The Washington Post
Monday, April 5, 2004; Page A10

She's 101, and Keeps On Teaching

After 86 Years as an Educator in Mexico, Quiet Pioneer Keeps Full Schedule With Students

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service

MEXICO CITY -- Albina Cruces Vazquez stood before a roomful of bubbly first-graders and quizzed them on math. Eight plus four. Eight minus four. The children bounced in their seats, hands up, ooh-ooh-oohing and eager to please. Charming little learners comes easy to Cruces: 86 years of practice makes perfect.

Cruces, 101 years old, has been teaching since she was 15. She was born on March 1, 1903. She remembers her mother hiding her on the roof when rebels marauded through her town on horseback during the 1910-1917 Mexican revolution. When the fighting ended, she took up teaching, and now she's the oldest and longest-serving educator in Mexico.

"Man is the architect of his own destiny; I designed mine and I have lived it," Cruces said, sitting in her office at the Eduardo Novoa Elementary School, where she has served as principal and taught since she founded the school in an old seed warehouse in 1947.

She won't retire. She said she's too busy. She arrives at school at 7:25 every morning and leaves after classes end at 12:30. She allows herself a 15-minute nap when she gets home. Twice a week she teaches religious classes to prepare children for their First Communion, and on Saturday afternoons she teaches an adult religious studies class. On Sundays, she rests and reads the newspaper.

Cruces said she walked the five blocks from her home to the school for more than 50 years, until she fell last year and broke her hip. Walking is tougher now, but she makes up for it with a daily regimen of stretching and breathing exercises.

"Stand up," she said to visitors to her office, a command as sweet and impossible to refuse as a spoonful of honey.

"Now put your hands straight up over your head. Stretch out, come on. Now stand up on your toes. Now hold your breath." She stood there behind her desk, not much over five feet tall, holding her arms up in the air, holding her breath. A count of about five went by. She exhaled and gave a little scream to air out her lungs. Do that six times a day and you'll keep your muscles toned and your breathing strong, she said.

She said a doctor examined her recently and said she had strong joints and magnificent circulation. "He thought I was 75," she said, explaining that exercise and eating well keep her strong. "I eat everything, but I don't eat much. No fried foods, no irritants. I don't drink and I don't smoke."

Cruces has been a quiet pioneer in a culture that has long expected women to stay home and raise children, especially in the era when she was young. She never married, which is unusual for Mexican women even today. "The right buyer never came along," she said with a playful laugh. She was once courted by a man who had six children from a previous marriage. She said she told him that marrying into such a situation "seemed like a lot of work for very little salary."

She said she was inspired by her mother, who raised nine children by herself. Cruces said her father died of a heart attack three months before she was born. "My mother taught us to have respect, she taught us that we had value, and she taught us to be free," she said.

When Cruces moved from her home town, Guanajuato, to Mexico City in the early 1920s, she taught and worked as a reporter, and she helped start a small newspaper. She studied literature, history and Greek at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a prestigious school that was then largely male. She also earned a degree in biology at a teachers college. She said she still considers herself a student, filling her afternoons with reading and learning.

She and a brother founded one of Mexico's first evening adult education schools for workers. And in 1947 she decided that there was a need for a new public elementary school in the working-class Portales neighborhood.

She started conducting classes in an old warehouse where the ceilings were falling and the doors and windows were smashed. She began a campaign to build a new school, collecting donations in markets and asking children to bring in bricks every Monday. Three years later, President Miguel Aleman came to inaugurate the new school.

"He gave me the keys to the building," Cruces said, sitting in her small office in the original section of the school, which has been expanded into a bright, cheerful elementary school with computers, 15 teachers and 450 students in blue and white uniforms.

Maria de la Luz Ramirez, Cruces's assistant, said Cruces is an active principal who leads all discussions about curriculum and other issues. She said that although she leaves the day-to-day paperwork to others -- she doesn't have a computer or an e-mail account -- she is "a very enterprising leader."

"She's always saying, 'Let's do this, let's do that,' " Ramirez said.

When Cruces turned 50, she began traveling the world. She has wandered the souks of the Middle East and the streets of Bethlehem. She has seen sunrises in the Ivory Coast and sunsets in Norway. She visited Moscow when it was the capital of the Soviet Union, and she remembers angering a woman by giving a dog some meatballs, a tourist treat not available to many hungry Soviets. She toured Germany just before the Berlin Wall came down.

"I've seen a lot of changes," she said.

Cruces said she also has seen a breakdown of families over the years, a weakening of respect and honesty in society in general. Her response has been to cling to her core beliefs about teaching children: "I never scold them. I never hit them. I always ask them to think. Children respond when you talk to them, when you keep your promises and when you respect them as human beings."

She said she has been pressured to retire by some in the Education Ministry and the teachers union who want to move a younger person into her job. But she has refused because, "We have the freedom to choose -- if not, we wouldn't be free."

Javier Macias Garcia, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, said there is no mandatory retirement age, but that most teachers retire when they reach 30 years of service. He said that although Cruces is 101 years old, "there's no reason to force her to retire.

"She's incredibly lucid, very patient with the children and obviously has lots of experience," he said.

Both the Education Ministry and the teachers union verified that Cruces is 101.

Cruces said she can't imagine leaving a job that has given her so much joy: "It has filled me with satisfaction to have achieved what I have, to see people who have studied well and are useful to society. The important thing for me is to do what I have always done, with pleasure and without complaints."

© 2004