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New York Struggles to Educate Indigenous Mexican Immigrants

Posted: Jan 05, 2012

MÉRIDA, Mexico – Critics of Mexico have, for more than seven decades, complained that the Mexican government has not done enough to provide education to its indigenous peoples, leaving them to languish in poverty.

Across the political spectrum – from U.S. liberals who lament the failure of Mexican officials to guarantee school instruction in every remote village, to conservatives who decry the failure of Mexico to take care of its people as the primary driving force behind illegal immigration – Mexico has been roundly criticized for its shortcomings.

"The indigenous population is at a disadvantage, principally in the areas of health and education. And in both these areas, the inequality of achievement within this population group is higher than what is observed in the non-indigenous population," the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported in October 2010, expressing a consistent lament from those outside Mexico.

Mexican officials, for their part, have argued that in a perfect world there would be unlimited funding for education, but the real cause for the lagging educational achievement levels of indigenous peoples – who speak a native language at home, such as Mixtec or Zapotec -- arises not from lack of schools and teachers, but from cultural traditions that discourage pursuing education.

Dropout rates in New York City, where indigenous peoples have accounted in large measure for the five-fold increase in the Mexican-born population there since 1980, would suggest these officials may be more correct than many are willing to concede.

While precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, figures from the Instituto Nacional de Estatisdica y Geografia (INEGI) in Mexico and the Mexican Consulate in New York show that upwards of 250,000 of the city’s 320,000 strong Mexican-born population is of indigenous origin.

“We are staunching an educational hemorrhage, but only partially,” Robert C. Smith, a sociology professor at the City University of New York who studies the Mexican immigrant population, told the New York Times in November 2011.

The hemorrhage to which he refers is this stunning figure: 41 percent. That’s the percentage of Mexican-born students in New York City that drop out of high school. No other major immigrant group has a dropout rate higher than 20 percent, and the overall rate for the city is less than 9 percent, statistics show.

“This crisis endures at the college level,” Kirk Semple reported in the New York Times. “Among Mexican immigrants 19 to 23 who do not have a college degree, only 6 percent are enrolled. That is a fraction of the rates among other major immigrant groups and the native-born population.”

The figures cited, released by the Census Bureau in the fall of 2011, confirmed what many educators in New York’s public schools already suspected: Mexican-born students of indigenous parents are dropping out of public school in numbers not seen in the United States in more than a century.

There is no pleasure in this I-told-you-so moment, Mexican officials point out.

In December 2011, Jorge Castañeda, former Minister of Foreign Relations who is now a professor at New York University, made headlines in Mexico when he wrote an editorial lamenting how “history” is repeating itself.

What is the root cause, Castañeda wondered, behind the fact that “the educational level of Mexicans in the largest city in the United States is significantly inferior to those of other immigrant groups from Latin America?”

Indeed, New York City -- with the most sophisticated, diverse and extensive public education system in the United States -- is facing a “crisis” as it realizes that, because of its inability to educate indigenous Mexican immigrants, it is creating a “permanent” underclass destined to lives of hardship and poverty.

Mexican officials at Mexico’s Consulate in New York have reached out to city officials and advocacy groups in an effort to prevent children of Mexican indigenous peoples now living in New York from dropping out of school, with limited success.

What critics have long neglected to point out are the cultural origins of this antipathy toward education. In the 1920s, D. H. Lawrence could barely contain his contempt for the indifference Mexico’s First People had for education. In Mornings in Mexico, published in 1927, he railed against what he saw as a willful ignorance the indigenous peoples seemed to embrace.

Half a century later, Raquel Romero, who spent considerable effort working to provide education to indigenous women, lamented, “It is almost entirely impossible to convince them of the value of pursuing an education. And when you do, they seldom have the discipline to finish school. It breaks your heart.”

Today, it is Americans who are expressing similar frustration, even in areas far removed from New York, such as Denison, Iowa.

After experiencing an influx of indigenous immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the town sponsored classes to teach these new residents English. Soon after the program was launched, as noted journalist Dale Maharidge writes, “[a] revelation was that many of the adults were either illiterate or only marginally literate in Spanish. These were not cosmopolitan light-skinned urbanites from Mexico City or other major Latin metropolises. They were campesinos, meaning peasants, or country people.”

Indigenous people from Mexico who have migrated to New York have demonstrated tremendous ingenuity and dedication: They have come from the mountains of Oaxaca, Puebla and Chiapas, across valleys and through deserts, facing armed conflict between the Mexican army and drug cartels, crossed a semi-militarized border, and then negotiated their way thousands of miles in a foreign land. They have found jobs, and are making lives for themselves and their families.

All of which makes their woeful lack of educational attainment even more of a mystery.

“Ser bilingüe abre las puertas al éxito,” meaning, “Being bilingual opens the doors to success,” is plastered on the New York’s subway cars, part of a recruitment campaign by the city’s Board of Education.

The ad may be tacit acknowledgement that as the number of Mexicans in New York grows – it is expected to surpass 1 million by 2020 –the Big Apple could become a city where its fastest-growing community will never speak English.

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