Education in Mexico

Gaby and Carlos


One of the most fascinating things about living here, from my perspective as a well-educated, well-fed, and reasonably well-off American expatriate, is how Mexicans are reacting to the unrelenting images, marketing, and pressures of their powerful neighbors to the north. And we are a huge part of that influence, particularly here in Chapala, where there is such a large American and Canadian expat population. Many people who live here have nothing more to do with their maids and gardeners than to give them direction and pay them every week. But we have somehow become more and more involved with my maid’s family, with each passing year.  As a result of hours and hours of conversation with them, suggestions and financial assistance for various and sundry, they are beginning to see that the key to any kind of financial or “career” options for Mexicans is education, education, education. And it is in no small measure because at least some of us expats keep hammering away at them about it. Over and over again. Don’t drop out. Don’t let your kids drop out. Yes, there are scholarships out there, we have heard about them. Don’t get pregnant at fifteen. Don’t get married too young. The government here offers free birth control. Don’t be afraid to ask for it; don’t be afraid to ask for information.

Our ever-increasing involvement started years ago with eleven-year-old Sofia, who asked me for help in sending her to Secundaria (Middle School) because she desperately wanted to stay in school and her mom (Rosa) probably wasn’t going to be able to afford it. Even though school is “free”, there are expenses for books, uniforms, bus fare, and so forth, which many families just can’t manage. She invited Arnold and me to come to her graduation from Primaria and the ceremony itself was a charming glimpse into Mexican life that we never would have had otherwise, and we were smitten as Sofi received many awards and certificates of merit; we agreed this kid really was serious about school and we made the commitment to her and to Rosa that we would make sure she got the education she was hoping for. Six years later, Sofi is heading into her senior year at one of the best private high schools in the region – supported by us, another American couple who love her as well, and a scholarship from the school. She has learned about things like doing a student exchange to Europe, and is thinking about taking a year “off” to travel and see a bit of the world, and then going on to medical school. Arnold and I are both looking at each other and saying “we better batten down the hatches” – because most likely we will have to pay for a lot of it and help her find financial aid as well. We love the kid, although It’s a good thing I am not on Dr. Atkins any more because there may well be lots of tortillas and beans in our future!

Sofia has two older sisters whose example she has studied carefully: the oldest one dropped out of secondary school to run off with her boyfriend, and now she has two kids and helps her mom cleaning our house and also works as a maid for another American family. The middle daughter, Gaby, who was a very good student in high school, also managed to get herself pregnant and dropped out just before graduation. This despite an offer from friends of ours who were very fond of her, to pay her way through culinary academy, as she had then expressed a great interest in becoming a chef. Of course her getting pregnant ended all of that; our friends moved back to the States, and there was teenage Gaby, with this little baby and no possible means of supporting herself and her child except to move back in with her mother and try to find some work cleaning houses.

Although it is slowly changing, unlike in the U.S. where there is always a night school, online option, or a G.E.D. program somewhere, here once you drop out of school you are pretty much done for as far as finishing school is concerned. You can’t go back easily, which was very sad for Gaby because she was so close to finishing high school. When she realized the error of her ways, she made several futile attempts to get back into a preparatory school somewhere nearby where she could finish that last term and graduate, But there was no space anywhere for a “returning” student – even as it is the public schools are horribly overcrowded with forty five or fifty kids in most high school classes with school facilities being utilized to the max with both morning and afternoon double sessions to include twice the number of eligible younger kids. So, no luck.

I was able to recommend her to a good friend of mine and she has turned out to be a pretty good maid, very responsible and detail-oriented. Of course the boy’s father immediately took off with another girl, and Gaby decided she really didn’t want her son to have anything to do with him because every time he saw his father he came back miserably unhappy and complained about the fact that he didn’t like him, that on his visits he was pretty much ignored. He much prefers Arnold, who he calls his “Tatito”, and me, who he calls his “Maci”. Who knows why, but those are our titles and we happily accept them. It’s his way of placing us in his universe; he knows perfectly well that we aren’t really his aunt and uncle, and “Tio” and “Tia” are what the other kids in the family call us.  But we are fixtures in his life, going to his school and dance functions, and he seems to adore both of us.

Then, Gaby decided that her best path forward after this adventure was to focus all her efforts on bringing up her son the best way she could. The government social service agency in our village offered a free parenting class; she signed up, took the class, and is very proud of her certificate of completion. She learned how to discipline a child without hitting him, how to do “time outs”, and all sorts of other useful parenting hints and somewhere along the line she learned that for boys, particularly, pre-school was very important; that it would socialize a kid and prepare him for primary school, giving him a much better chance of success, as he would get there already knowing how to behave in a classroom, reading and writing and knowing basic math. Rosa, Gaby’s mother, who says she loved school, barely got through the second grade before she was forced to drop out because her parents had no money for books or shoes and besides, what did a girl need an education for?

But Gaby had already begun to think differently about what she wanted to do for Carlos and once he turned three, she enlisted her older sister Mirella in a series of visits to every pre-school in the Lake Chapala area, visiting them all in a series of long bus rides, to try to find the one she thought would be the best place for Carlos. I heard the reports about these schools as they went to them, one by one, sometimes with their mom Rosa, sometimes on their own. This one had too many kids, the classes were too large. That one had filthy restrooms. In this one the kids were totally wild. In that one the reputation was that they hit kids. In this one the teachers seemed too distracted. And on it went until they discovered the Montessori pre-school in Chapala which was “just right”.

Of course this school is full of children from much wealthier families and was more expensive than the others; but I encouraged Gaby to go to the administration, be honest with them and tell them she cleaned houses for a living and lived with her parents, but more than anything she wanted a good education for her son. Off to Montessori Carlos went! Arnold and I have ended up helping her with the tuition, plus she did get a discount from the school. He has turned out to be one of the brightest and most popular kids there. He loves learning English, he’s working on his multiplication tables, he loves to read. We have all begun to realize that he is very intelligent. Arnold has kind of taken him under his wing – a) he’s a boy and b) like Arnold, even as a very young child he has no use for sports, much preferring to be in arts-related classes, his after-school dance activities, reading and studying. Hmmmm. We know we are getting sucked into helping Gaby keep him in good schools, but he is turning out to be such a delightful little kid that it’s a pleasure.

A few weeks ago Gaby invited us to come to his school’s Spring Festival (Primavera) which is a big deal for little kids in Mexico. At almost every school, no matter how basic or poor, moms make or purchase costumes, and the kids dress up as birds, bees, butterflies, ladybugs, you name it, and learn dances and songs all about nature and the spring. They do a presentation for friends and relatives followed by (of course) cake and a giant potluck with tacos, tamales, and various casseroles, and everyone has a great time. The kids are (naturally) adorable. I shot a bit of video of the Chapala Montessori School’s primavera festival and if you would like to have a respite from imagining how we are fighting off the narcos here, take a look and see how these kids are trying to learn English.

Later this summer, Carlos will be graduating from Montessori and ready to move on to “real” primary school as a first-grader. Arnold and I spent hours mulling over this child’s probable fate if he were to go to public school in San Antonio Tlayacapan, where he (and we, now) lives. Forty kids to a class. Hardly any books, no school library. No extracurricular activities. Stressed teachers. Early exposure to drugs and god knows what else. After Montessori pre-school, an almost-certain disaster, we felt. Meanwhile, Gaby and Mirella headed off on their next search for a good school and found a very nice, old, established private school very close to where they all live, and once Gaby saw that school, she decided that come hell or high water, he wasn’t going to public school, he was going there. But she is already working seven days a week and there isn’t much more she can earn than what she is earning. Of course we have offered to help.