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"A lot more connected, a lot less hopeless": Innovative class helps deportees in Mexico

Posted on November 28, 2017

Students and friends in Mexico City. (Photo by Ernesto Méndez.)

"I always knew that I was Mexican. What I didn't know is that I wasn't legal." Pablo*, one of the speakers on a panel discussion of exile in Mexico City last March, spoke for many other young people who live with the fear of deportation—or, as in his case, have already experienced it. Pablo arrived in the U.S. as a toddler, and was deported when he was in his twenties.

Once in Mexico, deportees face many challenges in finding employment or pursuing an education, and are easy, highly visible targets for criminals and gangs, professor María Cristina Hall explained in an interview this fall. Hall was also a speaker on the panel, and, afterwards, she and her colleagues at the Tecnológico de Monterrey wondered how they might be able to help deportees begin to rebuild their lives.

Deportees' written Spanish often lags far behind their verbal ability; they may also struggle with feelings of isolation and cultural difference. To address these issues, Hall and her colleagues Adriana Ortega and Víctor Amaro planned a curriculum that would help deportees become better acquainted with the formal aspects of the Spanish language; get to know a culture they had left behind years ago, often in early childhood; and connect with others like themselves.

Seeking texts with a cross-border focus and compelling subject matter, Hall selected contemporary Mexican literature published on this website. Students read journalism by Fabrizio Mejía Madrid and Juan Villoro, poetry by Luis Felipe Fabre, and an essay on mothers in Mexican culture by Liza Bakewell, among other works.

Classes began in a borrowed music room, and emphasized discussion, reflection, and a sense of openness. Teachers hoped to create an atmosphere in which students were unembarrassed to ask questions and make mistakes, in which they realized that, as Hall put it, "We're all struggling with the same things." As they read literature in many varieties of Spanish, from the formal to the colloquial, students could see that "their language is also considered literary," and that their experiences were worthy of memorializing in literature.

Graduates of the courses reported feeling "a lot more connected, a lot less hopeless," in Hall's words. Students left with enhanced academic and cultural knowledge, a certificate from a prestigious Mexican institution, and a close-knit peer group that has begun to come together around helping other deportees. Many graduates are now active in a not-for-profit organization called Otros Dreams en Acción, where they offer help and support to recent deportees, as well as refugees from Central America.

Graduates have also been able to improve their professional status, moving into managerial roles in their current organizations or finding new work in programming and the education sector. As Hall points out, to have built such productive lives after having experienced a forced break from their homes, languages, and families, "They deserve a lot of credit." So do their instructors.

For more on the sociopolitical context of the classes, read the article "Gangs, Deportation, and Something of a Second Chance," by María Cristina Hall and Alina Bitran. For an example of student work from the class, read Rocío Martínez Antúnez's essay about her mother (in Spanish.)

  • Name changed to protect privacy.