The gall of Mexican officials does not end with the push for illegal entry. After demanding that we educate their surplus citizens, give those citizens food stamps, deliver their babies, provide them with doctors and hospital beds, and police their neighborhoods, the Mexican government also expects us to help preserve their loyalty to Mexico.
Since 1990, Mexico has embarked on a series of initiatives to import Mexican culture into the U.S. Mexico’s five-year development plan in 1995 announced that the “Mexican nation extends beyond . . . its border”—into the United States. Accordingly, the government would “strengthen solidarity programs with the Mexican communities abroad by emphasizing their Mexican roots, and supporting literacy programs in Spanish and the teaching of the history, values, and traditions of our country.”
The current launching pad for these educational sallies is the Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior. The IME directs several programs aimed at American schools. Each of Mexico’s 47 consulates in the U.S. (a number that expands nearly every year) has a mandate to introduce Mexican textbooks into schools with significant Hispanic populations. The Mexican consulate in Los Angeles showered nearly 100,000 textbooks on 1,500 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District this year alone. Hundreds of thousands more have gone to school districts across the country, which pay only shipping charges. Showing admirable follow-up skills, the consulates try to ensure that students actually read the books. L.A. consulate reps, for instance, return to schools that have the books and ask questions. “We test the students,” explains Mireya Magaña Gálvez, a consul press attaché. “We ask the students: what are you reading about now? We try to repeat and repeat.”
Like most explanations given for Mexican involvement in American cultural matters, the justification for the textbook initiative is tortured. “If people are living in the U.S., of course they need to become excellent citizens of this place,” says Magaña Gálvez. “If we can help in their education, they will understand better.” But if the goal is American assimilation, why take a detour through Mexican history? “We must talk about Mexican history,” she explains. “Our history is very rich, very intensive. It’s important to know that history. The students will feel proud to become Americans if they feel proud of their country.”
Immigrants have often tried to hold on to their native traditions, but not until recently did anyone expect American schools to help them do so. And it is hard to see how studying Mexican history from a Mexican perspective helps forge an American identity. The Mexican sixth-grade history book, for example, celebrates the “heroism and sacrifice” of the Mexican troops who fought the Americans during the Mexican-American war. But “all the sacrifices and heroism of the Mexican people were useless,” recounts the chronicle. The “Mexican people saw the enemy flag wave at the National Palace.” The war’s consequences were “disastrous,” notes the primer: “To end the occupation, Mexico was obligated to sign the treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo,” by which the country lost half its territory.
This narrative is accurate and rather tame by Mexico’s usual anti-American standards. But a student in the U.S. could easily find himself confused about his allegiances. Is his country Mexico or the U.S.? Study exercises that include discovering “what happened to your territory when the U.S. invaded” don’t clarify things. The textbook concludes by celebrating Mexican patriotic symbols: the flag, the currency, and the national anthem. “We love our country because it is ours,” the primer says.
Mexican consulates also push for bilingual education in American schools, with the same odd logic with which they defend teaching Mexican history: teaching in Spanish, they say, will make students better English speakers. In this nonsensical claim, the Mexican officials are of course at one with the American bilingual-ed establishment. No surprise, then, that the National Association of Bilingual Educators has conferred awards on Mexico’s education ministry for its support of Spanish-language instruction or that the association is represented on the IME’s advisory council.
The IME also supplies adult-education materials in Spanish language and culture to community colleges and public libraries, and expects them to provide the space, teachers, and technology for distance-learning courses. “The Glendale library [in the Los Angeles suburbs] is beautiful,” enthuses the L.A. consulate’s Magaña Gálvez. It has converted half of its space to a Spanish language center using Mexico’s course materials, she says.
Yet does this Spanish-language project actually result in the acquisition of English? I put this question to Socorro Torres Sarmiento, the community affairs coordinator in the Santa Ana consulate. She dodged the question: “It’s difficult to do English at the same time,” she said. In other words, probably not.
The consulates appear to regard local opposition to their bilingual agenda with bemused contempt. Santa Ana’s consul, Ortiz Haro, says conspiratorially of his host city: “Here, we are living ‘just English’ in the schools. We have problems with some school districts [in Orange County], especially in Santa Ana. This high school district is involved in a lot of political issues, I think they have a very conservative point of view about education.” Of course, what Ortiz Haro calls “political issues” is simply the school board’s effort to follow the mandate of Proposition 227, the 1998 California voter initiative that sought to curtail bilingual ed in California schools.
But the consuls don’t easily give up in fighting to preserve and increase the use of Spanish in the U.S. Socorro Sarmiento, Santa Ana’s community affairs coordinator, visits Orange County schools to promote a Mexican government–sponsored drawing contest, Éste Es Mi Mexico (This Is My Mexico). When Sarmiento speaks to the students in Spanish, she—predictably—receives resistance: “The teacher says, ‘You need to speak English, because we’re not allowed to speak Spanish.’ ” Undaunted, Sarmiento reminds the children not to forget their Spanish—valid advice, but irrelevant to the school context, where teaching Mexican students English should be the paramount concern.
The contest that Sarmiento is promoting is another device to reinforce a sense of Mexicanness in students. It asks them to draw pictures expressing the “history, culture, natural resources, people, or traditional holidays [of] our beloved and beautiful country.” Winners get a trip to Mexico City at the Mexican government’s expense. Here again—in conservative Orange County, California, at least—some schools are skittish about sponsoring a Mexican government–designed program. Sarmiento responds that embracing Mexican culture is vital for students’ self-esteem. In her school visits for the contest, she asks students if they know who the Aztecs were.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “they often don’t.” But if the students are to succeed in the U.S., a more relevant question might be: do you know who the Pilgrims were?
The U.S. Department of Education, no foe of multiculturalism, collaborates with some of Mexico’s education initiatives. It helps bring hundreds of Mexican teachers to U.S. schools for part of the school year or during the summer—and not just to Mexican population centers like Los Angeles but also to recent outposts in the Mexican diaspora, such as Green Forest, Arkansas. The visitors suggest methods by which American teachers can incorporate Mexican dance, songs, and history, especially the indigenous cultures of the Toltec, Mayas, and Mistecas, into their lessons, notes Edda Caraballo, director of Migrant Education for the California Department of Education.
Such devotion to other countries’ folkways would be unimpeachable if students overflowed with knowledge of America’s history. As survey after survey has found, however, American students know next to nothing about their country’s past. Only one-third of seniors at elite colleges could pick out the general at the battle of Yorktown from among William Sherman, Ulysses Grant, Douglas MacArthur, and George Washington, according to a 2000 American Council of Trustees and Alumni survey.
A huge proportion of the Mexican students receiving school-based training in Mexicanismo are illegal, making American help in preserving an alien culture all the more remarkable. The burden of illegal immigration has fallen heaviest on California, where one-quarter of the nation’s illegals live and where one-quarter of the students don’t speak English. The Anaheim school district in Orange County recently floated a $132 million bond measure to meet the costs of educating illegal aliens and their children. Santa Ana consul Ortiz Haro laughs as he recounts that Anaheim school administrators had wanted to bill Mexico for the cost of educating its illegal exports—a perfectly sensible idea that strikes him as ludicrous. Concern with border breaking is, to a Mexican consulate, well, just a little uncouth.