San Diego The aging Chevy Blazer struggles to climb the grade into the Tijuana neighborhood of El Pípila, about ten miles southwest of downtown. Atop the hill, the dirty, potholed street wanders through one of the grittiest tracts in the city. Graffiti blankets the walls. Burglar bars hang on windows. Vacant lots are piled high with refuse. And packs of men in their late teens and early 20s stand on almost every street corner leering at cars passing by. It's ten minutes to 1:00 in the afternoon, the time when the morning session of school ends and the afternoon session starts, so the streets are flooded with students heading to and from school.
This barrio is the home -- though not the homeland -- of Mixtec Indians from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, particularly from the pueblo of San Jeronimo, where a language known as mixteco is spoken. Since 1982, the language has been taught to the children of immigrants from San Jeronimo at José Vasconcelos Elementary School here in El Pípila.
The school sits at the north end of the barrio, just before the land drops away. From the spartan schoolyard of dirt and crumbling concrete, the students could enjoy a broad view to the northeast out over the city of Tijuana. But in the waning moments before the bell calls them to class, the students are too engrossed in a soccer match to notice the view. As the game rages, Felícitas López Mejía, a Mixtec teacher at the school, sits at a metal desk in a bare concrete-floored classroom adjacent to the playground. She's a round-faced woman in her 40s dressed in a black pants suit. When she smiles, her dark eyes glimmer from beneath the brim of her black knit hat.
The block walls of the classroom are painted sky blue. A rusty steel grate, bolted to the outside of the streetside window, filters the afternoon sunlight, which is just starting to pour in. As the bell rings and students pile into the room, López explains, "There are 56 different languages that exist in the country. And the federal government decided in the 1970s that all of them should be considered, should be honored among the people who speak them."
As part of that decision, Mexico's federal government set up what López calls "a special program," whereby teachers would be trained to teach native languages in the public schools attended by the people who speak them. Usually, that meant training people -- of at least high school-level education -- to teach in their native areas of Mexico.
But many teachers of native language were sent to Mexico's large urban centers, where colonies of indigenous people were growing. El Pípila was one such colony. The neighborhood was home to over a thousand Mixtec immigrants from San Jeronimo. Nearby, migrants from another Oaxaca town, called San Martín Peras, have settled. Though 2000 miles from Oaxaca, mixteco was -- and often still is -- the language spoken in the home in El Pípila. So, López says, "In 1982 they brought a series of teachers that knew how to speak Mixtec to this area in order to fulfill the need of taking care of a lot of the Mixtec community that had been congregating here."
The effect on students, López claims, was that they learned how to read -- in any language -- faster. It's a curious claim, considering the fact that mixteco is an unwritten language. But López says that doesn't matter. "This is their mother tongue," she explains. "Learning to read didn't used to be easy for them. Because when they got here in the beginning, they didn't speak any Spanish, and they had no tradition of reading or writing in their own language."
It is easier, López argues, for a person to become literate in their own language. But, in the case of mixteco, that necessitated writing the language down. It sounds like a daunting task, but López shrugs and says, "You write out the words just as they sound [using Spanish vowel and consonant construction]. Then you read it normally just as you would a Spanish word. The biggest difference is the apostrophes, which you use in order to give the proper sounds and inflections."
Raising her eyes to a poster on the wall above her desk, on which the Mexican national anthem is written, López begins to read, "Na ñu mii na Kayu'una ko'o Kanitai kajantivinto kaa xi Kuayi Ta na taan ini mañu...." To Anglo ears the inflected language, with its breaks between vowels, sounds Polynesian. López nods, "It is similar," she says.
Asked if a complete written lexicon of mixteco exists, López answers, "It's standardized here. We have it in a book we use in this school. But it's not standardized among all schools. Because another school might be teaching mixteco from another region. Within Mixtec, there are high and low dialects, just as in English. Professionals use a more technical English while a commoner uses a less elaborate, less technical form of English. In general, speakers of different dialects can understand each other, but sometimes a word will end with a different vowel. It's very difficult handling all the different variations."
The migrants from San Jeronimo who live in El Pípila speak a low dialect of mixteco. "I am from the same region that these children and their parents come from," López says, "so I speak the same dialect. But if someone comes from a different region, it's difficult to understand them."
One hundred eighty students study mixteco in the afternoon session at José Vasconcelos. In the morning, it's 400. At a nearby school, another 400 students study the language. In López's classroom on this December afternoon, the 25 students, all 10 to 12 years old, are growing restless, and their chatter -- in Spanish -- is growing a bit loud. López seems eager to start the class but agrees to answer some objections first.
Objection number one: This emphasis on Mixtec language prevents students from mastering Spanish, which will be the language of their working lives.
López responds, "Our students spend more time working in Spanish than they do in mixteco. About 80 percent of the work they do in school is in Spanish. Spanish, mixteco, and English are the three languages that are being handled here. They need to learn English because they are so close to the border. And we teach them mixteco to make them proud of their heritage, because they do get a lot of kidding from other students who are not Mixtec.
"There are children in this school," López continues, "that were born here, yet they don't feel that they are local. They feel that they are from Oaxaca; their identity is more strongly tied to Oaxaca than to here."
Objection number two: These students are not in Oaxaca. They're in Tijuana. Doesn't teaching them a language indigenous to another part of Mexico prevent them from embracing their new land and moving forward?
López responds, "On the contrary; the child learns how to develop himself because he's learned to respect his cultural roots. That's very important. Learning mixteco is not a deterrent. Many of our kids have gone on and achieved a lot academically. And I have several Mixtec students who have very good grades in all subjects. Learning their culture gives them roots so that they can grow."