The deported Americans
About 600,000 American-born children are enrolled in Mexico’s schools, said journalist Brooke Jarvis in The California Sunday Magazine. These ‘other Dreamers’ often struggle to build a new life across the border.
The school day at Escuela Secundaria Técnica Número 26 starts early. As the first rays of sunshine make their way over the foothills of Popocatépetl volcano in central Mexico, the narrow streets fill with students in ones and twos and little laughing groups.
Ashley Mantilla’s day starts earlier than most. On a Monday last June, long before the sun rose, the 15-year-old left the small cinder-block house she shares with her sister, brother, and parents. She walked past the lime tree under which the family entertains guests, past the outhouse and the thin horse tied up next to her grandparents’ home, to the road that winds by a deep ravine, and into the center of her small town, perched high in the ridges below the volcano. There, she waited for a minibus that would drive her half an hour to Número 26. It’s not a cheap trip to make every day, and her parents are willing to pay for it not because they have extra money but because they think it’s a better option than the local school. There are real teachers there instead of video lessons, and specialty classes include coding in addition to agriculture, food preservation, and beekeeping.
By 7:30, the school’s courtyard was packed with teenagers. They lined up in straight rows and placed their hands across their chests as the Mexican national anthem played on a loudspeaker. Ashley had PE that day, so she had her dark hair pulled back and was wearing her gym uniform: track pants and a polo shirt embroidered with the words “Niños Héroes,” or heroic children, a group of historical figures that the school honors as a kind of mascot. The heroes were six military cadets, the youngest of them 13, who died defending a castle in Mexico City from American invaders in 1847.
It was, in other words, a long way from the school days Ashley used to experience, back when she was an American student growing up in an American town and studying in an American public school. In those days, her father, Felix, worked as a cook in a restaurant and did maintenance on swimming pools. Her older sister, Lesly, earned a much-treasured certificate of academic excellence with President Barack Obama’s signature on it. They studied the history of South Carolina, their home state; they ate turkey on Thanksgiving and built snowmen in the winter. Sometimes classmates bullied Ashley, telling her to go back to Mexico, but their taunts mostly confused her. “I don’t know Mexico,” she would say. “I’m from here.”
In 2011, South Carolina’s then governor, Nikki Haley, signed what was known as a “show me your papers” law, modeled on Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, which allowed police to turn routine traffic stops into immigration checkpoints. Ashley’s parents began to feel anxious. They thought of what had happened a few years before, when a South Carolina poultry plant was raided and many of its workers deported without their children.
“What happens if they separate us?” wondered Berenice, Ashley’s mother. “We were thinking of the good of the family.” They decided it was time to move their three children—Lesly, 12; Ashley, 9; and Angel, 5; all American-born citizens—from the only home that they knew. In the jargon of immigration, the family was planning to “return migrate.” But the kids could hardly return to a place where they had never been. They were just…leaving.
The flight from Charlotte, N.C., landed in Mexico City two months after the new immigration law went into effect. The family took a series of buses away from the city, toward the tiny community where the children’s parents and grandparents had all grown up. The stores and highways dropped away as they climbed higher. The buses passed adobe-brick buildings with tin roofs and donkeys carrying loads of wood. Oh, my gosh, Ashley thought, are we going to live here?
When her new classmates told Ashley that she didn’t belong, she refused to cry in front of them. When she arrived home, though, the tears flowed. It wasn’t an easy thing to hear. But that didn’t mean she didn’t agree with them.
Ashley is one of 600,000 American-born children who are believed to be enrolled in K-12 schools across Mexico. Together, these American children now make up 3 percent of all students in Mexico, though the concentrations vary. In some municipalities where migration is particularly common, one in 10 students is American. Many families, especially if they were deported unexpectedly, have trouble assembling and authenticating all the various documents that are needed to enroll, which means that kids end up missing months or even years of instruction. Like Ashley, American students in Mexico frequently end up in rural schools, the ones with the fewest resources to help them.
Theirs is a new and unique generation, one that academics are only beginning to name. “The students we share,” a phrase meant to encompass transnational students living on both sides of the border, reflects the hope that the two countries will develop better support for students who researchers broadly agree are being failed educationally. Researchers I spoke to also used “American Mexicans,” “the other Dreamers,” and “Los Invisibles,” the invisible ones. Children from “forced cross-border families,” offered Maria Dolores Paris Pombo, who teaches sociology at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “This problem of being unable to adapt to Mexico or belong to the U.S.—it’s a generation that was left in between.”
Ashley failed her first year of school in Mexico. It was a painful blow to a girl who had always pushed herself to succeed. But she says her teacher had no patience for giving extra help to a third-grader who couldn’t read Spanish. He seemed to think she was stupid or lazy.
It took two years for most of the teasing to drop off. By then, both Ashley’s Spanish and her cultural fluency had improved. Eventually, she was at the top of her class again. She realized that one reason the other students had disliked her so much was because they had assumed that she would be racist and elitist toward them. “I am an American,” she protested, “but I’m not the type they think.” At some point, without noticing, she began dreaming in Spanish instead of English.
But even as English dropped out of their daily lives, the sisters kept speaking it between themselves—it was both a comfort and a fragile connection to a future that they feared losing. Today, when Ashley makes a grammatical mistake or forgets an English word, Lesly instantly and firmly corrects her.
When Lesly started at the small local middle school, where classes took the form of government-produced instructional videos, she became a stand-in teacher of other students. An “educational workshop”—growing flowers and peaches to make money for the school—seemed to simply be work. Many parents and their children weren’t concerned. Work in the outlying fields is the main future awaiting boys in the mountain towns, and girls often drop out as young as 14 or 15 to marry and have children. The sisters and their parents had different ideas about education. The girls wanted to go to university someday. They wanted to keep open the option of returning to the United States to study and to work. Lesly began commuting to a larger school; Ashley, when she reached seventh grade, followed.
As the years passed, Ashley and Lesly found it more complicated to define who they were or where they belonged. “Sometimes, when people ask me where I’m from,” said Lesly, “I don’t know how to respond.” One of the things that makes Lesly feel most American is the history she learned in school—knowing a place’s past, she believes, is part of what makes you belong there. Occasionally, she likes to get her U.S. passport out of its safekeeping spot. The words to the preamble to the Constitution, which she memorized long ago for a class project back in South Carolina, are written inside. “Sometimes I just want to read it,” she said, “and remind myself that I’m from over there, too.”
When Ashley arrived in Mexico, she identified as fully American. “Right now,” she told me, “it’s half and half.” In part, that’s because she appreciates aspects of both places, but it’s also a reflection of not feeling fully welcome in either. When Ashley was chosen to carry the Mexican flag at Número 26’s morning ceremony, other students told her that she had no right. When she asked an old friend in South Carolina how her parents had voted in the 2016 presidential election, the friend didn’t want to tell her. Another friend said she no longer wanted Ashley to come back to the U.S.
To fit in, Leo vowed to stop speaking English.
In early 2017, Bryant Jensen, a professor and educational researcher at Brigham Young University, visited Escuela Secundaria Técnica Número 26. He was looking for participants in a study about the educational well-being of American-born children in Mexico. At first, he recalls, the director of the school told him, “No tenemos esos estudiantes aquí”—we don’t have that kind of student here. But another staff member in the office spoke up: She could think of a couple of kids. Those students, it turned out, could think of a few more. Jensen quickly had 17 names on his list.
Some of the students walked into the office and introduced themselves to Jensen in perfect English. Others had forgotten the language or moved before they’d had a chance to really learn it. Many had been unaware that the others, even those in the same grade, shared their background. They’d come from Oklahoma, Tennessee, California, New York. One student, a boy named Leo Gutiérrez Rojas, was a grade above Ashley. He had grown up in Virginia, where his parents worked a variety of jobs: at a furniture factory, a sausage factory, an Elizabeth Arden packaging plant, a Sysco distribution center. When he was 3, Leo’s father was in a car accident and ended up imprisoned for three years, though the family never understood whether he was in trouble for the accident or his immigration status. Leo’s father was finally deported when Leo was 6, and Leo and his mother, Leticia, followed him to Mexico.
Leo was so young he had little understanding of what had changed. He cried for weeks and kept asking to be taken to the park they used to visit in Virginia, to a friend’s house there, to McDonald’s. Determined to fit in at school, he vowed he wouldn’t speak English, not even when his dad tried to practice with him. Now he no longer remembers it, though he has a better accent than the other kids in his English class.
At home, Leo is gregarious, flamboyantly funny, but at school he stays quiet. He loves to study math and science, and dreams of a career in robotics. But the school placed him in the agricultural program.
Leo told me he now thinks of himself as a Mexican who is one part American. (“Because you have a passport,” said Leticia. “Because I eat pizza!” Leo replied.) His mom thinks he will return to the United States when he’s older, to look for work. For now, though, that’s hard for Leo to imagine. “I don’t know anyone. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know pounds, ounces, miles. I don’t know how to buy a hamburger!” He turned to his mother. “Does Wendy’s still exist? Did I eat there? Did I like it?” When Leo watched the movie Rio, about a bird that spends too much time in confinement and is unable to fly when it returns to its natural habitat, it reminded him of himself. “Creo que así soy yo,” he said—I think that I am like that.
Researchers worry he is right—that children who hope to return to their home country may be unprepared to do so. Jensen put it succinctly: Though the border may temporarily split lives in two, “there’s no such thing as a half-citizen.”
One day when I visited Leo’s house, he was studying for a test in English class. I offered to quiz him. The test was on verb conjugations, and one of the words was “estar.” At first, Leo couldn’t remember how to translate it. But then the answers came back to him, and he repeated the conjugations in a deliberate voice with an American accent. “I was,” he said. “I am. I will be.”
Adapted from an article that first appeared in The California Sunday Magazine. Reprinted with permission. ■