Fwd: Washington Post: Learning in Their Native Tongue

Donald Z. Osborn dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Wed May 12 05:32:50 UTC 2004

FYI... Note among other things mention of use of computers in Otomi.

Don Osborn

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    Date: Tue, 11 May 2004 21:19:00 -0400
    From: Ryan Monroe <ryan_monroe at hotmail.com>
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 Subject: Washington Post: Learning in Their Native Tongue
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Learning in Their Native Tongue
Mexican Cities Join Experiment in Bilingual Education

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A10

MEXICO CITY -- Jose Roberto Cleofas depends on red lights to make a living.
As soon as cars brake for the stoplight in front of the Pizza Hut on
Insurgentes Avenue, Cleofas, 14, moves in on dirty windshields and starts

"How else can I eat?" said the fifth-grader, one of the hundreds of
thousands of indigenous people who have migrated to Mexican cities in search
of work as agriculture has failed in their dying villages.

The federal government is struggling to educate migrant children here and in
other Mexican cities. The Education Ministry has opened more than 2,000
bilingual schools for speakers of 62 indigenous languages in the past 10

In part, the initiative is a response to the armed Zapatista movement in
southern Mexico in the 1990s, which embarrassed the government by bringing
worldwide attention to its neglect of indigenous people. Most of the new
schools are in rural areas where indigenous children are in the majority.
Now, the challenge is to accommodate their growing numbers in cities where
they are a minority.

Like 300,000 other Mexicans, Cleofas's first language is Otomi. There are 10
million indigenous Mexicans in a population of 103 million. During the
Spanish conquest 500 years ago, indigenous people fled to remote desert and
mountain areas and remain among Mexico's poorest, marginalized by racial
prejudice and inferior schooling.

Cleofas attends the Alfredo Correo school, a two-story brick schoolhouse,
where about 100 of the 124 students are indigenous, according to the
principal. The school was chosen last year to be one of 76 city schools in a
vanguard bicultural project, because nearly all students speak the same
language and are from Santiago Mexquititlan, a farming village 100 miles
north of Mexico City. The schools' computers are programmed in both Spanish
and Otomi, and teachers are required to learn Otomi so they can communicate
more easily with students who are not proficient in Spanish. The national
anthem is even sung in Otomi.

Cleofas, who began speaking Spanish five years ago at age 9, said he no
longer feels bad in class for not knowing a certain word in Spanish. Rather,
he said, he enjoys helping others pronounce Otomi words. Science concepts
are clearer when explained in his native language, he said, and when he
sings the Mexican national anthem in Otomi "it rings with more meaning."

Cleofas has already attended school longer than many indigenous students,
who typically don't finish primary school. He said no one in his family had
ever finished fifth grade. He said he had moved to Mexico City last year,
aspiring only to earn money cleaning windshields. But he now likes school,
especially math.

The soaring number of indigenous children in urban Mexico is being compared
by education officials to the situation in the United States. In both
countries, the influx of migrant children is prompting schools to introduce
native languages in the classroom. And in both countries, multicultural
education is facing some resistance.

"Yes, there are parents who don't like it," said Nancy Miranda, head of the
parents association at the Alfredo Correo school. She said some parents
believe assimilation and speaking Spanish are the way to get ahead in

Some parents said the cost of training teachers in indigenous languages and
creating special bilingual textbooks was a wasteful expenditure for an
already thin education budget. Rather than have their children learn Otomi,
some parents interviewed said they would prefer their children learn English
or French, the languages wealthier Mexicans study.

Sylvia Schmelkes, coordinator of bilingual and intercultural education for
the Education Ministry, said some of the opposition is based on
discrimination against indigenous people.

"Racism is very profound in Mexico," she said. "You can ask any Mexican
whether he or she is a racist, and they'll say, 'Of course, not.' . . .
Nevertheless, in direct interaction, it exists."

Miranda, the parent association head, said some parents object to the
growing number of indigenous children in their neighborhood school. She said
some parents unfairly complain that the newcomers "are slower to learn,
don't know how to speak, are lower class."

Miranda, who is not indigenous, said she feels it is "neither positive nor
negative" that her son Donovan, 9, comes home singing songs in Otomi. But
she said there are practical benefits for him to be part of this experiment:
The school receives additional funds, computers, and attention. President
Vicente Fox visited recently to see the new program, considered a blueprint
for integrating indigenous languages and customs in additional urban schools
next year.

Students in the program receive scholarships of a few hundred dollars a year
to make up for the cash that children might earn if they dropped out of

As Miranda spoke, the recess bell rang in the tidy school in the upper
middle-class Roma neighborhood. Boys and girls wearing the school's blue
uniform ran onto the concrete playground, some laughing and telling jokes in

Most of the indigenous children at Alfredo Correo live in shacks haphazardly
built in alleyways in a neighborhood of ornate homes and expensive
apartments. Life is harder for them, said school principal Juan Valente
Garcia Lopez. Nearly all are so poor they quality for subsidized lunches of
oranges, bananas, peanuts and milk, which were stacked in boxes outside his

Garcia said his job was to create an environment that raises self-esteem:
"School represents a place where they are treated equally, where they aren't
discriminated against, where they are happy."

When classes end for the day, Cleofas walks two blocks to the busy street
corner where he earns, on a good evening, about $6 for eight hours washing
windshields. Nearly all his classmates also work after school. Most of them
sell handmade dolls from their village, or gum and candies.

"Usually their mom is working in one spot, but they are off on their own,"
said Rosalba Esquivel Fernandez, a first-grade teacher. She said most of her
students, who are as young as 6, work on the streets until after midnight.

The migration of indigenous families to such major cities as Tijuana,
Monterrey and Mexico City is more visible every year, in large part because
of the women and small children it is bringing to urban street corners. The
mothers commonly wear colorful traditional dresses and carry a baby strapped
to their back. Children knock on car windows selling homemade handicrafts
for the equivalent of $1. It is a business born of desperation.

"All that is left is a ghost town," said Domingo Gonzalez, a town official
in Santiago Mexquititlan, Cleofas's village. So many people have left, he
said in a telephone interview, because there is "no food, no jobs, nothing

The price of Mexican corn, the staple many indigenous people have grown on
small plots for generations, has been undercut by less expensive U.S. corn
that has flooded the Mexican market in the 10 years since the signing of the
North American Free Trade Agreement.

Alejandro Lopez, director of Mexico City's office of indigenous affairs,
estimated that as many as 40 percent of Mexico's indigenous people now live
in urban areas, compared with 20 percent 15 years ago. He said there has
been nearly a four-fold increase in Mexico City since 1990, with about
500,000 indigenous people now living in the capital.

In the northern city of Monterrey, public school officials are struggling
with how to help thousands of new indigenous students who speak dozens of
languages. Regina Martinez Casas, an academic researcher, said the rapid
growth of the indigenous population in Guadalajara is generating culture
clashes. She said an indigenous girl, who by custom would be married by age
13, is now exposed to other 13-year-olds who are studying and "putting rings
in their belly button and having fun."

Cleofas sat at a computer in his school's new media lab, toggling between
Spanish and Otomi during a lesson on the human nervous system.

A shy boy with black wavy hair, Cleofas said that his mother died last year
and that he survived on a little corn and the edible parts of cactus plants
until he left his village for Mexico City.

"There is nothing left at home. It's better here," he said, wearing new
tennis shoes and sport clothes he bought with his earnings from washing

He now lives with his sisters, who had previously migrated to Mexico City.
Cleofas said school has given him goals and that he is now thinking about
studying medicine, because, "I'd like to help others."

Just maybe, he said, "I'll be a doctor one day."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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