Anniversary Concert with his wife and teenage daughter, said something similar about the atmosphere at the the performances.

“The crowd seems more energized and emotional,” Sterling said. “It’s not that people used to take it for granted, but there’s a different energy in the crowd.”

Sterling was accompanied by his wife, Deborah, and teenage daughter, Sydney — a clear testament to the younger crowd he described.

Sterling says he gives the San Diego Opera an A plus across the board.

“It’s a great company and San Diego is really, really lucky,” Sterling said.

San Diego Opera Vocalist, Reinhard Hagen and San Diego Opera President Carol Lazier explain what the opera means to them and what’s next for the San Diego Opera.

Future plans

For the San Diego Opera, more change is still in store.

Going from a grand, traditional style of opera, the company will now take a more creative step to make its shows more affordable and attractive for all ages.

The San Diego Opera is hoping to take a similar approach to that of LoftOpera, a small-scale opera company based in Brooklyn, New York. LoftOpera operates on a smaller budget and has concerts in nontraditional settings, such as warehouses and photo studios. It also showcases young vocalists and starts its ticket prices at $30, all while catering food and beer throughout the shows.

“That’s absolutely the direction we want to go,” San Diego Opera President Carol Lazier said of  LoftOpera.

Lazier said the opera is already looking into having future San Diego Opera performances at smaller venues, besides its most common performance hall, the San Diego Civic Theatre. Lazier envisions a venue where audience members can connect with performers that will also be accompanied by a cheaper ticket price.

“The Civic Theatre can be so hard to see when you’re sitting way up high,” Lazier said. “It’s hard to fill all those seats, you just don’t get those personal feelings.”

According to Lazier, there are multiple operas throughout the country that have gone belly up because they weren’t able to support themselves and change with the times. To her, as well as the rest of the company, the positive and exciting changes to the opera will be brought in by the new general director, David Bennett.

“You know, our crisis was a good thing,” Lazier said.  “Otherwise I think we would have had a long, steady death.”

leave me alone_IMG_1479

San Diego Opera hopes to have performances in less conventional areas to attract a wide rang of attendees. President Carol Lazier said a venue in Barrio Logan is a contender.


Hiding in plain sight: Autism research unmasks gender differences

MULTIMEDIA: Blue Roses Girls is a registered nonprofit meant for girls of all levels of ability to socialize and make friends.

Cheyenne walks in the room, beams from ear to ear and turns to embrace the girl closest to her. She laughs and chats for a moment before moving on to greet another friend in the group of about 30 adolescent girls.

She looks like any other friendly, happy child, but a closer look shows the subtle tapping of her hand, indirect eye contact and the occasional repeated phrase.

Cheyenne was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder as a child and is a part of Blue Roses Girls, a registered nonprofit for girls with developmental disabilities to interact and make friends. Within the group, 25 of the 40 total girls are on the spectrum. Cheyenne’s mother, Jazel Peterzell, is one of the founders of the group. She said although she now understands the condition more, at the time of Cheyenne’s diagnosis, she didn’t believe it.

Members of Blue Roses Girls sit together before practicing for their upcomming dance recital. The group is one of the only organizations in San Diego county specifically for girls with developmental disabilities.

Members of Blue Roses Girls sit together before practicing for their upcomming dance recital. The group is one of the only organizations in San Diego County specifically for girls with developmental disabilities.

“It baffled us because Cheyenne was verbal,” Peterzell said. “She would make eye contact with you, she wanted to play with other children … She wasn’t like what we see ASD children to be.”

Peterzell’s concerns are echoed in families across the globe, specifically those with daughters on the spectrum. As a traditionally male-dominated disorder, many don’t think of their daughter being affected in the same way they worry about their sons.

“Was I angry for a while? Yeah, I was very angry,” Peterzell said. “My first child, my only child and she’s a girl. I read about the statistics about ASD services and boys vs. girls and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve landed on some other planet here.’”


Diagnostic trends

Autism, which is sometimes described as the result of an “extreme male brain,” affects males and females in a 4-to-1 ratio, according to the Center for Disease Control. And while overall autism diagnosis dramatically rose during the past few decades, a 16-year Danish study published last year found female diagnoses are rising at a faster rate. Researchers looked at nationwide data from hospital reports in Denmark. They found new male diagnosis quadrupled, while new females diagnosis increased sevenfold during the time period.

The results also showed that on average, girls were diagnosed at older ages than boys.


Credit: Madison Hopkins

Lynette Louise, an international speaker on autism and author, said some women might be diagnosed later in life because girls are more skilled at masking the signs of the disorder.

“She is managing to sort of play out the actions of normalcy better and is less of a problem in the classroom … and fits her gender description better,” she said. “So it’s only her awareness of her own anxiety and her own challenges that brings her to eventually get diagnosed.”

Some parents and teachers overlook the traditional signs of ASD, such as trouble showing empathy or an aversion to physical touch, because girls can present the symptoms in unexpected ways, she said.

“When you have a little girl and she’s wanting to hug you and she’s all over your lap and she can’t leave your lap, you’re not thinking autism, but it might be,” Louise said. “It might be that she’s sensory seeking and she has to be on your lap, she can’t stand to not have that input. It still matches the diagnosis.”

Autistic girls may also have more “normal” interests than boys, she said. Highly specialized obsessions are characteristic of both sexes on the spectrum, specifically those who are higher functioning. When a young boy speaks nonstop about trains or bugs, most people can recognize it as out of the ordinary and a sign of autism. Girls on the spectrum might have fascinations that are more common, like a celebrity, books or makeup, leading people around her to write it off as normal.

Master mimics

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, an authority on mental health in the U.S. In addition to reclassifying Asperger’s Syndrome (a disorder long-associated with autism) as an official ASD condition, it formally recognized the idea that girls may present autism differently than boys.

This comes in response to several studies from recent years suggesting we need different diagnostic material to identify girls on the spectrum, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. However, there is still no formal sex-based diagnostic criteria.

Tania Marshall, an award-winning author and child psychologist, said the gender bias toward boys in autism research has contributed to misunderstandings of how girls manifest the condition.

“Autism Spectrum Conditions had primarily been thought of as a male condition, and as such, the majority of assessment tools, research and writings have been based on males and have a strong ‘male-centric’ view or bias,” she said. “The outcome of this is that many females remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and are then receiving inappropriate treatments and support.”

As noted in the name, ASD is a spectrum condition, meaning that signs and symptoms can show up in a whole range of ways. One autistic child could be nonverbal, with a low IQ and an inability to touch or hear certain things without an intense reaction. Another could be on the honor roll at school, skilled in areas that require intense focus, have compulsive tendencies and difficulty in social situations.

This array of possibilities can make identifying ASD in a child or adult additionally difficult, as certain symptoms may be mistaken for another condition. With girls, this could mean if they learn to hide certain ASD traits, they may go undiagnosed or receive an inaccurate diagnosis, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, tourette’s syndrome or a generalized anxiety disorder.

Credit: Madison Hopkins

Credit: Madison Hopkins

Even with a diagnosis, some families still need to fight for services for their daughters on the spectrum. Tina Martinez, another Blue Roses Girl’s mom, said her daughter seemed like other little girls when she was diagnosed, making it difficult to convince the local center for developmental disabilities of her need for special attention.

“Because she was polite and could talk and was in a mainstream preschool, they just felt like she didn’t need any services at all, which is ridiculous,” Martinez said.

Girls on the spectrum, especially those who are high functioning, may blend in more with their peers than boys, eventually learning to mimic the social behavior of other girls, according to the National Autistic Society.

Marshall said this may also be an effect of gender norms.

“Generally, females are more likely to be driven socially to fit in, and therefore, they are more likely to use strategies like social echolalia, mimicking, and copying others,” Marshall said. “These strategies allow them to function better in social contexts but it can be these very strategies that can lead to a missed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis.”

Raising awareness

Credit: Madison Hopkins

Credit: Madison Hopkins

Five years ago, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a federal committee in charge of anything related to autism within the Department of Health and Human Services, included the need for increased research on females with ASD in its strategic goals. Since then, it has funded five new studies on the topic.

In San Diego, the local Regional Center, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the California Department of Developmental Services to coordinate services with developmentally disabled individuals, reports consistently higher numbers of female patients on the spectrum during the last decade.

Blue Roses Girls is still one of the only groups in San Diego that is meant specifically for girls with developmental disabilities, and it continues to grow each year. In addition to social activities for the girls, the group participates in community events to spread the word of the organization, and the needs of girls themselves.

“There’s a joke among the special needs mommies of these girls that we can’t die,” Peterzell said. “We need to live to be 100 so that we can see our children into middle age, because we’re so fearful about exploitative people.”

Cheyenne is getting ready to start high school next year, and with that comes a whole new set of challenges with navigating social situations, bullies and a potential love life.  Her mother hopes that the next phase of her life will bring more opportunities for independence, but mostly wants those around her daughter to understand and respect her needs.

“That’s all I want for my child,” she said. “One good friend, and someone to love and take care of her. That’s all.”

Blue Roses Girls co-founder Sri Ananthanarayanan hugs her daughter. She came together with other mothers to find a place for their daughters to make friends.

Blue Roses Girls co-founder Sri Ananthanarayanan hugs her daughter. She came together with other mothers to find a place for their daughters to make friends.


8th and G Streets corner local San Diego culture

Every city has one; a hub of fashionably cultured stores that share not only a taste for style, but also a camaraderie and friendship that pushes each of these areas to the next level.

San Diego might be flying under the radar in this regard compared to other major cities such as Los Angeles, but it still has its own identity.

“San Diego is really its own thing,” 9Five Eyewear employee Leon St. Heron said.  “[It] always has been, there is some great history that comes from the city that’s overlooked because people can’t help but to rival the two cities.”

5 & A Dime is project that was started by siblings Jason and Darcie Huggins.

5 & a Dime has been located on 8th and G Streets since its opening in 2005.

A city’s population helps make its own identity. When it comes to fashion culture, the same principle applies. Los Angeles has Fairfax and Rodeo Drive, New York has the Garment District — and San Diego has the corners where 8th Street meets G Street.

San Diego’s streetwear culture converges on this square block radius. This stylish part of downtown San Diego’s East Village is home to a slew of streetwear shops that share more than just the sidewalk outside their shop doors.

The shops

8th and G Streets house a group of shops that share business and good times. The stores in this area have created a niche for themselves in a city with an underated street-style culture.

5 & A Dime is one of the stores holding down the corners and is a longstanding shop on 8th and G Street. The brother and sister duo of Jason and Darcie Huggins just might have paved the way for what 8th and G Street is now. The siblings opened the shop on a Black Friday almost 10 years ago.

Currently, the meeting point of the two streets is home to seven shops; all of varying products.

5 & A Dime is a typical streetwear shop, selling its brand of clothing as well as cheesecake inspired cookies which have come to be known as Good Stuff. However its neighbors vary types of products they carry — catering to every type of need.

Blends is a fashion forward shoe store that offers the latest kicks for its consumers.

9Five Eyewear and HDQTRS have both moved on from 8th and G, but they got their start on the East Village block. Additionally Neighborhood holds a space which serves as an excellent lunch spot for the neighboring businesses.

Super 7 is the latest addition to the block, and it sells uniquely designed toys and action figures. Soon to come is a barber shop that will round out the variety of options on 8th and G, Jason Huggins, owner of 5 & a Dime said.

8th and G Street is a one stop shop for products, and shopping there helps support local business. The loyal customers know that these stores offer quality goods for consumers.

But, those loyal consumers weren’t easy to come by.

The community

Considering that San Diego is a transplant city, it can be hard to garner a strong following in the community. But, it is still possible.

Downtown’s East Village has been an area on the rise for years. Huggins has spent the past 10 years witnessing that rise from his store-fornt.

“I see East Village kind of growing,” Huggins said. “It’s just not growing as fast as we like. But we’re going to stick it out. And luckily we have people in this area that feel the same way we do”.


5 & A Dime is the longest standing 8th and G store, holding down a storefront for 10 years.


8th and G became so well known by locals, that regular shoppers at the stores created what came to be known as the 8th and G Gang. It wasn’t an idea started by the owners, St. Heron said. It was started by the locals who were part of the community and wanted to support something homegrown.

But it’s not just locals who find the diamond in the rough that is the 8th and G Street shops.

People come and go all year round, whether it be for business or pleasure. But also, there are some who come and don’t go, they fall in love with San Diego and they stay put.

Mike Garnica moved to San Diego from Texas after high school. It wasn’t long before he found himself attracted to what 8th and G had to offer.

“All the shops offer great products,” Garnica said. “It’s high quality. And it’s great to rep where you’re living.”

The niche area has also seen its fair share of trials and tribulations. The area has persevered through the economic recession.

“Being here as long as we have, we’ve kind of experienced the highs and lows,” Huggins said.

Considering that Huggins’s store has been around the longest, he has seen the most change. Stores have come and gone, stores have moved mere blocks away, his store moved a block away; but one thing remains certain, Huggins feels attached to the concrete on 8th and G.

“We’ve been here for a really long time,” Huggins said. “And since we have our feet firmly planted here we really want to see this thing through.”

The bond

Downtown storefronts aren’t always the busiest of places, especially daytime hours during the week. But for a spot like 8th and G, it’s easy to pass the time with friends.

It’s not uncommon to see employees from each of the stores wander next door to shoot the breeze with employees of the other shops. This is what makes the dynamic on 8th and G different.

“Everyone has work for everyone else, we all know the systems and we all know the owners,” St. Heron said. “Anyone on the block could easily call anyone to watch the stores. It’s like babysitting and we are uncles & cousins. It’s kinda dope.”

MULTIMEDIA: Jason Huggins, owner of 5 & A Dime, explains how the East Village’s 8th and G Street block is a unique shopping destination.

It’s that type of camaraderie that is pushing the East Village to a new height. Instead of battling it out between each other in a cut throat business model, these shops band together to benefit the group of stores as a whole.

“East Village, Downtown San Diego still needs a lot of work.” Huggins said. “So it’s kind of our responsibility to work together, whether we like it or not. Luckily, we’re all friends so it makes it really easy.”

This is not something that’s as common in typical shopping areas. Sure, stores might be cordial to other stores that are near, but it’s not the same kind of bond that is seen at 8th and G.

Fairfax in Los Angeles does not operate that way, Huggins said. Up there, it’s much more clear that everyone is on their own.


G Street helps mark the location where the group of shops call home.

This type of attitude does not go unnoticed. Even from the customer perspective it’s clear that there’s something different and special about 8th and G.

“Even as a consumer you can see it,” Garnica said. “You’ll walk into a shop and see guys from other shops. And they all speak so highly of each other.”

This part of downtown has built a name for itself by not only putting out quality goods, but by also banding together for the betterment of all. It’s a different atmosphere than most consumers are probably used to.

“It’s more about the connection,” St. Heron said. “Nobody is out for themselves down there.”

No one shop is better than the other, because it may be business — but it’s all for one and one for all.