Tijuana can thank the Spanish Civil War for one of the finest high schools In Mexico

President Cardenas closed down the casino at Aqua Caliente and invited refugees to teach

"OASIS AND PALACE," gushed Vogue in 1930. "A place where blossom and brilliance have been coaxed from sterile desert as though by super-human witchery. Lavish green gardens, dazzling white walls, and acres of red tile roof.... [It's] a dazzling dream-like city in miniature. Perhaps it's a mirage... ."

While perhaps dazzling, miragelike, or illusory, about Agua Caliente, the "Deauville of America," was its longevity. Only two years old in the summer of 1930, the $10 million gaming resort celebrated its birthday, the Evening Tribune noted, "with 600 guests and stockholders... in a ballroom filled with flowers and sparkling with all the rainbow colors of a fiesta."

It was a formal affair, a “dinner dansant," at which Cesar and Mimi, “noted ballroom dancers of Agua

Caliente presented a brand new number especially created for the occasion.” Later,

“Little Jean Braezeal, charming winner of many children's beauty contests, arrived on the scene encased in a huge red lighted candle that typified the first year of Agua Caliente's existence. Next to it, both mounted on a gigantic birthday cake, six feet in diameter, was another larger candle, but unlighted. When little Jean emerged from her hiding place in the candle, dressed in a cute Spanish dancing costume, and lighted the other candle, she was greeted with a storm of cheers. These increased when she went into a barefoot dance....”

The old resort pool

The old resort pool

However. Five years and one month after charming little Jean leapt from her red candle disguise and burst into her barefoot dance, the “dazzling fiesta” that was Agua Caliente spa and casino was over. The roulette wheels stopped, the Chuck-a-Lucks quit their chuck-a-lucking. The boys down from Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth to seek excitement at the gaming tables, to “see a little of life,” as Vogue put it, vanished. (“Youth and innocence,” sighed Vogue over these boys, “at the heart of sophistication are not such an infrequent combination, but always the more poignant.”) The many smart women, fingers and wrists heavily diamonded, who preferred blackjack, disappeared. Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, in a bold move that astonished two nations, banned all gambling in Mexico. The resort’s 5000 employees were suddenly jobless. Within days of the ban, Agua Caliente’s vast food storerooms and refrigerators were emptied, their contents — thousands of dollars’ worth of fine meats, choice vegetables, and other perishables — were distributed to the needy. Mimi and Cesar, Caliente’s noted ballroom dancers, packed up their costumes and left.

school courtyard

school courtyard

President Cárdenas’s move was a provocative one. There was talk in Tijuana of blockading the border in protest. Labor unions held mass meetings. There were even rumors that Border Light & Power Co., of which Caliente was a major client, would shut down as a result of the casino’s closure. Cardenas was called a radical. Anything, it seemed, could happen. And a few years later, it did.

Between 1935 and 1938, Cardenas appropriated the casino and turned it into a junior high school. As if that weren’t enough, he sent Spanish intellectuals, Spanish Civil War refugees he had invited to Mexico City, to Tijuana to teach at Agua Caliente. And in the mid-‘40s he asked them to develop it further to include a high school. Cárdenas had given these refugees work, food, and shelter. In return they developed at Agua Caliente a strong curriculum of science, math, literature, history, of even Latin and Greek.

“Of course, the Spaniards were all gone by the time I got here,” says Maria Romero, vice-principal of the junior and senior high institution that now bears the old president’s name. “I started teaching here in 1974. But you could almost say that we have Franco to thank for establishing the fine academic tradition of our school. Preparatoria Lázaro Cárdenas is one of the four best high schools in all of Mexico.

Maria Romero

Maria Romero

From Romero’s small, tidy second-floor office, outfitted with a desk, a few chairs, cardboard boxes filled with exams waiting for correction, and, balanced precariously on a bookcase, a brand new computer (“I just got it and, believe me, I don’t know how to use it!”), you can almost see the top of Cárdenas’s head. A hefty bust of the president gazes at the entrance to the school’s administration building. His solemn iron eyes are one of the few traces left of the location’s scandalous past.

Almost nothing remains of the resort. The tall white minaret still stands in the school’s cobblestone parking lot. Not far from it sits a squat circular structure of white plaster, with a wooden trim, that could have been anything, perhaps a guardhouse, that now houses a dusty pile of old school chairs. A sturdy statue of Cardenas, 15 feet tall, presides over the parking lot where students zip around in flashy Japanese compacts plastered with Guns n’ Roses and 91X bumper stickers. But the most magnificent relic is the casino’s empty swimming pool, large and deep, inlaid with lush green tiles. Rainwater gathers at its far end; some kids have spray painted their names across the tiles. On warm days boys play touch football on its bottom. The Turkish baths in which Charlie Chaplin cavorted are gone. The lush rooms, with their exotic black tile baths and nickel fixtures, where Rita Hayworth’s father allegedly raped her, have been replaced with spartan classrooms.

“’Til you’ve seen Agua Caliente, you have just grown up in ignorance,” Will Rogers said of the resort. And, of course, he was referring to its worldly sophistication. But it’s odd how the place itself, despite its radical heritage, has maintained a close association with prestige, with wealth and privilege. Maria Romero estimates that 80 percent of her 1000 students come from upper-middle or upper-class homes. To look at them, however, as they mill around the courtyards and cafeteria, it’s difficult for an American to discern clues of affluence in their clothing. The students are sober and orderly, dressed in jeans, letterman’s jackets, nylon parkas, tennis shoes. Most are clustered in groups of seven or eight. There are very few isolated “couples”: a boy in a large black Raiders jacket embraces a girl in a blue- and-white Pendleton; they modestly smooch in relative privacy beside the large, empty pool.

Lunch time

Lunch time

Academic vice principal Romero, a pert woman who radiates a kind of zesty efficiency, laughs when asked about her students' dating habits.

“Sure, we have boyfriends and girlfriends, but it’s not like in the United States. The kids here tend to date in groups, to go out in groups. Mexico is still a very conservative country, although we’re not isolated. More and more we’re influenced, for better and worse, by the United States. By your culture. By things the kids watch on TV. But still, our problems are nothing compared to yours. I was very interested to hear President Clinton address the issue of teen pregnancy in public. Something like that could never happen in Mexico, to have a president talk openly about such a private matter. I imagine it was something like our situation in Chiapas — the government knew for years what was happening but thought that as long as they didn’t talk about it, the problem might go away. Of course, it didn’t.

“I remember in 1974 when our schools began introducing a little bit of sex education, in a very mild manner, there was a textbook for third graders that showed a mother cat with kittens in her womb. This caused a great scandal! Then there was this book for sixth graders that showed a little boy and a little girl in their underpants. This caused another great scandal. Parents wanted to ban these books because of these pictures. Now, of course, we can speak a little more openly about these matters. But as I said, our problems are not the same as yours.

“For example, two years ago we were visited by school counselors from Vista High, a school we’ve had a lot of exchange with. One of the counselors asked me, ‘Señora Romero, do you have problems with gangs?' I said, ‘No.’ ‘Can the children wear whatever color of clothing they want?’ I answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have any guards at the school? Where are they?’ I said, ‘In the parking lot.’ ‘Don’t they walk around in the school?’ I said no. ‘Well,’ she asked again, ‘don’t you have any problem with gangs?’ I told her, ‘No. We don’t have any problems with gangs. We don’t have those sorts of problems. From time to time we have young men who write things on the walls with Magic Markers, and you should see us chase them around the school to get those markers away from them, because we have to paint the school ourselves. We have to come up with the money for the paint and do it ourselves. It’s so much work and effort that we’re pretty careful about these young men. But the graffiti that you see every now and then on the walls is about the extent of our problems.’

“Next she asked me, ‘What do you do about teen pregnancy?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ ‘What do you do with pregnant girls?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ She looked surprised. ‘Don’t you say anything to these girls about their pregnancy?’ I said, ‘No. Nothing.’ She asked, ‘Well, don’t you have any special programs for pregnant students?’ And I said, ‘No. Nothing.’ And she asked, ‘Well, how many teen pregnancies do you deal with?’ And I answered, ‘Maybe one every two or three years.’ ”

With that, Romero slaps the table and laughs. “So, you see, our problems are different from yours. Of course, our student population is very different. Our students want to be here. Only about 25 percent of Mexican teenagers go to what we call a preparatoria, what’s similar to your high school. The rest either go to a technical school or they work. For many poor families, sending a teenage child to high school is out of the question. That child is needed to work to help support the family. Our students come mostly from well-off families, and they’re expected to go on to university. And the reason that families which could afford to send their children to private schools send their children here is because Lázaro Cárdenas high school is a very prestigious name.

“Actually, this school really gained its reputation in the 1950s. You have to understand that before its creation, families in Tijuana didn’t really have any place to send their children for a good secondary education. People who could afford to sent their children to study in the United States. There was a good school in Hermosillo and another in Monterrey. There were entire boarding schools in Mexico City filled with students from Tijuana and Baja California. Others went to Guadalajara. But after junior high school, if you wanted to go to high school, you had to leave Tijuana. So our school was created to fulfill this need.

“The Spanish Republican teachers were very important in making it a good school. It quickly became well-known to the best universities in Mexico City and in Guadalajara. It was so well-known that when our students arrived at these universities, when the professors saw that they were from Agua Caliente high school, which they referred to it back then, the professors assumed our students would get top grades in their entrance exams.”

Romero’s pride in her school’s reputation is sincere. She has, she says, been teaching for almost 30 years. She was born and raised in Tijuana “back when it was a small town,” on First Street between H and J streets, near downtown. Her mother, who had come to Tijuana from a small southern Baja Californian town called El Triunfo, was a teacher and inspired Romero to be the same.

“My course of study was unusual. It doesn’t exist anymore; it all changed in the ’60s. But back in the early ’40s, Cárdenas realized that Mexico was in desperate need of teachers, that our country was in great need of education, so he created these institutes in which it was possible for anyone who had completed the sixth grade to train in order to teach first-grade students. Later these institutes were expanded to include master’s programs in education, and they were established all over the country. These courses were held on Saturdays, and we all more or less tried to teach each other. During the summer, teachers would come up from Mexico City to instruct us. They brought us everything we needed, all our study materials, and books! The very best books by the greatest writers in Mexico. So, as it happened, I finished junior high school and studied three more years at the federal master’s institution.

“I taught first through sixth grade for about eight years while I worked on my B.A. in social studies. Later, after I came here to teach social work, I received a scholarship to complete my master’s in education in England. But I was hired here to teach social work in 1974, and I was very nervous. I had taught young children for so long that I was apprehensive about teaching teenagers. But the students then were very hardworking — I’ll tell you more about that later.

“To an American it probably sounds strange to hear that I was teaching social work at a high school. You have to understand that that is how our program here works. We offer our high school students areas of specialization. We do this so they can see whether or not they’d like to work in a vocation, and so if they go on to university they’ll have a way to support themselves while they complete their educations. They can study social work, or how to be a medical or dental technician, or drafting, or electronics, or accounting, or computer science, or international commerce, which is our most recent program that has to do with import and export. It’s very important now with NAFTA. In this program we teach students everything they need to know about the laws and paperwork dealing with the importation and exportation of goods to and from Mexico. They learn how to test different kinds of merchandise to determine if they’ve passed American or Mexican quality standards. They learn, for example, about different kinds of foods and how quickly the paperwork for them must be processed because sometimes certain foods are preserved and others can’t wait.

“So, you understand, our educational aims are different from yours. You are an immigrant nation; you assimilate many different kinds of people from many different countries. You try in your schools a kind of social intervention. You try to change your society. Here in Mexico we try to change our society through our schools, but our emphasis is different. It’s more towards seeing education itself as a kind of progress, as something that will allow you to get a better job, better pay, a better way of life."

Outside Romero’s office, a steady rain has begun to fall. Students gather in doorways, others trot to the cafeteria for a snack or to talk with friends between classes. The cafeteria is simple by American standards, and smaller. The surroundings are so modest it’s difficult to imagine that most of the kids come from the homes of doctors, lawyers, businesspeople. It’s surprising to hear them, when asked, say matter-of-factly, “Yeah, most of us come from upper-class homes.”

It’s also surprising to hear how well acquainted they are, how aware they are, of the American high school system, of its differences from their own. Varela Yesenia, an 18-year-old senior who studies computer science and who hopes to someday be a TV journalist, has a neighbor who studied at a high school in El Cajon.

“It sounded so interesting to me. My neighbor told me how there were all these different nationalities at her high school. There were blacks, and Chinese, and Vietnamese, and white people. Here, naturally, we’re all Mexican. You don’t get to make friends with people from other countries.

“But,” Varela adds, eyebrows raised, “she also told me that at American schools there were drugs. Kids brought guns to school. Some kids attack the teachers. Well, we have those sorts of problems in Mexico. Like drugs. But not in school.”

Antonio Morales, a robust 17-year-old senior who’s also in the computer science program, agrees that American high schools have a reputation for scary freedom. “It seems American students have more liberty, but I don’t think they take good advantage of it.”

(Señora Romero was very clear on this point. “Before our students enter high school, we lecture them. We tell them, ‘You’re going to be responsible for how you use your time. You must learn to use it well. You’re free. But there’s a big difference between liberty and being a libertine!’ ”)

“It seems like a second home,” continues Antonio in his description of the American high school. “It’s more comfortable. You have lockers. You can leave your books there. You can hang out with your friends. And there’s more opportunity for participating in sports. I think I’m very lucky to go to this school, but in American high schools I think it’s easier to make friends. You meet more people because you change classes. Here we stay with the same people. The computer science students all attended the same classes, the drafting students attend their classes, and so on. It’s like we belong more to a specific program than to a school.”

Antonio hugs his three-ring binder to his chest while he talks, earnestly. He discusses his taste in music, “I love rap, all rap,” and explains that he plans to go on to study either digital electronics or astronomy, preferably at a university in San Diego. While Antonio talks, 17-year-old Jorge Lebrija makes his way into the cafeteria. Amid the vigorous adolescent chatterboxing and snacking, Jorge stands out as a kind of sophisticate. His clothes are baggy, his hair is close-cropped, he’s got a spiffy goatee, an earring, and a pair of Walkman earphones plugged into his head. Most significantly, his arm is draped about the waist of a very pretty girl with long, dark hair who wears a black vest and a pair of black, hip-hugging bell-bottoms.

Jorge is from Mexico City, as is, in his estimate, 25 percent of the school’s student population. Jorge listens to industrial music. The cassette in his Walkman is from a San Francisco industrial group called Tuxedomoon. Jorge’s parents are divorced. His mother lives in Tijuana, his father in the capital. He’s been in Tijuana for four years, and he says the kids at Lázaro Cárdenas from Mexico City don’t group together the way they did in junior high school. Blanca, his girlfriend of five months, was born and raised in Tijuana.

Jorge’s insights into his school should probably be considered in light of his being chilango, someone from Mexico City. The tension between chilango and Tijuanense has been so often debated and elucidated as to be mundane. For many years now, Tijuana has ceased being a sleepy, small, border town, so it’s hard to apprehend just why its native-born should complain of the bad “big-city manners" and “arrogance” and “pushiness” of its Mexico City immigrants. And it’s likewise difficult to appreciate just why chilangos bristle at Tijuanenses for being “uptight” and “proper” and “provincial.” But there it is. Jorge, mind you, made none of these complaints. He is, however, an outsider, the way a young Manhattanite would be an outsider at, say, Vista High School.

Jorge estimates that 10 percent of the students at his school use drugs — marijuana, cocaine — recreationally, and only occasionally. They might indulge at a party, but never at school. Only I percent, he guesses, would have what he would call a drug problem. More interestingly, Jorge surmises, and his girlfriend agrees, that 60 percent of their schoolmates are sexually active. When asked about this high percentage, and Señora Romero’s claims of almost nonexistent teen pregnancy, Jorge and Blanca see no contradiction. Blanca shrugs, “They use contraception."

While other students, when questioned, didn’t seem to see their fellow students as divided into specific groups, Jorge and Blanca did. Jorge contends that, as in America, kids at Lazaro Cardenas tend to group according to musical interests. Chewing on a limp slice of pizza, Jorge counts off groups he can recognize: students who like rock; students who like ranchero, or traditional Mexican music; rap; new wave; and industrial. Then, he adds, there are the grunge kids with the stringy hair and the Pendletons; and the “tough guys,” or the ones who wear the letterman’s jackets (“You know, like the Outsiders”); and what he calls the “pretend cholos," who, he says, “usually come to night school.”

Jorge and Blanca confer for a moment. Blanca looks at him. Pauses. Starts to say something. Then Jorge says, “There are also the racists.”

Racists? Racist against whom? Are there any blacks at the school?

“No, no. Of course not,” he says. “But there are people who look down on people who have darker-colored skin. You know, they’re fair skinned and they look down on mestizos. They’re very defensive. It’s a class thing.”

Blanca nods her head in sad agreement.

“But it’s not like in the United States,” Jorge adds. “It’s not like there are race gangs. These are just groups of people. I have two friends who go to high school in San Diego, so I’ve heard what it can be like there. Here things are peaceful. Here you can study in tranquility.”

Back in her office, Señora Romero, too, has the sense that despite the American high schools’ obvious advantages, she and her students are rather lucky.

“I think it’s sad when I hear of problems in the American education system. Sad because you have so many resources. When we go to visit Vista High School and we see all the materials in the classrooms, all the equipment. The supplies cupboards are all full. Here, we have one projector for the entire school! We walk into the laboratories at Vista High and we see the students making little molecular models with little balls — they have everything. Everything they need. I remember we saw one classroom that was also a laboratory, and the teacher showed the students how to do an experiment and the students, all 30 or 35 of them, went to their own workstations and did the experiment themselves. We have 50 to 55 students per classroom. I would be in heaven if we could have classes of only 45 students. Our classes are enormous.

“But we do well with the resources we have. We have sent students on to MIT in Boston. We have many graduates who have done very well: Alfredo Cárdenas, the dean of the University of Acapulco; Pedro Ochoa Palacio, the director of the Tijuana Cultural Center; Hector Osuna Jaime, the mayor of Tijuana; Amador Rodriguez Lozano and Jesus González Reyes are congressmen; Leonila Pichardo was a judge; Arturo Ochoa Palacio is the representative for the attorney general’s office to the state of Baja California; there are many more.

“These people, however, were graduated before 1982. I am not saying that we haven’t had, and still do not have, many good students, but something happened in 1982. I have spoken with many of my colleagues about this, about this year and why it was so important. First of all, there was a significant change in how we taught. Before 1982, the federal government decided what courses we had to teach, but how we taught them and how we structured them was left up to us, the teachers. We had great freedom for creativity.

“But there was a movement to standardize education in Mexico. Before 1982, the government said, there were more than a hundred different curricula in Mexico. If families moved, for example, from one state to another, their children would often have to retake classes or start their educations all over. Courses were different, credits were different. So the government decided to make everything uniform and to standardize requirements.

“There were some good points to this movement, and some bad points, and unfortunately most of the bad points had to do with the teachers. With the federal government supplying lesson plans, the teachers became lazy. It was as though they said to themselves, ‘Why do I have to think? I’ll just do my job.’ So the teachers fell into a nonproductive, noncreative, nonimaginative, and limiting rhythm of repetition. Now, after 11 years, this has all changed again. Now the government sends us 60 percent of lesson plans, and we create the rest ourselves. Now we are allowed to include topics to any given class as we see fit.

“Something else, however, happened in 1982 that was very important. For us, as a country, we were demoralized by Lopez Portillo’s government. He fought like a dog for the peso, and the next day the devaluation occurred. Along with our country’s downfall, our school here also declined. By 1985 I could really tell the change. As a school we had been very active in community work. Everyone, all the students were involved. We would go out to poor neighborhoods after heavy rains, for example, to help rebuild bridges that had washed out. Sometimes we would go to poor neighborhoods and help repair their schools, fix the roof for example, wash out the toilets, or help construct toilets where none had been available. We would go to these neighborhoods and organize sports teams, soccer teams, and our students would play with the neighborhood students.

“For the adults we also created educational programs. We would bring in doctors and psychologists to lecture them on subjects they were interested in. Many of our students prepared and presented similar seminars. There was a fabulous commitment to helping others. Not only did our students participate in these activities in the evenings after school, but they also worked on Saturdays and Sundays.

“Now you can’t get our students to do any of these things. You can’t make them do it. They’ll say, ‘I can’t go there. I’ll get my shoes dirty!’ Or they worry about missing programs on television. Contributing time on a Saturday or Sunday is out of the question. But from the time I arrived in here in 1974 until 1982, these activities were something that all the students at this school participated in.

“There has been an overall change in values. Before 1982, when we had a PTA meeting, so many parents came that we didn’t have any place to put them. We had to divide the parents into groups depending on what grade their child was in. Now when we have a meeting, we’re lucky if we get 80 parents. Eighty. Considering that we have over 1000 students, that’s not a very high number. The only time they seek us out is when their children aren’t doing well in school. Then they remember us. When the counselor calls, they’re not in. When there are PTA meetings, they won’t come because they’re too busy. But when their child starts to fail, they suddenly appear to complain, to argue that the teachers are not properly teaching their child. But where were they before?

“Also in Mexico, we now have many working mothers. Both parents have to work. And after school the children either attend an afternoon program or they are cared for by a nanny. There is less contact between parents and children, and in this way I think values are being lost. It is perhaps a combination of many things — the family, the government, television. Values are being lost.

“As an example, the most horrible thing happened last year. It had never happened before at this school. We had never, ever had a parent come to us and ask us not to fail a child. It was the most horrible thing. I had never imagined that a parent would come to us and ask such a thing. But last year, in June, the principal, who has been a good friend of mine for 30 years, came to me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe what just happened.’ A student’s father had come to him and asked that we not fail his son, that he be given the lowest passing grade. It was incredible. We couldn't believe it. It had never, never, never happened before."

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