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 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."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company