Building 'Rodrigo's World'

Kyle Kuwahara, left, and Jude Kratzer are among a group of Berkeley fourth-graders who use the video game Minecraft to stay in touch with classmate Rodrigo Guzman, 10, who was deported along with his family to Mexico. (Craig Kuwahara / May 17, 2013)

BERKELEY — To save their classmate who was deported to Mexico, the fourth-graders devised an epic plan.

That Rodrigo Guzman, 10, could no longer be with his friends and attend Jefferson Elementary seemed so obviously unfair to these students. So they started an online petition that got 2,788 signatures. They created a Facebook page and posted videos to YouTube.

They petitioned the Berkeley City Council and school district, which passed resolutions supporting their cause. They met with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) to ask whether she could intervene.

"We have to fight for Rodrigo's rights because he is not able to do it himself!" Kyle Kuwahara said in a letter to President Obama. "Today I'm writing to you on Rosa Parks' 100th birthday to do the right thing. To allow Rodrigo and his family to return to their home, school and friends in Berkeley."

Even as the children's "Bring Rodrigo Home" campaign built momentum, it became clear that things would not move fast. The immigration system is complicated, the students were told. There were too many agencies and politicians with rules that didn't seem to share their urgency.

Worried that they'd lose touch with Rodrigo and that he'd lose hope, Kyle and his twin brother, Scott, turned to Minecraft, a video game where they'd forged their greatest bonds with each other.

With the ability to create virtual worlds in Minecraft, one of the unlikeliest video game hits in recent years, these students could create a haven for themselves and Rodrigo.

It could be a place with their own rules, where it would seem as if their friend was still next to them and not playing from thousands of miles away. A place where the Creepers and Zombie Pigmen still seemed less frightening and confusing than the real world of borders, immigration laws and visas constructed by adults.

They could build "Rodrigo's World."

"We just wanted to be able to hang out somewhere with Rodrigo where none of this other stuff mattered," Scott said. "The more we learn about immigration, the more unfair it seems."

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Rodrigo Javier Guzman Diaz was born in Mexico City but had lived in Berkeley since the age of 2. His parents, Reyna Diaz Mayida and Javier Guzman Ponce, traveled here because they had extended family in the area. Diaz Mayida, educated as an accountant in Mexico, cleaned houses. Guzman Ponce worked as a cook in fraternity houses.

This made it possible for Rodrigo to attend Jefferson, one of Berkeley's highest-rated schools. Or it did, until the familiar world his family had built for him was taken from Rodrigo on Jan. 10.

Rodrigo was traveling with his parents to Mexico to renew their tourist visas. On their way, they had a connecting flight in Houston, where they were stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

For reasons the family members say were never explained to them, their Mexican passports and visas were confiscated. They were told to continue on to Mexico, where it would take five years or longer to get new visas.

Almost all the family's possessions remain in Berkeley. Rodrigo finds himself essentially exiled to a land that is largely foreign to him.

"He's very quiet and sad sometimes," Diaz Mayida said in an interview via Skype from Cuernavaca, Mexico. "He misses his friends and his home in Berkeley."

U.S. Customs officials declined to discuss the case, citing privacy laws.

Back in Berkeley, when the school year resumed after winter break, Rodrigo's teacher, Barbara Wenger, was puzzled by his absence. After a few days, word reached the school that Rodrigo's family had been deported and would not be returning.

It was up to Wenger to break the news to her class. When she told the children what happened to Rodrigo's family, one of the students asked a question that broke her heart. She knew that a bit of childhood innocence about the way the world works was about to be lost.