The Francisco Villa Public School is a big, cement block of a fortress in an eastern Tijuana neighborhood just south of the Mexico-U.S. border.
Many of the nearby houses are patched together out of discarded materials, like old garage doors. The roads are unpaved and deeply rutted.
The school bell pierces the dusty air as girls in pink jumpers and boys in navy sweaters stream out of class. For 45 middle school students here who were born in the United States, the sound of the bell is one of the few things that is familiar.
Kimberly and Michelle Vera Soto are among them.
“There are teachers that don’t explain the assignment that they leave and that makes it hard,” says Kimberly, who is tall and thin and constantly pushes her long bangs from her eyes.
“And the kids aren’t respectful here. They say a lot of bad words. The teacher says you won’t have recess, instead of talking to the moms,” says Michelle, who is about a foot shorter and wears glasses.
Their classmate Denise Sandoval says she hates waking up early for school only to discover the teacher didn’t show up “because they are sick and we don’t have substitutes.”
All three girls moved from California to Tijuana a few years ago when their fathers lost their jobs in the recession.
Sandoval says when she first arrived, her classmates called her “stuck up” for speaking English. The Soto girls didn’t speak much Spanish.
And science teacher Ana Laura Ortega doesn’t speak much English, though 20 of her students are from the United States. Sometimes they use gestures to communicate, or track down the English teacher to serve as an interpreter.
A Large Migration In Recent Years
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 300,000 U.S.-born children moved to Mexico between 2005 and 2010. They automatically became U.S. citizens by being born in the U.S., which gives them the option of returning in the future.
For now, some have landed in the Mexican state of Baja California. There are schools that won’t even accept the kids, even though it’s illegal to turn them away.
School officials know that accepting the U.S.-born kids can mean extra work, and schools are already overburdened. They have no programs in place to help these kids learn Spanish.
Yara Lopez runs the Baja California Education Department’s office that helps migrant students. It’s a one-woman shop.
“The challenge for these kids is that they’re Mexican but they don’t feel Mexican,” says Lopez. “They don’t know Mexico. And they don’t know what awaits them in Mexico.”
Teachers sometimes don’t realize that they have U.S.-born students in their classes.
“They look just like the other students and have Mexican surnames,” says Lopez, adding that she has watched many capable kids fall behind and some drop out.
Lopez has helped launch an afterschool program designed to help the kids develop a life in both countries.
The afterschool class, funded by the San Diego-based International Community Foundation, meets three times a week.
The teacher, Myrna Zuñiga, runs the students through a writing exercise to describe their feelings about studying in Tijuana.
The goal is to help students adjust to the culture shock of moving to Mexico, learn Spanish and prepare them to go back to the U.S., if they want.
Many students are crushed to be in Tijuana, and even with this program, half of those who started this fall have already dropped out. Zuñiga tells those that remain not to give up.
“It doesn’t mean you’re not going to be anyone or anything and that life is over. To the contrary, I tell them they have an advantage,” she says.
Zuñiga says that when they grow up, they can go to the U.S., to study, to work, to live and they don’t have to hide.