Running from violence, young student finds cultural barriers in her new country


EL PASO — Mariana had always dreamt of her quinceañera party. For several months, she and her family planned the celebration, looked for the nicest dress and the best place, sent the invitations and ordered a big cake. But exactly 15 days before the big day, she was kidnaped from her home by a gang of thugs.

On April 1st, 2009, 20 men dressed as Mexican police agents broke into her house in a small town in the state of Chihuahua, beat up her father and threatened him and the rest of the family. They took her away for two days and one night. Mariana’s family was required to pay $8,000 to get their daughter back.

The traumatic event changed the life of Mariana’s family in a dramatic way. With the fear of losing their daughter again, the parents decided to escape to the United States leaving behind their properties, relatives, friends and everything that defined their life in the state of Chihuahua.

“I know that we came here illegally, but at least we can sleep in peace now,” Mariana said. “If you have to choose between being killed there and being imprisoned here, the jail would be better.”

Mariana, who is currently enrolled here at El Dorado High School, became one of the many students forced by the current violence in Mexico to abandon their school and classmates and adjust into a new system of education in the Texas public schools system. Because of her questionable immigration status, she asked Borderzine not to publish her last name.

Once in the U.S., she not only struggled to find new friends, but also had to adapt to a new language and to technology she had never been exposed to. She also had to deal with being dropped two grade levels for not knowing the language.

“Life has been very difficult here, because I don’t know English, and I don’t go out,” Mariana said. “People at the school have helped me a lot because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to use a computer, but now I know… In my hometown there were about 10 students in our school, we didn’t have Internet, nothing… It has been a dramatic change.”

The number of students under the English as Secondary Language program at El Dorado High School has increased in the past four years. In the academic year 2006-2007, El Dorado had a total of 143 students in ESL and the number increased to 204 by the end of the 2009-2010 school year. However, according to Daniel Escobar, public information officer of the Socorro Independent School District (SISD), the increase is not necessarily due to the exodus of families from Juarez coming to El Paso.

“In general the district has been growing.  Even before this recent turbulence in Juarez we have been growing by three percent, as many as 1,500 students per year. So not necessarily is this due to students coming from Juarez,” Escobar said.

Mariana and her family arrived in the United States with nothing but their tourist visa. Mariana has a younger sister who is enrolled at Bill Sybert Elementary and a 21-year-old sister who has to stay home because she does not have the legal documents to work here, and neither does she know the language. The family is currently renting an apartment here in the east side.

“The east side has developed with the Loop 375. A lot of military families are choosing to live on the east side. There’s a new Sierra Providence hospital so there’s a lot of reasons why the east side has been developed, which is primarily our school district. Are there some [students coming from Mexico]? Yes, I’m sure there are. Is it the majority of our growth? No I don’t believe so,” Escobar said.

Even if the numbers do show an increase in Hispanics, ESL and LEP (Limited English Proficiency) populations there is no way to officially report the exact numbers of students transferring from Mexican schools. A Borderzine public information request was denied with the school district asserting that it does not keep a record of students coming from Mexican schools.

“There are a lot of students from Juarez with stories similar to mine, for that reason it was not difficult for me to make friends here,” Mariana said.

A faculty member from El Dorado, who asked not to be named, said that in fact there are a large number of students enrolled at El Dorado who come from Mexican schools and who face a lot of difficulties as they adapt to the school system.

“Other than the language, another thing is assimilation; they miss their culture; they don’t want to be here. It is their whole life, their parents, their friends, their way of thinking,” the teacher said. “There are students here that I see are from Juárez, Chihuahua, Parral and assimilating is one of the hardest, most difficult things to deal with.”

According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Census Bureau), the municipality Mariana comes from has a population of 10,953 persons and 29 schools. Mariana’s tiny hometown has a population of approximately 385 people.

For Mariana, enrollment in El Dorado High – a school with a 2009-2010 enrollment of 3,123 students – represented a dramatic change. The Socorro District itself has 45 schools.

“The first months were very difficult because some teachers mistreated me because of my lack of English,” Mariana said.

The now 16-year-old student recalls a moment when one of her teachers would not believe that she didn’t know English and embarrassed her in front of the class. After consulting one of Mariana’s ESL instructors, that teacher changed her attitude and now makes sure Mariana understands the lectures. Sometimes she even translates the exams for her.

Cynthia Lopez, the assistant superintendent for Secondary Education for the SISD says the district is working on training all teachers in instructional strategies to teach students that may have a second language.

“Most of our teachers are already trained. We started this about five years ago. And the goal was to train all teachers to ensure, that regardless of whether they have one or two or 10 or 12 students in their class that they would be able to teach those students how to speak English,” Lopez said.

Some of Mariana’s teachers do help her but she also deals with a few teachers who continue to give her trouble because she can’t speak the language well.

“About six months ago I told my theater teacher I could not understand him and he said, ‘Well translate it.’ Then he just walked away. He continues to be the same way with me but now I just try to ignore him,” she said.

Mariana, who not only has to deal with this wave of changes, is forced to cope with any comments her teachers or classmates have to say about her. She has heard classmates call her the girl from “el rancho.”

“Sometimes assimilation with the other kids who speak primarily English is hard.  They’re very self-conscious especially when they’re on their second year and they have to take Speech,” the staff member from El Dorado said.

“A lot of my kids would tell me ‘oh he’s about to come up and he doesn’t know a lot of English.’ By then they understand the language, so they are able to understand those comments. So they turn into like a shell and it’s very difficult to take that away from them.”

It took months of frustration and tears, but Mariana now appears more confident at school. Some of her teachers and classmates have been helping her by translating what she still has trouble understanding.

Her English level and grades are slowly improving. She is required to double the effort in all her classes because she has to learn the material and understand the language. Since she started classes, she stays after school, along with other ESL students to improve their English skills.

Now that she is enrolled in an American school, she plans to take advantage of all the opportunities it offers. She says she will stay stronger than any discouraging obstacles as she starts her new life.

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