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Forging Cross-Border Ties, Gil Garcia Reconnects with Roots

Plans are afoot to get Goleta her first sister city: Unión de San Antonio in Jalisco.


If Gil Garcia gets his way, he’ll get that much closer to his roots in Unión de San Antonio in Mexico, and the 6-year-old city of Goleta might just get her first sister.

It was an idea borne out of the architect and former Santa Barbara city councilman’s desire to discover his heritage in Unión, in Jalisco state. Garcia’s father would tell him about life in that place, when it was a pueblo surrounded by acres and acres of farmland.

“My father was born in Unión de San Antonio in a hacienda in 1900,” said Garcia, who added that his father, Bernardo, was forced to leave during the Christian Revolution that destroyed his home and scattered families in the mid-1920s.

Like many people displaced by the fighting, Bernardo Garcia wound up going north of the border to join California’s migrant worker circuit until family life demanded he settle down. The Garcia family, as well as other Unión expatriates, found themselves in Goleta, where lemons, avocados and walnuts were waiting to be picked.


“Immigrants from Unión de San Antonio were really doing a lot of the work in the Goleta Valley,” said Garcia, who remembers the Goleta of his early childhood as a little town surrounded by orchards populated by mostly Mexicans.

“It was just like a little pueblo so I thought I was in Mexico,” he said. It wasn’t until he started going to school and seeing fair-skinned kids that the younger Garcia realized he was in another country.

But the desire to find the Unión of his father’s stories never left him, and decades later, Garcia, as president of the United States/Mexico Sister Cities Association, found the perfect opportunity to trace his father’s footsteps and bring two cities he loved together.

“It seemed as though the entire town turned out to greet us,” Garcia said of his first trip with his sister to Unión two years ago. “We were like the children of the prodigal son.”

From that point on, it wasn’t difficult to establish an enduring relationship.

To become sister cities, the two cities must demonstrate a solid relationship based on ideas like respect and friendship. The sister cities concept, which started in the Eisenhower administration, is an effort at a grassroots-level diplomacy between countries through social and cultural exchange.

Goleta’s benefit to the relationship is obvious: Participating members find ways to provide the kind of modern conveniences and technologies unavailable in Unión de San Antonio, a place as big as Santa Barbara County but with a population the size of Goleta’s. Physical therapist Jean Louis Durand recently made a trip there to help establish a physical therapy and rehabilitation center. When Unión officials recently visited Goleta to study local infrastructure and municipal services, they came away with a trash truck, courtesy of MarBorg Industries’ Mario Borgatello.

Unión’s benefit to the relationship is not as obvious but just as important.

“There’s a silent crisis happening,” Garcia said. “One that gets mentioned only now and then.”

The issue is the eventual inability of the Social Security system to support future retirees, and it’s a problem that may force many people to move out of the United States to make their dollars go farther.

“(In Mexico) they call it the ‘third age,’” said Garcia. “And they cherish their elders there.”

By establishing a strong relationship between Goleta and Unión, people who migrate there — those who are going back home and those who are finding a new place to live — will find a city that has had a well-built infrastructure, business opportunities, and a culture with which they are familiar. Garcia will be returning there with planners and other building experts this year to lend their services.

Official sisterhood is still a way off; Garcia and the rest of his cohorts at the United States/Mexico Sister City Association will not be requesting official certification from the city of Goleta until early next year. Unión’s mayor has already made it official for his city.

Even so, if for some reason Goleta doesn’t choose to make the relationship official, the exchange of ideas, culture and friendship will have already happened, and it’s a relationship that’s not going to go away any time soon.

"That’s what a people-to-people program is about," said Garcia.

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