By Debra D. Bass
Adriana Heldiz, 26, was already working as a photojournalist with Voice of San Diego when she decided to take Peggy Peattie's Introduction to Photo Journalism class.
"I was an intern at the newspaper and they hired me right after I graduated. I got lucky," Heldiz said. "But I still felt like I had things to learn."
Her final class assignment ended up being a poignant photo essay of a high school sophomore's three-mile trek to school. It takes him two hours to make the journey and one day Heldiz walked along, mostly backwards, and often slightly ahead for the six-mile round trip.
"Six Miles in a San Ysidro High Schooler's Shoes" include 23 images of Jose Luis Perez, a sophomore, making his daily commute. Because of a controversial budgeting decision to drastically cut bus service in the Sweetwater Union High School District, Perez now has to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and leave the house by 5:20 a.m. to make the two-hour trip to school.
After school and after school activies like serving as a member of the school's student government, Perez leaves school around 5 p.m. so that he can be home by 7 p.m. His mom works nights so she's still at work when he's walking to school and she can't pick him up in the evening because he has three siblings who also need care.
He walks to school rain or shine, and he's spotted more than a few coyotes before dawn, but his mom is most concerned that the steep hill he must climb is covered in brush and he's suffered rashes from bugs.
"I'm going to be honest, if I hadn't been doing this for a class, I might not have tried as hard," Heldiz said. "Peggy encouraged me to go out and really report the story, walk in his shoes, let people experience what his day is like."
Heldiz had been working on the story of the budget cuts with a reporter before, but the assignment convinced her to do the walkalong.
"It totally gave even me a different perspective," Heldiz said. "It took everything I could no to say, 'ok, let's get in my car ant take you school,' but that wouldn't be true to the story."
She said that she did receive criticism about walking with him instead of giving him a ride, but she hopes the impact of seeing the daily journey of one high school student so determined to go to school will resonate with the school district. Who knows, she said, at least now they can see his perspective.
The editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune was so moved by the photo essay Heldiz's photo essay that they referenced it in: Don’t tell San Ysidro High students that Sweetwater Union is rebounding. The editorial includes this passage:
Nothing to see here? Don’t say that to San Ysidro students. To save money, 18 of the 22 bus routes bringing students to San Ysidro High School have been cut, a statistic Voice of San Diego humanized with a wrenching photo essay of sophomore Jose Luis Perez’s two-hour, 3.5-mile walk to get to school in the morning and to get home in the afternoon.
Do you want to know anything more about Heldiz photography, Peattie's class or Perez's journey? Ask a question or leave your thoughts in the comments below.