Monday, November 30, 2009


"Teacher, have you been assaulted?" Jorge asked me quietly, as we walked down one of the dark streets, away from the school. I really hate their word choice. "Not....yet..." I answered slowly, trying to find a way to answer that wouldn't constitute jinxing myself. Why can't they just say 'robbed'? Is it because most of the muggings my students describe generally end with being punched in the face, whether you have money or not?

"Have you?" I asked Jorge and Jesus, a sweet, quiet boy who has taken to walking home with me until our paths diverge about ten minutes from my house. "Yeah. They pulled knives on me. I didn't have any money, but they still punched me in the face" Jorge answered. Jesus remained quiet. I like walking home with my students. I admit I feel a little more secure. I detect an air of chivalry from them, as they walk the lone, foreign female home. And as an adult, as their teacher, I feel protective of them. As I watched Jorge and Jesus walk down the dark road where our paths diverge, carefully carrying their assigned dolls, I wondered who really protects who.

Thanksgiving crept up pretty quickly. The Wednesday before, I woke up with a full blown cold. It was chilly inside the house, but outside, the hot Santa Anas were blowing trash everywhere. It didn't feel like November. I had to go to work. I was being evaluated that day. I got ready and stepped out into the hot street and over a pair of clean, children's underwear that had obviously been ripped from some one's clothes' line by the wind.

I hate being observed. I knew when my observer was coming, during a class with a group that has become increasingly antagonistic towards me. Chronically absent, unwilling to work in class, yet angry when they don't receive passing grades. Excellent, watch me teach! I was shocked when we had one of the best classes we had had in weeks. Those kids put on a real dog and pony show for my observer, hands raised, dozens of volunteers vying to answer questions, students successfully solving problems I never thought they would be able to complete. I have to admit, I really owe them one.

"Teacher, have you been assaulted?" I was asked for the third time within one day. They know I walk to and from school and their questions were making me increasingly nervous. "You shouldn't use your MP3 player on the way to school, there's a lot of rateros out there" one advised me. I have stopped. No more ipod walks, one of the highlights of my day.

Alec woke me up Thanksgiving morning. "The water heater caught on fire. I went downstairs and I all could see was orange. I went out back and there were flames, I put it out". My cold was worse than ever. I struggled through my long, seven class day. Students kept asking me if I was angry. "No," I stressed "just sick". A teacher visited me in the middle of one of my classes, to ask if a couple of students could turn in a small assignment next week that was due a week ago, because he had taken them to a one day, science fair. "No" I answered, "that work should have been done a long time ago". I don't have a lot of patience with this guy. In order to impress the students with his knowledge of English, he gave a group of my students the answers for their last test. "But, but, but..." he argued. Finally, I said yes. "When should they hand it in?" he asked me happily. "How about January?" I answered, "Or June if they they don't have enough time".

I finally got to go home. One of my many, chivalrous students named 'Jesus' saw me struggling with the gate outside of our privada. "I'll wait with you" he said "so that you don't get assaulted". Alec came to the gate to let me in. The fire had left us not only without hot water, but we couldn't use our stove. We ended Thanksgiving with a delivery pizza.

I guess I like pizza no matter what day of the year it is.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mi barrio

All of the little things don't catch my attention as much anymore. I hate this part of the acclimation process. My favorite part about traveling is that moment when your plane hovers over the city you are about to visit and you have no idea what is going to happen next. Upon arrival, you stare at everything, "What's that!? Look at this! Let's eat it!"

They use some crazy words here in TJ. Every Spanish speaking country has a few twists when it comes to language. Anticipating Mexico, I switched coche for carro, zumo became jugo and pisos for apartamentos. Working with adolescents is tricky. If you use a word that sounds funny to them, they do not assume that your crazy word might be used in another Spanish speaking country. They just think you're wrong. As do some adults. I was corrected for calling a pool a piscina and instructed to use alberca. Apartamento was overruled for departamento. And here in TJ, chaquetas are chamarras and muchachos, chamacos. Oddly, sweat pants are called 'pants', but with a little latino pronunciation. Profe Hector and I snickered a lot about a kid we both teach that gets on our nerves. We always referred to him as the kid that wore 'pants' everyday instead of khakis. One hot afternoon while I scaled the hill that leads to the school, the sweat pant wearing child was mysteriously at my side. "You're not wearing 'pants'!" I howled, upon viewing the jeans he was wearing. "I always wear 'pants' because se me rompieron the khakis" he explained. He used one of the beauties of the Spanish language; the khakis "broke themselves on me", instead of saying that he himself had apparently ripped the pants. That day I learned that if you rip your pants in Mexico, you're relegated to wearing the same pair of sweatpants to school everyday for a solid semester. I don't joke about the 'pants' anymore.

I have achieved a certain level of notoriety around the neighborhood and the school. While I walk to work, the various taxi drivers who have given me rides beep their horns and call "Hey, teacher!" in English. One day, I had to go to school early, before my afternoon students arrive. "Are you going to teach in the morning too?" one of the morning students asked me. As I passed through the sobreruedas one afternoon, one of the vendors called out "Hey teacher, the road to the school is closed, you have to go the other way!". On yet another day, a minivan with two students that I have never seen in my life pulled to the side of the road and their father insisted on giving me a ride. It's flattering, yet mysterious. Was there a mass mailing that the neighborhood received describing my presence in Tijuana?

I now know that the majority of dead dogs I see lying in the street are not dead, just sleeping. The people that stand outside of the OXXO staring inside are not simply amusing themselves, they are waiting to use the ATM.

The border has changed since I arrived. I crossed recently to pick up a video that I had ordered from the UPS store in Chula Vista and to visit the wonder of their Target store. I always make a point to drink out of the drinking fountain and flush the toilet paper instead of throwing it in a little trashcan beside the toilet, simply because I can in Chula Vista. When I crossed back, I noticed that the Mexican army, machine guns and all, now greets visitors instead of the ordinary customs agents. And on the American side, the U.S. Border Patrol hassles people entering Mexico. I have never seen them stand directly in front of the turnstiles before. After my visit to Chula Vista, I noticed a Wackenhut bus parked directly on the line between Mexico and the U.S. A long line of men stood beside the bus, waiting to be deported to Mexico. I inadvertently stopped walking. Twenty, thirty men. Were they okay? Did they know where they were going? Had they been to Tijuana before or were they laterally repatriated? I hovered. I could explain to them how to get to Casa del Migrante. I have walked right up to Border Patrol agents in Arizona while they detained large groups of migrants and asked them if I could speak with the people and distribute water. Why didn't I know what to do? I stood there with my Target bags, worrying that I might make an ass of myself if I was misreading the situation. What was there to misread? Wackenhut isn't Greyhound. The men were shuffled into the Mexican immigration office as I walked slowly past the border patrol and into Mexico.

I guess I am not used to everything.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Que viva la Revolución

We had big plans for our three day, Revolution holiday weekend. We decided to rent a car and finally see a little of Baja California. I even got to leave school a little early on Friday. Many teachers were out sick last week and several times throughout the week I was approached by students or the prefectos to ask if I could "adelantar" my class. "Our teacher isn´t here" they would tell me "can you come teach us now and we can all go home early?". Absolutely no problem and something that would never be possible at home.

We left Tijuana Friday night for Tecate, which is only about thirty minutes from where we live. I found Tecate charming. I am not a fan of their beer, but liked their little central plaza and their awesome bakeries. I was surprised to visit a border town that hadn´t become an overblown monstrosity like Tijuana or Mexicali. Please don´t mention Tecate to anyone.

Saturday morning, after eating about three or four pounds of sugary bread, Alec and I headed to the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja´s wine growing region. Though we weren´t far from Tijuana or Ensenada, we were surprised by the complete change of atmosphere. Alec kept commenting on how quiet it was. And uninhabited. It was a good time tearing around on dirt roads between vineyards, trying various wines. And a hell of a lot prettier than Sonoma.

After languishing around the wine country, we cut across the peninsula on Highway 3 towards the Sea of Cortez. It was getting dark and I was getting tired on that winding road. We realized when we had a quarter of a tank left that we really needed to get some gas. I knew we would make it. I remembered coasting down canyon roads in Utah with my sister on fumes, pleading with the car to survive so that we wouldn´t get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Alec and I broke down once on the "loneliest highway" in Nevada and still got picked up by an eighteen wheeler and got to ride run away truck all the way to town with this guy and his family. We always make it; the worst never actually happens. And then the car started to sputter. Okay, the worst happened. I pulled off to the side of the road in the middle of fucking nowhere.

We just sat there for a minute. A few random cars raced by us. I saw a truck coming in the distance with some sort of flashing light on it. We flagged it down and it actually stopped. A couple of construction workers jumped out, they had started their day around 7AM in Tecate and had lost "a bag" somewhere on the road. Their boss made them go back in the night and look for it. Dear God, were they drug runners? Could the give us a ride to a gas station? "It´s far..." they said, in a way that told me it was really, really far. "The motorcycle men will have gas" they told us. Motorcycle men? Was there really not a gas station? They insisted on visiting the "motorcycle men" and jumped back in their truck, only to discover that it was completely stuck in the soft sand on the side of the road. We had trapped two more people in our Bermuda triangle.

I felt like a real ass. I could sleep in the car, but now we had snared two innocent men after a long day of work in our trap. They were just trying to help us. They flagged down a pick up that passed and asked to be taken to the "motorcycle men". I just stood there, freezing.

A few minutes later, another big pick up truck pulled up. "Hey y'all!" a boisterous, American voice called out. "Bet ya thought all white guys where assholes!" they called, as they jumped from the truck and tied a rope to the trapped pick up. "We'll fill you up too, that car's gonna run great, we got 110 octane for the bikes!" I was stunned. Who were these people?

They yanked the construction workers' pick up up out of the sand and sent them on their way, adding "We saw y'all pass earlier today, bring that pick up by our camp, we can fix the alignment!". And to us, "Y'all don't have enough gas to get to the station, come by our camp and have some beers, we'll fill ya up!". Our car actually started and off we went to the motorcycle men's camp.

There were dirt bikes everywhere, two big trailers and a bunch of white men sitting around a camp fire. "Have a beer!" one said, handing us a couple of Tecates. "We're here for the Baja 1000, biggest off road race in the world!" they told us, "You from San Diego?" I told them that I was teaching in Tijuana, in a public high school. "That's Navy Seal stuff! Aren't you scared?" one asked me, in complete seriousness. I do like to think of myself as a Navy Seal. "Wanna ride the course?" Ah, okay. I hopped in some sort of four wheeled, open sided vehicle, beer still in hand. The thing roared off as I clung to the side so as not to be thrown from the vehicle. "Better put the seat belt on!" my driver informed me, which I did. Suddenly we were going about eighty miles an hour, tearing over a hilly, rugged desert path. I was screaming inadvertently and beer was spraying everywhere. Tears were flowing from my eyes from the wind and my ass was not touching the seat, the only thing holding me in was the seat belt. Most people would have avoided the crests and pits in this path, this man accelerated and dove at them. I knew if the vehicle flipped I would die. As we screamed through the desert under a blanket of stars, I knew that I wouldn't rather be in any other place in the world.

"Please let us pay you for the gas" we pleaded upon leaving. "Pay it forward" one of the racers said with a smile. We went on our way on the dark highway toward the coast. The car really was running well. We stopped at one of the many military check points that line the highways on the Baja peninsula. "Please step out of the car so that we can revise it" a young, machine gun wielding soldier in camouflage instructed me. I have been through quite a few of these check points and generally don't even have to roll down the window. We got out. In an attempt not to litter, Alec had thrown a couple of empty Tecate cans in the back of the car. This worried me. The soldiers climbed through the car and instructed us to open the trunk. They really didn't seem too intent on searching everything and couldn't seem to care less about a few empty beer cans and my beer splashed jacket. It actually didn't seem very abnormal to be standing in the desert in the middle of the night with a couple of guys in ski masks carrying automatic weapons, chatting about the differences in size and crime between Atlanta and Tijuana.

And then we drove to the sea.

Friday, November 13, 2009

La Rumorosa

"You remember those papers, all those papers that the schools had to do for your application?" Oralia asked me on Friday, breathless as always. "I lost them. Someone took them. The administration in Mexicali wants to invite you to visit them but I have to send the papers. Do you have copies?" I told her that I would bring her what I had. Was I in trouble?

By pure accident, Alec and I ran into her again at the Cecut museum on Saturday. She looked amazing, wearing a suit and heels on a Saturday. I, by contrast, was wearing a sports headband and Pumas. "I'll bring those papers Monday" I told her. "Don't forget about Thursday!" she added. Thursday? "You have to visit Mexicali, the head of the school system for Baja California wants to meet you!". Okay, Thursday. Again, was I in trouble?

I ran into Oralia again on Monday when I entered the school. "I brought the papers!" I told her proudly. "Oh, I found them" she told me. "So tomorrow, the academic coordinator is going to take you to Mexicali!". Tomorrow? She speaks English and always wants to practice. Tuesday and Thursday are pretty similar.

The academic coordinator. One of my many bosses. Two hours in each direction, alone, in the car. "Wear headphones!" many teachers advised me. "It is the same distance as Tijuana to Los Angeles!" another informed me. "Maybe something will change. ¡Si Dios quiere !" Dios had better quiere. "You hear us. You know our problems. Bring it to the top!" one teacher pleaded. How was I getting this face time?

The ride to Mexicali wasn't that bad. The scary Rumorosa road is pretty fun at 80 miles per hour. I was surprised to learn that my boss is only 29 and though he is an administrator at our school, he still teaches during the morning at another school. Fourteen hour days. We took a little tour of the city, picked up some folks and did a quick interview where I only had only positive things to say. Afterwards, we visited some other schools in our system. The buildings were the same, but had better landscaping. They were clean and orderly. The kids were in class, instead of milling about the school. They had tourism and culinary programs. I ate manta ray tacos.

There was a lot of cultural awkwardness. Mexicans aren't really that different than us, it's not like I am teaching in one of the Stans or some island in the South Pacific. There was a lot of door opening and "let the lady go first" while the men waited for me to pass. The only problem was that I didn't know where I was going. I would pass, stand back and wait for some guy to lead the way. This led to a lot of stumbling about.

Finally, I was taken to a Brazilian restaurant for lunch with the big boss. Yes, Brazilian. "It's a latino thing" they explained "¡Pura carne!". Yes, meat, meat and more meat. I ate steak, tongue, ribs and pork. I became pretty friendly with a really overweight man from the main office and I think we ate the same amount. He beat me at the grilled pineapple. The boss scares me. A straight shooter that doesn't wear a tie. "I want more teachers from the U.S." he told me immediately. "I have locations in Ensenada and Rosarito. What do we have to do?" Apply, I told him. Apply. There are always more U.S. applicants than foreign applicants. We want to go, I explained. Bring it.

He had other things to say too. "We have a lot of problems with principals. The job of a principal is to resolve problems the teachers have, not create problems with them". Was he fishing? Was he talking about my principal? The academic coordinator shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He began showing the boss various newspaper articles that have been written about our school. The big boss seemed a bit dismissive. I felt kind of bad for the coordinator and our school. All day people had asked me which campus I worked in. When I told them, I heard "That location is dirty" and complaints about it's dusty, hilltop location. Continuing complaints about Tijuana. Part of me wanted to defend my ghetto school and maligned Tijuana, another part wanted to ask the boss what he was doing about our problems. Give us some money, get rid of our principal, DO SOMETHING. We want a culinary program, we want landscaping, we want the graffiti scrubbed from the walls.

My U.S. school has never given my exchange partner any kind of welcome. They didn't even put information about the exchange on the website. The superintendent of my schools will never invite my exchange partner to come to HR, tour the offices and personally introduce him to each and every person that works that there. The superintendent will not take him to lunch, nor will he take him on a tour of various schools in the county. I appreciate what they have done. I don't know why they did it, but I do feel welcomed and frankly, honored.

The boss asked me directly about the administration at my school. Might you be asking about the "pinche director"? "It's good...." I said, in a completely unconvincing manner as the academic coordinator sat back down beside me. Did he really want to know? Where do his loyalties lie? Who am I to talk shit about a school I have worked in for three months, where I am basically an invited guest?

"I want our English teachers to do this exchange" the boss reiterated at the end of my visit. "Imagine how good their English would be after a year in the U.S. They could teach our students about American culture and learn from your system". He gets it. He understands the spirit of the exchange. I want to help them. Rosarito and Ensenada would be easy, but Tijuana and Mexicali are hard sells for American teachers.

We raced back to Tijuana. Mexicali was 79 degrees at night in early November. The twinkling lights of TJ looked pretty as I caught sight of my students walking home from school, carefully carrying their beloved dolls over the dark sidewalks of TJ.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Welcome to TJ

Allow me to invite you to Tijuana, San Diego's rowdy, sister city to the south. I must encourage you to arrive on foot. Normally, you arrive to foreign countries by plane. No, my friends, take the trolley to San Ysidro. As the train heads south, the United States quickly disappears and Mexico begins to emerge. Soon you will see the bustling metropolis of Tijuana, blanketed by a rather large Mexican flag. You may also notice a large wall caging in the city. Some may call it a "fence" but I know, dear friends that you will think otherwise while viewing it. Exit the trolley and head over the large foot bridge to Mexico. Please don't avoid gawking at the enormous number of cars waiting to enter the United States. It is a sight to behold.

Glide toward the turnstile to Mexico. Don't forget to pause as you place one foot in Mexico and the other in the United States. It is a rare pleasure that you're birthright affords you. Then, please enter the turnstile to Mexico. Don't worry about your passport; you will only need it if you choose to return to the United States. Visit the Cecut museum to learn a little of Baja California's history. It is not an obligatory museum visit, but a first rate destination. Please pause to view the men blowing fire from their mouths at various intersections in Tijuana, but remember to tip. Swilling gas is not something one should do for free. Advance toward an obligatory walk down the Revo. There are a number of handicrafts and a wide array of pharmaceuticals for sale. A trip to Tijuana is not complete without it. For those that fancy themselves seasoned travelers, the Zona Norte is also nearby. One can pay for sex or get robbed for free.

Might I also recommend a trip to the Tijuana microbrewery? Yes, you say, you have tried Mexican beer. Allow me to encourage you to try a beer that is not distributed throughout Mexico or the United States. It has a heartier character than many of the lager style brews that have come to define Mexican beer. The next stop on your journey should include the beach. Do not be dissuaded by the descriptions friendly locals will offer you of the area. When they say it is dirty, they are simply trying to keep it a secret, though I would avoid swimming in the water. Enjoy a fabulous array of seafood tostadas while overlooking the marvels of the Pacific Ocean. Please don't neglect the octopus ceviche. No trip to the beach is complete without a visit to the lighthouse, where one can peer through the border wall at the Americans riding horses on the other side. Yes, you say, I can swim where ever I want! But no, my friends. The border wall extends into the sea.

Transportation can be a bit tricky in TJ. If you choose to drive, be advised that stop signs at four ways are optional. Simply tap your brakes and continue driving. Tijuana boasts an extensive, inexpensive bus system, though the routes can only be ascertained by boarding the bus and asking the driver if he is going to your desired destination. Allow me to recommend the calafias, various short buses painted dark red and yellow. They are wildly inexpensive and feature interiors decorated according to the various tastes of the drivers. Many offer sports or religious themes.

As for accommodations, allow me to recommend the Hotel Riviera. At a mere twenty dollars, it is an amazing bargain that includes free wifi. Do not be intimidated by the hourly rental of some rooms, you will not even know that it is happening. Please visit the Auditorio Municipal across the street for weekly Lucha Libre matches. Though the auditorium staff would like to encourage you to observe the big name acts that appear on Friday nights, allow me to suggest a Sunday afternoon, locals only match. One can best view Tijuana's home grown talent in a relaxed, outdoor environment. Be sure to order a cerveza grande, and don't forget to request hot sauce on the rim of the cup.

Friends, Tijuana is ready when you are, wey!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Day of the Dead

"All of the students pass in the end" Profe Hector explained, after being bombarded with my relentless questions. I have students that rarely attend class and others that come but do nothing. We have long, elaborate sessions where we have to re-test students at the end of each semester. I still do not know how they will pass. Tests are only 30% of their grade, how will they do the rest of the work that they missed? Is it fair to pass kids that missed the majority of the class and attended a few shotgun sessions at the end? Is it okay to pass a student that hasn't acquired any proficiency in English because he didn't bother coming to class or do any work? "If you don't pass them, they will pay 500 pesos and another teacher will sign that they passed" the profe told me. "It's all about the money. That's Mexico for you. I shouldn't say that, because I am Mexican, but that's Mexico".

I am torn. Do I dig my heels in and work these kids to death at the end of the semester to justify passing them or just hand them the grade to save all of us a lot of hard work? At times my job feels like high paid babysitting. Do I have a problem with that? The students are happiest when I give them long, simple, open ended assignments. We cut pictures from magazines of their vocabulary words and glue them on paper. Those are easy days. I could get away with not teaching them, take my paycheck and pass them along. But it just seems wrong.

I work in a tech school. There are agriculture schools here in Mexico as well and I often wish I worked in one. They learn to farm and go on field trips where they pet animals. The students have to major in something. I find the majors depressing at my school. Their choices are production, electronics or the self explanatory software program. I later learned that production is basically how to work in a factory. Electronics students build various electronic devices, motors, speakers, etc. The new software program seems the most ambitious. Electives do not exist. In the U.S., students are encouraged to explore things, take an art class, creative writing, at least gym. That mentality does not exist here. I understand, they need training, skills, a path to a job. The factory program seems to attract the brightest students, whereas electronics appears to be a dumping ground for low performers. Software is still a wild card. The students never talk of their majors. They do the work, but show no enthusiasm for their course of study. When I see my goofy students, all with varied interests and personalities I find it hard to imagine them working in maquiladoras. Actually, I find it sad.

My family came to visit me last weekend, during our long Day of the Dead holiday. We had a great time but I had a little trouble getting them back to the border on time after I accidently got in the line to cross the border in a car. People sometimes wait eight hours at San Ysidro. We did some Evil Knievel stuff to get out of there and got them to the walk across line. A couple of mysterious taxi drivers offered to get them across fast for five bucks and they hopped in their van. I stared at the van as I quickly walked across the bridge back to heart of TJ. I could see my niece's pink polka dotted suitcase sitting on top of the van for a while. It was hard to stop looking at it.

The prefecta entered my room on Tuesday at 2:45 to tell me that we had a four hour course we had to attend at 3:00. No more class for the rest of the day after a four day holiday and exams beginning next week. It was a constructivism workshop. It was explained to us that we needed to make tests that evaluated the skills we had taught throughout the unit. If we talk of high expectations and provide complex activities throughout the unit, only to give a simple test at the end, the students will realize that they can get away with a minimum level of performance. I couldn't agree more. If we provide rigorous lessons and give tests that reflect our high expectations and the students realize that no one ever fails the class, no matter how often they attended or how little work they do, they will lower to that expectation and do nothing.

Apparently teenage pregnancy is an issue in Mexico. I've had my share of pregnant students in the U.S. as well. In order to discourage the students from having children at a young age, a science teacher is making the students carry dolls around for two weeks. It is supposed to be inconvenient and reinforce that teenagers aren't ready to raise babies. The kids love the assignment. As the days pass, the students are carrying increasingly elaborate baby props to school. Baby blankets, little cribs and intricate, back pack style baby carriers. A few of my students have proudly shown me their cholo babies, decked out in gangster clothes. We have these assignments in the U.S. as well. My brother had to carry a potato around for a week and arrange for babysitters when he couldn't be with his "child". The kids at my U.S. school had to carry around hard boiled eggs with plastic eyes. In one of my classes, a student ate another kid's "baby". I was expecting to see students carrying dolls by one leg and throwing their "child" on the ground when it became inconvenient. But they don't. They cradle these dolls, cooing and patting them during class. Student couples walk leisurely through the courtyard, carrying their "children". I even saw my dreaded electronics students on my way to school, hiking up the hill, all five boys carefully carrying their dolls. I was almost relieved when one of my software students called "Hey profe!" during class, twisted his doll's head around backwards and yelled "Exorcista!"