Forty-Four Dollars and Some Schools

— Silvia Labastida is nervous. Two thousand of Tijuana's poorest children surround her, cheering the mayor of Tijuana. For three months she has helped organize this day. She holds on to a young girl in a flowery hat, waiting to lead her forward when her name is called.

"Tijuana! Tijuana!" The uniformed band sings out the city song. Kids from the colonias, many of them recent arrivals from central Mexico, look up wide-eyed. "We are one city!" shouts Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, the mayor of Tijuana. "The government and the people are one!" His words blast out through loudspeakers. The children and their parents and their grandparents try to catch a glimpse of the most important man in town -- except he's not a tall, imposing ganadero like presidential candidate Vicente Fox. Vega is short, with an amiable, moonish face, prematurely gray hair, and metal-rimmed glasses.

But once he gets to the microphone, his physical presentation is not a problem. "You have the right to study!" He punches his words into the mike. "...to go to elementary school, to secondary school, up to further education to earn professional and technical degrees. You have the right!" This sentiment resonates with parents whose lives are consumed with finding materials for their shack houses, finding any sort of job, finding blankets for cold nights. The thought that this alcalde (mayor) wants their kids to have better jobs -- maybe even doctors or teachers -- reminds them why they uprooted and migrated north. The covered plaza inside the Palacio Municipal (city hall) erupts into cheers and claps.

The 16th government of Tijuana will give 400 pesos (about $44) to these parents for each child. The money will help them pay for clothes, shoes, bus rides to school, books, and equipment. It's not much, but the two or three times a year they hand it out, it can make the difference between kids getting to school or not. The government also gives "educational packs" to each child -- items like pencils, crayons, and paper.

Vega booms out the final words in his speech. As the applause dies down, Silvia leans over the young girl in the big hat. "Now!" Labastida whispers. The girl walks up the steps toward the glass table, where seven dignitaries sit. She's gangly yet confident, perhaps because the children in the crowd are cheering her on.

At the center of the table she stops and turns to the mayor. Vega reaches down and produces a huge Styrofoam-backed cardboard check similar to the ones lottery-winners receive. The amount $115,200 is written in large numbers. That's pesos -- $12,000 U.S. "This is money for Marlene," Labastida explains. "All these poor children have been selling See's Candies in their barrios, collecting money for her. Marlene has cancer in her liver. She needs a transplant. It is going to cost $350,000 U.S. This is the only way we could think of raising money for her." Now other kids file up onstage to receive million-peso (about $105,000) checks. But these are only symbolic of the amount the city will split among 2000 of them today.

After more stirring music, the ceremony ends and the children bust out, filling the stairs and corridors that line the patio on three levels. "This is the people's palace," says Labastida. "It's okay."

Ten minutes later Labastida's in her office, the social welfare and government grants department on the second level. The offices are filled with families looking for their $44 checks. Labastida's busy getting checks and educational gift packs out to the dozens of milling families. Yet she and her boss, Lorena Tortolero Arámburo, aren't fazed. They cruise through the crowds of people, their arms stuffed with packets.

"We have been running this program seven years," Labastida says later. "Local schoolteachers help us find kids with problems. Kids without money, who don't have a mother, who don't have a father, who live with their grandparents; kids who have houses with nothing in them. Now there are 2523 children on our list, including the disabled and the extremely poor. If they don't have shoes, we talk to the teachers, and we go to the house to see. We visit the colonias every month and dispense food: beans, sugar, oil, milk, vegetable oil, coffee, flour, pastas, cookies, tuna, tomato purée, hot cereal. There is such tremendous poverty. In one of the Mixteco schools they still have deep-hole toilets. They don't have light, they don't have water...."

Labastida and Tortolero are determined that all children will be schooled -- despite Tijuana's exploding immigrant population. "Here in Tijuana we have to build, each year, around 100 classrooms," says professor Carlo Franco Pedroza, delegate of the state's education system in Tijuana. "That's 20 new schools every year. Why? Because we have had a lot of climatological problems in other states in the middle of the Mexican Republic. So more people are coming up here to Tijuana than usual. It's really overflowing. The demand for places in schools in the last four years has averaged a growth of 4.6 percent. But last year it was up to 7 percent. This year we expect we will have to build at least 100 classrooms again, probably more."

According to Franco, Tijuana is the third-fastest-growing area, after Mexico City and Cancún, in need of new schools. Mexico City's willingness to give more control over education policy to Baja California helps them keep pace. "Here in Tijuana in basic education -- kindergarten, primary, junior high school -- 264,000 children are attending school; in the whole state of Baja California, 530,000. Half the student population is concentrated in Tijuana. At the elementary level, we are managing to accommodate 100 percent of those children wanting to enter school," Franco says. "Our aim for this year and next year is to serve all children through junior high school level. They should all be able to graduate from primary school to secondary."

The problem is paying for it. "Around 50 percent of the money comes from the federal government. The other half comes from [the state]. Baja is one of the states investing the most in education in the whole country. Sixty-one percent of the state's total budget goes to education. Seven billion pesos [$700 million]. And it's not enough! It doesn't keep up with [our needs]. Here in Tijuana I have a big lag in school construction."

Franco complains that the federal government doesn't recognize Baja California's burden: that they are absorbing the economic plight of refugees coming north. "Baja California is servicing the added demand, but [the federal government] doesn't send additional money to cope with this," he says.

So authorities are looking locally to stretch their federal dollars. "This year we are developing a classroom model that is more economical than our standard design. We're using materials that are similar to what you use [in the U.S.]. It's wood with finishings of cement outside and inside. It's lighter than cement blocks and cheaper. A cement-block classroom currently costs us 220,000 pesos [about $23,000]. The new design will cost around 130,000 pesos [$13,500]. With the money we save, we're going to just about double the number of classrooms we can build."

This local initiative is possible because of a National Accord for the Modernization of Education, which the national government approved in 1993. The accord passed responsibility for school administration to the individual states -- though the control of syllabus and programs stayed in the federal government's hands.

But the National Action Party-dominated Baja California wants even more say in running its schools, says Franco. His mission in Tijuana is to unite the previously separate federal, state, and local school systems under one state organization. "It's a more efficient use of funds," he says, though he admits eliminating the duplication of jobs is "tough in human terms." But the result is that teachers and administrators don't have to take their problems to Mexico City or Mexicali for resolution. "We can resolve them right here in Tijuana," says Franco.

And they can take initiative, as Vega de Lamadrid did last year when he set up Tijuana's first program to help disabled children get an education. Franco now wants Mexico City to let Baja create its own syllabus.

"The majority of new students in Tijuana are immigrants coming from other states. They don't know Baja California. We want them to know the state they're living in. We're teaching them our history and geography and ecology. We also have started classes for the parents, so they can involve themselves in the education of their children. That's booming! We have also established an accident-insurance program for Tijuana pupils, as a pilot. Each of the children pays 11 pesos a year [just over $1]. I think it's the first program in the whole country. And this will benefit the poorest."

Maybe the biggest boon for poor secondary-school pupils will be getting assistance in buying textbooks. Franco's department has allotted 20 million pesos (just over $2 million) -- 90 percent of it state money -- to pay for books. "That will pay 60 percent of the cost of school textbooks," says Franco. "Next year it will be 100 percent."

For one person at the city hall today, there might not be a next year. The crowds of moms and dads have gone, but Marlene Camacho Verduzco is still sitting in Silvia Labastida's cubicle. Now that she's taken her hat off, the change in Marlene's appearance is shocking. She's lost most of her hair to chemotherapy. She and her mother and brother sit in silence, waiting to talk to Labastida again. Marlene says she still hopes to get her liver transplant in San Diego. But down here in Tijuana, she says, she's not getting the money quickly enough.

The giant check that Mayor Vega presented her, the one made possible by 2000 poor kids, sits against the wall. Marlene's ten-year-old brother Rolando looks up at the big writing: $12,000 is a lot of candy sold. He says it's "great," but he doesn't smile. He knows it won't save his sister.

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