Fwd: Washington Post: Learning in Their Native Tongue
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Date: Tue, 11 May 2004 21:19:00 -0400
From: Ryan Monroe <ryan_monroe@...>
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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 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
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,
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
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
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 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 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 windshields.
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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