Casa Familiar
Francisco Dominguez is a member of Casa Familiar’s El K-Fe Project, which helps young adults earn their barista license. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Francisco Dominguez is a member of Casa Familiar’s El K-Fe Project, which helps young adults earn their barista license. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Every Tuesday and Thursday, 19-year-old Mayra Gomez drives nearly an hour to class at the California State University, San Marcos.

She lives in San Ysidro, a San Diego neighborhood that sits at the doorstep on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Gomez began hunting for part-time jobs near her home, since her commute to school was already long enough. But there was a problem.

“There’s not a lot of places I could apply to,” she said. “Every time I go to try to find a job, they require experience, but I don’t get how they’re making us get experience if they don’t even give us a try.”

She’s not alone.

Young adults in San Ysidro are struggling to find jobs. In San Diego’s southernmost neighborhood, steps away from the world’s busiest international border, nearly 27 percent of adults between 20 and 24 years old are unemployed, according to Census data. That’s almost 10 percent higher than adults of the same age living in neighboring Chula Vista.

Businesses near the busy border crossing thrive off the thousands of daily visitors, but job opportunities for young residents just entering the workplace are scarce.

Lisa Cuestas, executive director of the San Ysidro-based nonprofit Casa Familiar, says despite its economic potential and prime location, San Ysidro doesn’t have a lot of small businesses willing to hire young people with limited experience.

To tackle the problem, Cuestas and her team, began the El K-Fe project, a 10-week paid program that helps young residents earn a barista license.

“We knew that there was a natural inclination for youth to be interested in becoming baristas because you can find one of those jobs just about anywhere,” Cuestas said.

In the two years since the program began, 40 young adults have joined. Gomez is one of them. Their training consists of everything from basic barista skills to marketing and business principles.

The organization also runs a similar program that trains young adults to become art docents, people who lead tours in art museums.

Cuestas said many of the participants of the barista program were able to find full employment after finishing the training; others, though, were still struggling to find jobs that didn’t require a 45-minute trolley ride to another neighborhood.

Indeed, while the training provides a marketable skill, it doesn’t solve the lack of opportunities in the community.

Casa Familiar is trying to address that too: It plans to open a coffee cart at the San Ysidro Health Center in September. Cuestas said the neighborhood’s lack of coffee shops is just one example of the dearth of small businesses in San Ysidro.

“You think that because we’re at the border and there’s so much retail at the border and it has to be a ton of coffee shops, well there isn’t. There’s two,” she said. “There’s Starbucks and there’s Coffee Bean, but they’re both right at the border outlet. Other than that, there is no coffee shops in San Ysidro.”

All the proceeds from the cart will go to fund the El K-Fe project, which aims to open more coffee carts throughout the South Bay.

“Yes, there’s a lot of retail at the border,” Cuestas said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes it easier for people to get jobs.”

Many of the jobs close to home that are available to inexperienced workers offer just part-time or seasonal employment.

Francisco Dominguez, a 19-year-old San Ysidro resident and member of El K-Fe, said that many of his friends flock to the Las Americas shopping center near the border in search of any job they can find — even on a short-term basis.

“If you get seasonal, it’s a lot of competition because you have to get on the manager’s list to stay,” he said. “Those that don’t have a job, it’s harder to look for a job because you have to go out of San Ysidro.”

Dominguez was born in Tijuana but moved to San Ysidro at a young age. He currently works multiple jobs at the mall and attends college nearby, but says he wants to see San Ysidro grow so that other young adults like him don’t have to struggle.

“It’s small, but it could be more than what it is. There are small businesses along the [San Ysidro] Boulevard, but there can be more,” Dominguez said.

Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, says attracting more small businesses is a top priority, but the problem goes beyond that.

“You can’t just paint it with the same brush,” Wells said. “Of course, everybody would want a low unemployment rate wherever they are, but there’s not a lot that the business side of San Ysidro can do to change and that’s simply because there’s just not room for large employers.”

Wells said the chamber is working on a plan to redevelop San Ysidro Boulevard — the main street in the neighborhood that sees the most traffic — to attract businesses and create more job opportunities.

He says there’s not much land left to develop in San Ysidro, but he has faith that working with another nearby neighborhood, Otay Mesa, can help create more job opportunities closer to home.

“If we could create the opportunities right next door and then have people’s commute be five to 10 minutes down the 905 [freeway], then I think that’s where probably our biggest opportunity is as far as job creation,” Wells said.

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