The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A10

Learning in Their Native Tongue

Mexican Cities Join Experiment in Bilingual Education

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service

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 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