washingtonpost.com: Learning in Their Native Tongue
P. Kerim Friedman
kerim.list at oxus.net
Tue May 11 14:44:42 UTC 2004
Learning in Their Native Tongue Mexican Cities Join Experiment in
By Mary Jordan Washington Post Foreign Service Tuesday, May 11, 2004;
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 wiping.
"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 years.
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 Mexico.
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 school.
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 Otomi.
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 office.
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
"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
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 here."
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."
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