Graciela immigrated to California in search of opportunities. She joined her husband who was farming in Delano, California, and together they have been working the land, building a life, and raising three daughters. Guadalupe, the eldest, grew up watching her parents get up at dawn to pick blueberries and grapes for the family. Raised by hard-working parents, Guadalupe learned perseverance, the value of hard work and the love of family. Six months ago, Guadalupe and her family packed the family truck and headed south. Guadalupe had earned a scholarship to pursue her academic dreams at UCI. Apart for the first time, the mother and daughter embarked on the next chapter of their lives.
I was born in Michoacán, Mexico, a beautiful place that has become very unsafe; people stay inside after dark.
Fourteen years ago, I made the decision to move to Delano, California. My husband was already a resident. He filed immigration papers for us, and we joined him. We came to fight for a better life and better opportunities for our children.
A Mother and a Farm Worker
I came to Delano with my daughter, Guadalupe, and her little sister, Itzel, who was only a year old. I started farming right away. My husband’s niece would watch my children and I also relied on daycare. When I got pregnant with my third one, I had to stop. It was a high-risk pregnancy, but after she was born, I returned to work.
Delano Life is Farm Life
In Delano, we grow grapes, pistachios, and blueberries. Grape picking begins in mid-July and ends in November. After picking grapes, we prepare the fields for the next year.
The grapes, they like to climb. Both blueberries and grapes are exhausting jobs. But I don’t mind hard work.
Blueberry picking season begins in April and ends in mid-June. You pick them with your hands, which can be difficult because they are very small and grow all through the leaves. Luckily, the blueberries leaves don’t have thorns. Blueberry picking can give you a backache. You have to carry more than one bucket around your waist, and as they fill up, each weighs about 4-6 pounds. When picking, we look for the blue ones. The blue ones are the good ones. But if we only pick blue ones, the workers who pack, and sort, who take out the green ones and the leaves, they wouldn’t have work.
Grape season starts in April. You have to watch for black-widows, bugs, heat, and pesticides. Working the grape vines gives you a sore back, too.
The vines are really tall and so it can get difficult. It gets really hot. There’s a lot of dirt, dust, and chemicals. Sometimes, the work can make you feel like crying. As you reach upward to tend to the grapes, your head looks up and it feels heavy. Your neck gets sore.
A Typical Work Day
We get up at 5:30 am. We work 8 hours and then head home. The company is not too far. It’s about 20 minutes away from our home. The work involves many tasks. You have to fit the vines, move them around, tie them up. We climb, we tie, we shift the plants and the branches. The process takes about two months.
I used to cry because the work is hard. Your arms are up, your head is up. It’s hot. But one adjusts. It is a sacrifice, but we are so grateful to have work.
They smell strong. Our bosses try to spare us and move us out while the neighbors spray.
But the Poison Travels in the Wind.
As they fumigate in nearby farms, there really is nowhere to hide from the fumes, even if we try to move away.
The workers in surrounding farms start to feel light-headed and dizzy. What we breathe is pure poison. Some people get so ill that they break out into hives.
They usually remove us for 2 hours while they fumigate. We are not allowed to stay there.
Breaks and Lunches
In the morning we have 15-minute breaks. We take another break in the afternoon and a half hour for lunch. We get plenty of water to drink.
The work remains very tough work but the companies have made improvements. In the recent years, they’ve tried to make shady areas for us. When we pick blueberries, it gets so hot, so they build canopies, like greenhouses, to create a little bit of shade. They also give sick farmworkers i.v. treatments. If we faint, they send us to the clinics. We work really hard and they do what they can to help us stay healthy.
My Husband and I-We Have Always Been a Team
My husband and I have always worked together. We have been married for 20 years and we do everything together, but he is losing his sight. He is 17 years older than I am and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. He can no longer see out of one eye and can barely see out of his other eye, so I am the family driver.
Typically, there are groups of 60 farmers overseen by supervisors. We work side by side with family teams but each family helps their own. We are friendly with others, but we are all focused on working fast and hard to bring money for our own families. Families move about, too. They move to other companies that offer better pay or better managers. They work with pistachio, mandarins, and oranges.
Slow Season-Means Relief to the Body but Tough on the Bills
I make ten dollars an hour. After taxes, not much is left.
In the last 3 weeks, we’ve only been working for 6 hours. This is not enough to survive. I still have to pay the rent and bills. They cut our hours because they say the coolers are filled with grapes. It is hard to survive sometimes, without a fixed schedule.
Our family, we are our own work team. We pack, and my husband carries the produce on a cart. My sister also helps pick the grapes and places them on trays. We bring everything out of the field, we pack it and put together boxes filled with produce. We get paid fifteen cents per box. We process about 80 to 90 boxes. I bring home about $380 per week, which adds up to $1200 per month after taxes. Our rent is $900 a month, not including utilities. Not much is left to eat. We live day to day.
We used to be able to bring fruit home to eat but the rules have changed. They told us that people used to bring home too much, and now sometimes they let us bring home one bag.
The Cold Months are Tough-When the Plants go to Sleep, Everything stops.
During the cold months, nothing grows. It is pointless to look for other farming jobs in the area because all plants are resting. It gets so cold. Everything freezes over. Sometimes, you can pick oranges but not many.
Surviving the Winter Months Requires Creativity. You have to Invent Jobs when All Families are Doing the Same.
Most of us have to file unemployment during the winter months. But we don’t settle for that.
I Sell Makeup To Help My Family
When my girls were young, I told my husband,
“I’m not willing to live in poverty, and I don’t want to answer questions, like “what did you do with all the money?” “You already spent it all?”
Sometimes, we, women, want to buy ourselves and our families something extra.
One day, I had an idea. I was pregnant at the time and I thought, maybe I can sell makeup!
The inspiration came one day when I was doing laundry in a local laundromat. I saw an ad from Jafra, a make-up company from Mexico. The ad said, “sell makeup and keep 50% of what you sell.” So I went to my husband and said:
“Can you loan me $200?”
“Para que?” he responded. “Make-up? Woman, who’s going to buy make-up in Delano?”
“Come on. Trust me. Let me borrow your card. I promise. I will return what I borrow.”
My husband let me borrow the money and I ordered my first make-up kit, with perfume bottles and all.
I was so excited. I grabbed my kit, took to the streets and started selling. I went door to door and visited every woman I knew, friends and acquaintances. The best part? After a month, I went to my husband and said:
“Here you go. Here is your money back.” “Look. I even have some money left over to buy us things.”
Ever since then I have been selling makeup to supplement my income during the winter season. The company is Jafra, a Mexican cosmetic company.
I have many clients, but I don’t always sell a lot. I give them facials, do their make up and spray perfume. The challenge is that when money doesn’t come in because we are not farming, women don’t have extra money to spend on makeup.
I sell more during farming season. Then, women work hard and they want to treat themselves. Sometimes my clients ask me to order special perfume or makeup as a special gift for their little girls.
I sell makeup because farming is not enough. We have to provide for our families. We have to charge forward.
Giving up and waiting are not options.
I have a sick mother back in Mexico who depends on me. My girls, here, they need shoes for school and other things. I don’t make much, but every bit helps.
When I get a little money from my makeup sales, I tell my girls, let’s go treat ourselves.
When I Can’t Sell Makeup, I Bake and Sell Bread.
When no one buys makeup, I bake breads, and my neighbor and I sell them together. During the winter months, this allows us to make extra. My neighbors have gotten used to my bakings and expect it:
“You are going to start baking soon?” I bake my wheat bread, sell it and sometimes I even make $20 from my sales.
We have to work hard to survive the winter season. Unemployment takes a long time to kick in. This means, that there are a couple of weeks with nothing coming in, which is difficult. I try to anticipate and plan. I will think of side jobs and work extra hard so my family won’t go without.
There used to be five of us to support in our Apartment. My daughter Guadalupe is Off to College Now.
My daughter Guadalupe started kindergarten in Delano. I am extremely proud of her. She has always been a great daughter, very studious. Her youngest sister even says: “My sister Guadalupe is the most of intelligent of all of us.” Guadalupe is very organized. One of Guadalupe’s dreams is to graduate and help her family. I wish all her dreams will come true; that she will charge ahead and let nothing stand in the way of her dreams.
My husband used to always tell Guadalupe: “Study hard, hija, so you can go to college in Fresno.”
But Guadalupe would answer: “Ah, no papi, I am studying so that I can go wherever I want.”
My husband insisted: “No, go to Fresno! How will we take care of you if you go too far? Stay close to us.”
But Guadalupe always thought for herself.
Looking Back on My Childhood
When I was young, we would wake up at 5 a.m. My mom would take us to my aunt’s house where we would go back to sleep until it was time to go to school. After school, we would go back to my cousin’s and stay there until my parents came home.
Growing up in Delano, I went to Del Vista Elementary school. Most families sending their children there were either farmers or did field work to supplement their income.
I never worked in the fields until this past summer. I worked in a potato line, throwing out the rotten ones, removing the rocks, dirt, critters, just sorting the potatoes. I worked about 12 hours a day, and yes, it was hot!
My parents work very hard, including Saturdays. My mother dedicates part of her time to go out to do her little business. On Sundays, when she doesn’t work she really likes spending time with friends and family.
How a Girl from Delano found out about UCI
I have always been self-driven. I learned about UCI (the University of California, Irvine), through my charter school, the Wonderful College Prep Academy, which was founded by the company that owns, Wonderful Halos and Wonderful Pistachios. It is a school for the children of farmers, for the parents who work for the Wonderful Company, and for the community. The Wonderful Company offers $6000 UC scholarships and $4000 for the Cal States. The award gets sent quarterly and we have to manage it. Even though we have graduated and are now at the university, the academy continues to send regional retention coordinators that meet with us once a week. We talk about our classes and our grades and how we are doing. My coordinator works for the company and travels from LA to see me every week at UCI.
The charter school is the reason I learned about UCI, and the majority of my classmates ended up going to college. We learned about our college options because the school took us on lots of trips sponsored by the company. We did college tours during the winter break, Thanksgiving, and summer. We visited colleges all over California, and on Fridays we wore college t-shirts to celebrate college.
I visited all of the UC campuses except for two, most of the state colleges, and some private schools.
I chose UCI because I liked the environment and the structure of the school. Everything is in a circle. I thought to myself, it will be easy to find my way here. I just completed my first quarter at UCI. I have passed all my classes and done well. I was able to manage my time and handle the heavy course load. Right now, I’m thinking of majoring in Economics and Political Science. I’m also considering some type of government job, but I’m not sure. I’m still exploring.
There is a small group at UCI from Delano, including my roommate. Whenever we get a break from school, we meet up with other friends in LA and take the train back home. In a 3-5 hour train ride we are back in Delano. My mother gets so excited when I come home. She picks me up at the train station and she always loves to see me.
The first time I came home, everything seemed different. People were tatted up. The hair colors were different, they even dressed and spoke differently. And at the same time, I felt like I was back home like I had never left. My friends and I, we continue to hang out.
I made the right decision choosing UCI. But sometimes I get homesick. I’m studying to have a great profession someday, but more importantly, to help my parents so that they don’t have to work this hard the rest of their lives. They have made incredible sacrifices for their daughters. Soon, it will be my turn to give back.
In the meantime, my mother and father will work the land. I will study hard, looking forward to breaks when I will get to board the train and head home. What awaits me in Delano is home, family, love and delicious posole.
A Life of Service—Gregorio “Don Goyo” Alonso Garcia has been leading Horizontes al Futuro for 21 years. Horizontes provides shelter and education for street youth and seeks to inspire new models of manhood to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and family desertion.
Horizontes al Futuro is a non-governmental, non-profit organization formed in 1988. It is a rehabilitation center for street children in Comayagua, Honduras. Horizontes does not receive any help from the national government of Honduras. The center is supported through a Marist NGO in Spain whose work is based on the principle of “SED” = Solidarity, Education and Development.
Under the leadership of Executive Director, Gregorio “Don Goyo” Alonso García, Horizontes is home to 40 boys ranging in ages from 6 to 18 years. At the center, they receive an education based on dialogue, understanding, and love. The aims of Horizontes are for destitute children to experience a feeling of belonging, to complete the highest levels of education possible, to develop specialized skills, and to reintegrate into family and society.
The center provides them with an holistic education, including: intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and recreational needs. All the boys go to school in town. Horizontes also provides vocational training in tailoring, welding and computing.
A goal of Don Goyo is to ensure that those who want to earn a college degree receive as much support as needed. To ensure graduation, Horizontes helps its college attending student by providing them with shelter and food so they can finish. In turn, college students give back by helping Horizontes’ mentoring of incoming street children.
Some 300 boys have stayed in Horizontes in the last 18 years. Some have stayed for a short season; others, have completed high school or learned a trade. Some have returned to the streets, some have ended in jail, and a number of them have made it to college.
Horizontes al Futuro believes that homeless children represent one of the most serious human rights violations in Central America. Living in the streets to fend for themselves, they are deprived of their most basic human rights. Under the guidance of Don Goyo, and through the efforts of his team, Horizontes sets out to restore dignity, self-esteem and the life expectancy they deserve.
A Life of Service
Don Goyo was born in Spain and is a member of the Maristas brotherhood. He spent 14 years in Africa. Twelve of those years were spent in the Congo. He also spent a season in Rwanda and 15 days in Kenya. The Maristas are a spiritual and educational group started by St. Marcellin Champagnat, a French priest that founded the Congregation of the Marist Teaching Brothers in 1817. They are dedicated to youth formation in the neediest communities in the world.
Don Goyo studied psychology in the University of Salamanca and completed a magisterium in theology and psychology. After his mission to Africa, he returned to Spain to complete his university studies.
“These were the 70’s and I was very interested in the liberation movements in Latin America and the theology of liberation in particular. This was a time rife with warfare in Central American countries, like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. My dream was to move to Central America and help destitute children there.”
What follows is the story of Don Goyo’s efforts to help children against all odds and with unwavering resilience.
An Interview by Soledad Quartucci
A Home for Homeless Street Children in Comayagua, Honduras.
Horizontes al Futuro is a center that assists street children in Comayagua, Honduras. It was already in existence when I arrived in Honduras. In fact, I was sent to replace a failing administration. The budget was not properly balanced and the infrastructure needed work. The Maristas brothers knew that my dream was to be of service in Latin America and sent me there. It’s been 21 years since I became the director of Horizontes al Futuro. I hope to keep going as long as God gives me health. I’ve managed to stay healthy and disease free, except for a minor bout with malaria.
How Do Street Children Find Horizontes?
In my 21 years in Honduras I have met so many people. Most people in Comayagua know me personally, or know of Horizontes. Sometimes, I find the children in the streets; other times, mothers and grandparents bring them to the center. The national center for children and families send them to me as well. Children who are removed from homes, are first taken to DINAF, the national organization for children, adolescents and families. DINAF contacts me, and if I have room, I assume their care.
Sometimes mothers bring them. Other times, when our children go home during vacations, neighbors notice a positive change in the children’s behavior. They ask about Horizontes, and then they bring their own children to the center. When this happens, I have to communicate with DINAF. They are supposed to conduct a socio-economic study of those homes, but it does not always happen. If DINAF determines that a child needs to be removed, they give the child’s family an order of enrollment and we make room for him. But simply put, many children show up and ask for help.
New Families-New Hope
We are mothers, fathers, and educators. We try to provide them with everything they need. Food, shelter, scholarships to private schools, after-school academic support, a local psychologist and spiritual support. We also provide workshops and clinics, some on location, and some out in town. Our students are working in welding, tailoring, painting and technology.
Horizontes’ Beginnings: An American Base Provides Opportunities and Challenges.
Horizontes started in 1989. The center was built at a time when the Americans had opened a base close to Comayagua, about 8 kilometers from here in a place called, Palmerola.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the American base is to blame for the rise of street children, but it is true that it has indirectly played a big role.
On the weekends, Americans wanted to go to Comayagua to dance clubs, to the restaurants or to travel outside the base. Local poor children saw an opportunity to make a few dollars by showing Americans around and catering to them. When a few started earning a dollar per gig, many children who were living in poverty flooded the streets looking to earn a little something from the Americans. They watched their cars and showed them around. The wave of street children contributed to gangs, drugs and organized crime.
Friendship, Soccer and An Opportunity for Healing
Today, colonial Comayagua is a beautiful place. You don’t see street children here.
When I first arrived in Comayagua, the colonial plaza is where I would find the young men, sleeping, living in the park, and getting high. My strategy to help them unfolded step by step. I first approached the oldest members of the group, about 7 of them. I invited them to start a soccer team and I would talk to them, but mostly listen. At the beginning of my time in Comayagua many children lived in the streets. They slept there, begged, stole and everything in between.
I’m not saying that things have drastically improved from the way things were 20 years ago. Today, you won’t find street children in central Comayagua. But in the colonies, that’s where 90 percent of them live. That’s where you’ll find children who don’t go to school. Many are gang members. I have a group here in Horizontes whose mothers brought them in because 16 and 18 year olds were using their young children to sell drugs. The older ones use the younger ones to sell drugs and also to turn them into users. Then, they can threaten them.
For the youth to have a chance, the situation needs to change on so many fronts.
Of this initial group, some ended up in jail. I visited them while they were in confinement. Today, I am a member of a commission that helps youth transitioning out of jail. We want them to know that someone cares, and that there is support awaiting them once they are released.
Horizontes al Futuro begins to Grow
Horizontes al Futuro grew step by step. We started receiving help from the embassies and from the Marista brotherhood in Spain. First, we focused on improving the infrastructure, the buildings, changing the roofs, putting up windows and as we improved the buildings we could take in more children adding up to 30.
We started bringing educators to the team, and this allowed us to grow up to 45. Today, we have 36 youth living in Horizontes. They stay in three homes according to age. One for the little ones, one for the middle school aged ones and one for the older ones.
Most of these children come from living in extreme poverty and from single parent homes.
Fatherless in Comayagua
Ninety-eight percent of the children who stay in Horizontes do not know their father. A small percentage of the children have a stepparent, but in my years of experience, having a stepparent has in many cases, made their situation worse. Some of the children in Horizontes turned to the streets and against their mothers because of a stepfather.
Who are the Children who come to Horizontes?
The profile of the child that comes to Horizontes is a youth living in a family suffering extreme poverty. The neighborhoods are often surrounded by gangs, and drug consumption is common.
Socio-Economic Realities of Honduran Families
Sadly, this is a common problem because the socio-economic reality of families in Honduras is precarious. We have supermarkets and many shops in Comayagua, but 70 percent of the families cannot enjoy them because products constantly go up in price.
Food goes up. Tools go up, but Salaries Don’t
The great majority of workers labor without a fixed salary. What they earn is not enough to survive. They may have enough to eat, but not enough for clothes or health. The lucky ones with full-time jobs in factories do not make minimum wage, because the companies can pay whatever they choose. Businesses know that people need to work and people need to work so they accept what is offered, even if it’s below minimum wage.
Educational Reform is Urgently Needed
We need a better education for the children. The ministry of education in Honduras does not uphold the laws of public education which state that education should be free and accessible to children and adolescents. Instead, families are expected to pay for salaries, for the building of bathrooms, for a guard, for benches, for painting, for school repairs, but most of our families cannot do that.
There are some teachers who are so lovely and so selfless. They are devoted to their students, and even go without eating so that their students can have a lunch. But there are also other teachers that humiliate the poor student. Instead of encouraging them to come to school with a little notebook, welcoming them to their classrooms, even if they don’t have shoes, they do the opposite. They tell them that without shoes they cannot stay in class. Without supplies, they should not come to school. If you don’t bring this, I’ll deduct 10 points from your homework. This is why we have such high school dropout rates.
Mothers’ Choices Are Complex and Few
There are mothers who don’t enroll their children in school because they cannot afford it. If the mother is a single parent, she has to find ways to find work and to help her family. This means that her children stay home by themselves, and don’t go to school. The house has nothing to entertain them or feed them. There is no refrigerator, food, or light. They are almost forced to go to the streets in search of something to eat and something to do. In such a fragile state, a young boy becomes prey to gangs. He is easy to enlist because there is no one there for him. Mothers have no time to spend with them so they find companionship in gangs.
Mothers become Mothers at a Young Age
Some of the children’s mothers get pregnant very young, as early as 12 or 13 years old. Many of them are abandoned before the child is even born. Often times, the father refuses to recognize the child and moves on. Sometimes mothers may have children from three different fathers and none of them will stay. These young mothers can feel defeated and suffer from low self-esteem. They have been through many abandonments and somehow they have to provide food and work. When pregnant, they go to the hospital and they can sit there all day waiting for help. These mothers suffer on many counts. They want the best for their children, but they lack the most essential necessities.
In a Town Without Fathers, Horizontes Provides Hope
Poor mothers often reach out to us and tell us they are on their own and they need help. In these cases, the father has usually left.
Where have the Men Gone?
Some explanation can be provided through the immigration problem. Due to financial hardship, men and women have left to the U.S., to Europe, and to Spain, specifically. There is also internal migration patterns to San Pedro Sur or other commercial zones.
What is a Day in Horizontes like?
We are in the process of formalizing our day. There have been proposals to build a school within our walls but I haven’t wanted to do that. I want the children to feel as normal as possible. Most people don’t have schools inside their homes. I want them to live in Horizontes as if it were their home, surrounded by a family that loves and supports them, like most families do.
We have 12 year olds that have never been to school or have dropped out.
Here, they wake up, make their beds, take a bath, take care of his personal belongings, the hallways and different chores. Each of them completes a small task per day.
After breakfast, we have a group of 6 who attend private school. I’ve been able to get scholarships for them.
Another school, the Liceo Cardenal Oscar Andres Rodriguez charges us less than regular tuition. I’ve been able to have up to 5 enrolled there at a time, but now I only have two.
I take all the children to school and pick them up. I go to the Inmaculada and to the Instituto Liceo Cardenal. Some of the peer students drop them off in the Escuela Nazareth.
Five of them stay here to attend workshops. Welding is offered from 8-10 a.m. and tailoring takes place from 10 a.m.-12pm.
We have 9 that go out to town for a mechanics workshop. They go to Taller Hernandez, Taller Jonathan, and Taller Amaya. When they return from the schools and workshops, they wash their uniforms, hang them to dry, then take a break, and play a game until dinner.
From 2:00pm to 3:30pm, we have daily after-school support. Schools typically send homework for them to do. We support them with topics, such as writing, and math. We help them improve across the curriculum. After scholastic support, we have soccer matches on Mondays and Fridays.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have an hour of English lessons. An American woman from Chicago leads these lessons.
We teach catechism, and every 15 days, we visit a nursing home.
When returning from the workshops, they shower, wash their clothes, engage in an activity, have some playtime and dinner.
They play games, watch movies in their homes, and then rest.
On Fridays, from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm there is a gathering in church. Youth from neighboring villages, about 200, gather to pray.
On Saturdays, some take mechanics’ lessons out in town.
I get together with the middle school ones and the oldest ones from 8:30 to 10 am to discuss topics, such as personality, and dating.
On Saturday, after finishing lunch, if they are from Comayagua, there is a group of them that head home. If they are from another town, like La Libertad or Tegucigalpa, they go home every 15 days and they return on Saturdays by 6pm.
With the children who stay, we organize some outing or fun game.
Sundays at 9:00 a.m, we go to church. The oldest and middle school children are in youth ministry.
Developing a Feeling of Belonging, a Sense of Home and Working toward Different Outcomes
I want the children to feel normal, and to have a healthy routine: go to church, work, go to school, the university, participate at home, go home on the weekends, and reintegrate and contribute to society.
Regarding education and human formation, these are not quantifiable. To shape a person, to help them develop, to bring out their best qualities, to encourage them to give the best of themselves, these processes cannot be quantified.
If you plant love, hope and self-esteem in the human heart, some day it will give fruit.
I will admit that some times there are downturns and frustrations. Sometimes the dreams one has for them and the expectations we build for them are not reached. But I do believe that every good intention planted in their hearts will some day grow.
How to Assess the Value of Horizontes’ Work on Behalf of Street Children
No matter how short their stay, they will leave knowing that while in Horizontes, teachers, catechists, volunteers, American groups, and university students came to Horizontes out of love and care for them.
I have lived through many heartbreaking situations following the sudden departure of a child in our care. In those cases, I am left hoping, if only I had had more time.
Sometimes they opt for the streets and rejoin bad influences, but they also return. We have seen every case.
Some children have ended up in jail.
We have 4 right now in jail. This past week, I visited them.
I tell them, “When you were in Horizontes you didn’t listen to me and now, you call me from jail. “Don Goyo, no one is coming to see me. Don Goyo, I need soap.”
Some Horizontes Graduates Have Made it to the University
Regarding their educational level, they highest level achieved has been university studies. I currently have 4 enrolled in the university. Two of them have earned university degrees. A good group has completed the bachelors’ program. Many others have completed mechanics, welding and painting trainings.
The Challenges of Reintegrating their lives Back Home.
Sometimes a visit to the family home creates confusion, depression and setbacks. There is a little bit of everything. On principle, they have to learn to stay strong in any environment and this includes, going home. It is a true test of character when they go home and they stay inside, instead of going to the streets. We encourage them to be of service, to contribute to their families and to help them. Many are able to manage it well and willingly return to Horizontes on Sundays. For some, home visits are tough. During Holy Week many went home.
When they return, some show decreased enthusiasm, and some go back to vice, but these are real life risks that sometimes they have to go through.
On our end, it is very difficult to watch all the progress made, come crumbling down.
We enlist the mothers’ support in our efforts to help the children. The last Sunday of every month, the mothers are invited. Sometimes we get about 80 percent attendance. We put on shows and plays for them. I tell the mothers, that when the boys come home, to encourage them, to congratulate them when they show good behavior. Help them with supportive words, ask them to help clean their homes.
But sometimes, the environment in the homes and neighborhoods is not the best and it is certainly a temptation. Some are definitely not strong enough. This is a constant struggle and a constant worry.
And even in the worst cases all that we have tried to do has not been in vain. We have showed them respect, love and made them feel valued.
The Horizontes Team:
For formal education they go out in town. I have 3 educators, an assistant director who helps when I’m not here. Two Horizontes’ graduates who are currently attending the university. We help them complete their university studies. They couldn’t pay for transportation and food. They stay with us and help us with the children and we help them so they can afford to finish and graduate.
One of our educators came to Horizontes when he was 7 and he was able to complete his education all the way to a bachelor’s degree, which he is currently finishing. He studied pedagogy in English and computer science. The psychologist we have on staff is from DINFA. We are part of the DINFA network that provides children’s advocacy and rights organization. We currently have a psychologist on staff six days a week.
Our healthcare system consists of a first aid kit. We are also lucky. We are across from the San Benito Hospital. The first consultation with a doctor takes place there. If anyone needs surgery, we have to schedule and wait. When we need ultrasounds or x-rays, those are done through private clinics, and we try to negotiate with them for affordable rates.
Some doctors and dentists also work with us.
We Welcome and Appreciate our Summer Volunteers:
During July and August I have 2-4 volunteers from Spain who are professors in Spain and during their holiday, they come out to help.
Since our opening, we have had more than 100 volunteers from 38 nationalities. We used to have an Exchange program with youth from across the world. They used to come from Norway, Denmark, Portugal and England. We had a therapist come stay with us for 2 months.
When they come in July, they help us with everything. They play, take them to school, support them with homework, accompany us on fun trips. Going to the beach is a 4-hour round trip, but we’ve been there a few times. We do enjoy trips to Villa Mar, a water park. They waive our entrance fee.
When our volunteers visit us, they are like another mother. They share in the daily routine of the children.
In Need of Support: Our Staff Works Around the Clock
We could certainly use more help, but we manage. It entails a sacrifice. We are with them all day long. There are no fathers around. If the father is present and goes to work he barely sees his children. Mothers also work.
Here in Horizontes, the educator stays all day. On the weekends, they take turns going home. They take 3 days off to replenish their energies and to spend time with their own families.
How Long Do Children Stay in Horizontes?
The children that come to Horizontes are at least, 6 years old. We need them to be able to take a bath on their own, and wash and dry their clothes. They are as old as 18. Some of our students stay longer. If they are completing university degrees and workshops, we encourage them to stay. We take into account the possibility of their self reliance once they leave us, and always consider individual and family circumstances. We had a pair of brothers who fared very differently. One ended up in jail the other went on to the university. I stand behind them and want them to finish their studies. Sometimes they stay 2 or 3 years, or leave sooner. It varies.
Leaving Too Soon
I have had very painful experience with unexpected goodbyes. We are in the process of helping them and we are fully invested and care deeply for each of them. We try to provide them with everything we anticipate that they could need: peers, educators, psychologists. We organize soccer matches. We stock our library, we have tvs. We get scholarships for schools. We take them to the doctors. We go to waterparks. We try to cover all the basics but sometimes the appeal of the living on the streets still wins.
Sometimes the teens who come in with drug addictions don’t stay. Age and time spent surrounded by our resources does sometimes affect the outcome of the children’s situation. Our goal is to help them get university degrees and we know most cannot in homes without tables, dictionaries, or the internet.
The children live in homes inside of Horizontes. The homes house them according to ages. Each home has an educator assigned to the group. We have offices, soccer fields workshops kitchen, lunch room, library, televisions. When we dont’ have enough staff, we train our eldest students to help the younger ones. So the children learn to live communally in their homes and within Horizontes.
They are so grateful. For the smallest, little gifts they are so happy. Faith, helps them, too. They couldn’t survive otherwise. Their positive spirit helps them overcome and not despair.
But I do wish they fought more. I see missing a spirit of vindication and fight. All the president and politicians have to do is show up with a bag of concrete, and a bag of lies and they believe them. I wish they stood up for themselves. I haven’t seen much progress, and yet this is isn’t their fault. The government sets the tone. They wait for help from Taiwan for a hospital and for this country and that country’s handouts.
The government is responsible for its people living on their knees, begging for handouts. There is welfare for transport, handouts for everyday things; days where bags of help are announced. Officials make appearances with 50 bags with handouts and 500 people show up. Just barely enough. Countries from around the world send help but it doesn’t always reach the neediest.
What can be done today?
All we can hope is that we give them enough love, education and encouragement so that by the time they leave, we can witness them make different, healthy decisions. It will be up to them. They will have to tap into all the goodness within them. To spread their wings, develop their qualities and live a different life.
I now have 9 in mechanics, and I would love to see them prosper, overcome, make a life for themselves and for their children. I long to see them reach their goals, find a meaningful job, study. As they leave Horizontes, other young ones will need shelter and we will be here for them.
For our students, we hope that they will form healthy families where fathers stay and love their children. That they love their wives, and that they realize how much children need their fathers. I want to see other types of homes, homes with love, support, unity, care and compassion. Homes different than the ones that lead them to the streets in search for what was missing.
I hope they will work in professions that their parents could not. And I also hope that in gratitude they will return and help raise other street children.
We know that what we do is but a grain in the sand.
They need Fathers, but also a Society that invests in them and embraces them, too.
The Ultimate Dream:
Ultimately, the dream is that they don’t repeat the treatment that they suffered through. One of the young men who grew up in Horizontes, David, now lives in the United States. He married a Puerto Rican woman who, unfortunately, died. When his little one was born, he used to get on his knees and whisper to him,
“Don’t be afraid son. I will never leave you. I am your father for life. A different father, a different husband. A father, unconditionally.”
David is a gift in a world of trouble. He is a small but magnificent change. Our work continues and we can only hope for more Davids and more fathers that love their children and stay.
For volunteering opportunities or to support Horizontes al Futuro please contact:
“To my first graders whose parents are gone, I tell them that we are their family. Their classmates are more than friends. They are also brothers and sisters. When they hurt I tell them, “You can call me, Mama.” Professor Cordelia Fajardo teaches first graders in Comayagua Honduras. Some of her students’ parents have left to the U.S.
An Interview by Soledad Quartucci
I didn’t choose a career in teaching. It somehow chose me. From a very young age I knew I was meant to guide children. I am 67 years old and I have been teaching for 42 years.
Mi name is Profesora Cordelia Victoria Fajardo. I work in the department of Comayagua in Honduras and I teach in the Escuela Manuel Andara.
I got my start at 23 years old. At the time, I didn’t have a fixed school. So I would travel to villages on teaching assignments getting around in carts, riding donkeys, on horseback and on foot. I started teaching in a small village known as El Sitio. From there, I moved around to various places where I was needed, like Flores, La Via de San Antonio and El Coquito.
First Teaching Experiences
At first, I had many difficulties in the classroom. I didn’t have any experience.
With practice and time, I was able to deepen my knowledge. To get through the hard times, I focused on the children who needed me.
My first students were children living in poor villages; they didn’t have enough to eat, and had almost no clothes.
It was in these villages that I grew a heart for solidarity.
The need was so great, that I quickly forgot about my difficulties and got the courage to do everything I could to help, including asking strangers, coworkers and friends for books, notebooks, and shoes.
Getting others involved in helping, energized me. Working on behalf of my students and their families felt good.
How I Learned To Teach
At my first stable job, I taught all grades from first to sixth grade. When I moved to the city I started working with upper division students.
I learned how to teach by asking questions. In my family all my sisters are teachers. I would ask them. How do I teach this? Since I was expected to teach all grades, this was a big task. My sisters helped me through sketching. They helped me with ideas and my heavenly father illuminated me along the way. I knew I was working with a higher force, because instead of being afraid or tired, I would make it through long challenging days with endless energy.
Each day, I would wake up and fight to learn more and to do better.
A Matriarchy of Teachers & Learning by Doing
Four of my sisters have worked in education. They have all retired. At 67 I’m still going. At our school, children go to school from 7 am to noon. We have two shifts. The second one starts in the afternoon. Our curriculum is varied and includes Spanish, math, social and natural sciences, English, physical education and computing.
For physical education, we have soccer and basketball fields. Girls play both sports.
I studied in Comayagua in the Instituto Inmaculada Concepcion where I learned lots of theories.
After we graduated, I knew that I didn’t know anything. I knew I was a teacher but I had no idea how to apply theories into every day teaching.
Life experience in the classroom inspired me with many methods. But the truth is, I invented my own style of teaching along the way.
Every day and with each different class it was like making a salad. I borrowed, adapted, added and mixed all my methods hoping that they would work.
Working with the older students in the upper divisions I felt so comfortable. I prepared my lessons, I explained things to them and they asked so many great questions. But once I moved to La Sabana, I was told I would be teaching solely first grade.
I said, “What? How am I supposed to teach first graders?”
At first it felt like a down grade. I was very sad. I remember staring at the little faces and feeling lost. How would I teach such young children?
Through asking questions and praying I made it through a tough first year. The wonderful thing is that by the end of that first year, all of my first graders had learned how to read. The school considered this a great success and decided I was perfect for this age group.
This was the start of 20 years of teaching first grade.
Nowadays I teach first, as well as second and third. But in my whole teaching career, my favorite grade has been first grade. I love this grade because children arrive in my class without knowing anything. I get to play a significant role in their lives. I guide them out of the dark into the light.
It is always so rewarding when I run into them later in life and see some of them have made it into doctors, engineers, mechanics, builders. I thank God and I say, Gracias!, because you pushed me to help others.
I was born here. It is a very beautiful and tranquil place. We didn’t use to have as much corruption as our country faces today. Our parents raised us with lots of values. Most of us are children of humble agricultural workers. My father worked in the fields and my mother was a homemaker.
I am so proud and grateful for the parents that god gave me. They were special. The taught us to give back, to teach. They gave us a strong foundation and it led us to find meaningful work.
Comayagua is a very devout place. We celebrate many religious festivals. During Holy Week, lots of tourists come visit us.
Today, very few people work in agriculture. Most work in businesses, factories like soap, juice and tomato paste factories. We export vegetables, cheeses and butter to the United States.
Comayagua is a flat valley. It is surrounded by mountains. About 150,000 people live here. It’s grown quite a bit. Many people have crossed over to our home. People seek work, and get around in bicycle, motor taxis and some cars.
Unfortunately, we suffer from unemployment and that’s why so many locals emigrate.
We Raise Our Children to be Street Smart
The authorities look after the children, as do the parents. Mothers and fathers drop off children and pick them up. We also advise them not to go with strangers and to keep their eyes open and to be careful. We want each one of them safe. If one is hurting, we all hurt. This past year, a stepfather killed his stepson and our school community suffered horribly. We love our students as if they were our own children.
My Homemade Pedagogy
I have been lucky to have been able to be a working woman my whole life. I now have the honor of teaching in Comayagua’s biggest school. We are fortunate to have internet, water and light. We also have plumbing. We do have some crimes and gang problems, but not a lot.
I have taught them to count by playing hopscotch, skipping rocks on the river, and jumping over running water. To teach them a love of reading, I have invented stories, and to build vocabulary I have emphasized the stories behind the words that hold a lot of meaning to us; important words like love, the sky, Maria and Dios.
It’s all About Reading, Writing, Storytelling and Vocabulary
Regarding our student body, some of our children are local and others come from marginal areas and arrive by bus. Many of my students love math and others love Spanish and reading.
Our biggest effort with first graders is to teach them to read and develop a love of reading. We want them to write without errors and to write neatly. We also emphasize reading with intonation and reading comprehension. First graders love reading time and writing on the board.
One of their favorite activities is questions and answers. They love that. They are naturally curious. They get so happy when we go outside. We usually take them outside for story time because we find that nature is a great source of inspiration for storytelling.
The Meaning Behind Teaching Vocabulary
Part of the reason we focus strongly on developing vocabulary is because many of our children are extremely shy and dislike talking. Some of these children come from single parent homes or live with grandparents because both parents have left to the United States.
These children suffer. Their parents send them money from the U.S. but what they need is love and guidance. They need that desperately.
We know our students’ particular situations very well. We know who these children are, and we do everything we can to give them the love and support that they need. Because these children can often act out, I pray for patience. Every morning I wake up and I pray: Lord, give me patience and give me endless love to reach the children who need me. Give me more love so I can pour it onto them.
I make time to talk to the children who are hurting because their parents are gone. I tell them that I love them dearly. I hug them. I remind them that their parents love them, too. I speak with love and I listen to them.
It may take them a little while, but once they open up, trust begins to grow and we are better able to help them. Children in the first grade are innocent and look up to their teachers as if they were angels. They tell us everything.
“My mama and papa they got in a fight today;” “We didn’t eat today;” “I only brought water for my snack, prof, my mom doesn’t have money.”
They feel safe at school and so they share all the little details of daily life that help us understand them better.
I Make Home Visits
In my years of experience I have found that to really serve my students well, I must understand their world. On the weekends, I visit my students in their homes and try to get to know their parents. I take taxis to get around. I don’t have a car.
The visits help me to understand my students’ living conditions and also the families’ needs. Life in the Marginal Areas of Comayagua can be a very difficult life. If you stop by and visit these families at lunch time, and ask them why they are not cooking, they’ll tell you, “I don’t have anything to cook or to eat.”
If I don’t catch them at home, I also get to know the parents when they come to school to enroll their children. Like their sons and daughters, many of the parents are eager to find compassion and resources. Most, tell us about their difficulties.
I have found that integrated families tend to have healthier children and more food. Their children behave better. In the classroom, when the little ones start fighting, throwing things and saying unkind words, we can tell that they are suffering and that there are problems at home.
To my first graders whose parents are gone, I tell them that we are their family. Their classmates are more than friends. They are also brothers and sisters. When they hurt I tell them, “You can call me, mamá.”
I visit not only my new students but also my professional, older students. To me, they are family. When they are home, they invite me to eat; they visit me. I have a group of students who attend the university, and some who live and work in the U.S. When they return to Honduras for visits, they get together with all of their school friends and they invite me to dinner. We have such a great time.
Horizontes Al Futuro—Horizons, Looking to the Future
On Wednesdays, after teaching first graders, I work with an organization called, Horizontes al Futuro that rehabilitates street youth. We have children as young as 6 years old, all the way up to eighteen-year olds. The director is Gregorio Alonzo Garcia, originally from Spain. Below, Garcia with his students in Horizontes.
At Horizontes I am a member of the directive committee and I also teach catechism. We always try to incorporate fun activities. To help support the program, we cook, sell food and sell raffle tickets.
The children, and teens who stay here are not orphans. They have families, but they are children who have gotten involved in drugs. They’ve stolen, and gotten in trouble. The police picks them up from the streets and then they call Gregorio, and he picks them up.
The children live in Horizontes during the week. Under don Gregorio’s leadership, they get an education, receive clothes, food, and job training. It costs the families nothing. If they get sick, they get medicine, too. On Friday afternoon, we take them to their homes, and on Sundays at 5pm we pick them up and take them back to Horizontes. We meet with the parents and we try to connect the families with resources.
Gregorio is greatly loved by Comayaguans, and especially by the young men who stay in Horizontes. He sets such a big example. Here he is, from Spain doing things for Hondurans that Hondurans don’t even do. Why aren’t we doing more for our own youth?
The children that stay in Horizontes love Gregorio. They call him, papá.
Horizontes receives help from churches in Spain and also from the Base de Palmerola, a Honduran base that houses U.S. troops in Comayagua. We have gringo godparents in the base that help Gregorio help the children.
In addition to our great director, the center also has teachers, homework assistants and workshop leaders. While in Horizontes, they learn computers, sewing and other trades. The focus is on rehabilitation, reintegration and learning marketable skills. We currently have 45 young men between 7 years old and 18 years old.
The gringos from the base, Base Aerea de Parmerola are retired and they are charitable and a big help. But most of our support comes from Spain. On the Dia de los Ninios, the day of the children, a national holiday, the Americans invite the children from Horizontes to the base. They throw a party for them, buy presents and food, and they also celebrate Mother’s Day. The children’s mothers get presents, too.
Sometimes, with all the help we get from Spain, and from the base, we still don’t have enough. That’s when we head to the streets to ask people to help us. We ask our families, our coworkers and our friends. People donate what they can, everything from money to work contributions. Some people send us monthly donations.
I even ask my fellow teachers,
“Do you want to godparent one of my kids?”
Our School is Beautiful
All of us teachers contribute to its upkeep. The parents and students help us, too. We are currently trying to expand our bathrooms. The school is big but we don’t have enough of them. We also lack in school books and desks. The government does not help us.
Fortunately, we have an amazing mayor, Carlos Miranda, who is dedicated to helping us.
Everything you see in our school we have bought ourselves. Even the boards. They parents have done their part to help us, when possible. We buy all the desks, we paint the classrooms, and we even installed the floors. They used to be made of mud, now they are made of ceramics. It gets really hot in the summer, and dirt gets into our classrooms. To help with this we’ve installed new windows.
Our mayor, Mr. Miranda, is really dedicated to helping us. He helped us finish the gym. We had done as much as we could and he stepped in. Since our school is close to a busy street, our mayor helped us build a different entry way so that the parents and students could come in and leave the school safely.
He also helped us fix five rotting roofs and walls that needed repairs.
I have a student who is disabled and used to sleep in a cardboard bed. I asked the mayor for a little bed and he gave it to me. This is the kind of mayor that we have.
Adolescence, Love and Advice
We cannot openly teach a class about sexuality. But we have our own ways of guiding our young. It is important that we counsel them in sexuality, because they fall in love so young and parents won’t talk to them about their bodies or about pregnancy.
When our children go outside to the playground, we always watch them. Out sixth graders fall in love so easily. So we talk to them, especially when they come to us with questions. We believe in teaching them that their bodies are sacred, but we also believe in providing them with real information.
Last year, one of our sixth graders got pregnant. Now, her mother raises both her and her daughter. It is important that we talk to our young about sexuality, how the body works and about pregnancy. The consequences for not doing so have so many ramifications for everyone in the family.
At our school, when it comes to advice, we have to tread carefully. Not all parents want us to discuss sex, or feel comfortable with talks of pills and condoms. But if the children come to me, and ask, I advise them to the best of my ability.
They call me, Mamá, Grandma and Auntie
Many of our students come to school hungry. They tell me, “I just didn’t bring my snack, prof, can I borrow yours?” We try to bring humor to difficult situations. Laughter helps us all to cope. I tell them, “and when are you paying me back? When I’m a little old lady, you’ll help support me,” we joke.
It makes me so happy to know that they feel comfortable asking me for food or anything they need.
I Feel So Loved
My students love me deeply, and I love them right back.
They say the cutest things. They hug me.
I know no greater joy than when I open the big school door and I see those little faces waiting for me.
“Good Morning, Prof;” they give me the biggest hugs. “You look so beautiful today.” “What a lovely dress!” “I like your necklace.”
When we have parent-teacher conferences, the mothers tell me that their children ask them to change their style to look like me, “dress more like my prof,” “mama, you should wear your hair like my prof.” “Mama, why don’t you put on make-up?”
I love them as if they were my own. I don’t allow anyone to harm them, or hit them. Last year, there was a first grader who wanted to stay in our school, but we were full. Two students were not able to enroll. I cried for those children. They had to go to another school, but I stayed in touch with them and their families. If they don’t understand the homework, I help them. Sometimes, teachers are harsh and lose their patience. I pray for patience. They need me to be loving and immensely patient.
I Tell them, Fight for Your Life, Fight for Your Children.
I have a young student who has serious anger problems. I have talked with his mother but she doesn’t want to accept help. I have told her about psychologists we have in Horizontes. I have offered to pick him up, take him to counseling and bring him home. She doesn’t want me to. The father smokes drugs at home. He is also a wife beater.
Defend yourself, I tell her. Fight for your life and for your son. Leave.
Sometimes, I even go to the grandmothers to enlist their help in helping my little students. After I have tried it all, I also pray.
I Was a Single Mother, and I Made It
I am a mother. I raised my son as a single parent with the most loving support of my parents.
I have been blessed with a wonderful son. My parents helped me every step of the way. I have also been very fortunate to have beautiful life-long friends. My close friends and my family were fundamental in my life.
I was raised to survive, to work and to serve. My father always told me,
”You will work. It is a sad sight to have single mothers beg for the daily bread.” I listened to my father and set out to work. I got pregnant at 21 years old. When my son turned five, my parents helped babysit him while I went to work.
If I made mistakes in my youth, they were due to ignorance. My parents tried to protect me. By not talking to me about the body, about pregnancy and sexual relations, they felt they were sheltering me from harm. These issues were taboo then, and for some families, they continue to be so, today.
My parents did the best they could for us. I grew up with a very tight knit family, always there to help me along the way. Today we all live close by. My granddaughter graduated in industrial psychology. My four sisters live on the same block.
Words for My Students
Keep charging forward! Use school to prepare yourself for life.
I have visited my students in jail. Some, I have lost to bullets. I have had to bury some of my students. I don’t want this fate for my little ones. I want them off the streets. I want them to see themselves as the future leaders of Honduras.
They deserve to be in universities, in great jobs, working in trades of their choice. Perhaps one of them could become our next president of Honduras. We hope he will be honest, a person of high integrity with a deep love for our country and its people.
We will be long gone, but my little students, they will inherit Honduras and its welfare.
I am a Mother of Many-One biological son, and the rest, hundreds of them, well, they could almost be!
I have thousands of children. So many have passed through my life. And they call me, Mama. I am now teaching the children of my first groups of students. When we get together we laugh, I tell them, “here comes my whole generation of students.” I get rewarded every day with so much love.
When they nominated me for teacher of the year, I told the supervisor—who happened to have been one of my students—”Ruben, I am not licensed. We have lots of licensed professors. I’m not one of them.” He told me, “Yes, you are competing with many but what I look for in teaching excellence is experience and a dedicated teacher who has accomplished impossible things throughout her career. I cannot think of a better candidate than you.”
I still cannot believe I was awarded such an amazing prize. Last year, on September 17th 2015, on our celebrated, “Day of the Teacher,” I was named Teacher of the year in Comayagua. I also received 2 medals, and a computer.
I submitted my paperwork to start my retirement in 2014. I have not receive the okay yet. In the meantime there is just so much work to be done. When the time comes to leave, I will walk home with my head held high and my heart filled with love and unforgettable experiences. I have been a teacher a mother, to thousands of children!
“My parents never made it to school. They grew up in the school of life and taught themselves how to read. Even though they didn’t make it to school, they made sure that we did.” Gloria Esperanza Sosa, rural teacher in Honduras.
Gloria Esperanza Sosa leans against local politician, Walter Chavez, after receiving a national award for teaching excellence by the Honduran Congress. Photo, courtesy of Walter Chavez’ Facebook page.
Every morning, Gloria Esperanza Sosa gets up at 6 o’clock and heads to work. Gloria is a teacher and the school director of Jose Cecilio del Valle, a rural school in Las Crucitas, a small village of 100 homes in El Paraiso, Honduras.
Life in Las Crucitas:
Las Crucitas is a village of 100 homes in Danil, a municipality of El Paraiso in Honduras. Gloria’s father was one of the original founders of the village. He and other rural families joined forces to build Las Crucitas’ first school. In fact, it was this school that gave birth to this community as rural families moved to the area so they could work and educate their children in the remote area. Today, Gloria describes her neighbors as members of a community that is “muy bonita,” very beautiful. She praises the families as healthy, and Las Crucitas as a place filled with good, hard-working people. Gloria is more than a teacher. She is a leader in a small farming community. Her students are the children of farmers.
The village is connected through dirt roads. Residents have access to potable water and electricity, innovations of the recent years. There is no plumbing or hot water. Melissa Lopez, daughter of Gloria Sosa, shared that their community is united, collaborative and extremely helpful. When she heard that I was interviewing her mother, Melissa contacted farmers across Las Crucitas asking for photos of every day life. “All I had to do was ask,” stated Melissa, “and using their little old cell phones, photos from across town, started pouring in. Famers were happy to help and to share picutres of their lives for Gloria’s story.
Residents use latrines, and wood burning stoves to prepare their daily meals. Gloria considers herself blessed. She has one of the few gas stoves in the community.
To buy food residents travel by bus to Danli, the nearest city. The bus is considered a long distance traveling treat. Locally, people get around on bikes, and homemade motor-taxis. Some residents build attachable baskets onto their bikes, and add a third wheel for easier transportation of goods and people. No alcohol is sold in Las Crucitas. It is an extremely religious town, mostly Catholic and evangelical. Catholics attend the church, Sagrada Familia, Sacred Family, and evangelicals attend Pentecostal International Mission. Melissa shared that since everyone in town knows each other, crime is extremely low and almost unheard of. People are so helpful that if I were to arrive in town and was lost, I could ask anyone how to get to Gloria or her daughter, Melissa’s house, and after interrogating me to make sure I’m a good person, they would guide me to their homes, and wait outside just in case I need anything else, like having to find another neighbor or needing to find my way back to a different town.
There are 4 teachers in Las Crucitas, including Gloria. Women work hard. They are homemakers, and also work in the fields and help milk the cows. After milking the cows, women take the milk to milk factories and this helps them to make a little extra money for their families. Women also attend church regularly and men like to play soccer.
A Community Leader, Teacher and School Director
Gloria is 65 years old. She has been teaching for 36 years, and presently, she teaches the children of her first cohort of students.
I found Gloria when I stumbled upon a Honduran article on teaching excellence. In a photo celebrating her dedication to her community and to education, petite Gloria leaned against local political candidate, Walter Chavez, as she hanged on to an award recognizing her as an outstanding educator.
After contacting Mr. Chavez, I was able to connect with Gloria and interview her. Amidst roosters’ yells, laughter, my Spanglish, and Gloria’s happy spirit, Gloria told me she had been waiting for my call. The teacher shared her views on education, the meaning of her award, and they way she hopes to be remembered by her students.
Mi name is Gloria Esperanza Sosa. I have been working as a teacher since the age of 22. I was “bien jovencita,” very young when I got started. I knew that I was meant to teach since a very young age. I knew this because I love children and I love to teach.
I work in a rural area and through my lifetime as a teacher I have witnessed much poverty and many difficulties affecting my students’ families. I have always done what I could to support the children. Whatever they have needed, I have tried to provide it. Sometimes it’s been school supplies; other times, it’s been food, and help.
I have raised so many youth! I am so grateful for my teaching award, and for the computer I received from the national congress.
Last year, I was invited to apply for this award. I sent my curriculum, and to my surprise, a commission representing the municipality of Danil visited me to tell me I was going to be honored. Later, I received a call from Congress inviting me to attend the celebration.
The Life of a Rural Teacher
I trained to be a teacher in the Escuela Normal Espania in Danli, which continues to train teachers today. When I went to school, the teaching credential lasted 3 years.
I have faced many challenges as a teacher. But one learns to adapt. Rural villages are not places of luxury. We don’t have much, but we do a lot with a little, and we know what matters. At the beginning of my career I didn’t have electricity, or potable water. Things are better now, but there is still work ahead.
I had great parents who taught me to give of myself selflessly, to love my neighbor, to love children and to cherish the elderly. These teachings propelled me forward then, and continue to move me to action today.
My job is to raise the next generation and to help shape their character. Academics are very important, but equally important is to teach children values.
We Are Resourceful People
Some of the greatest challenges we face is that we cannot rely on economic support from our government to provide the type of quality education we would like to offer .
I’m working on getting help to get a new roof for our school. The building is 36 years old and our roof is in immediate need of repair. When it rains, we have leaks. One of our classrooms, in particular, gets a lot of water. Our fence needs to be patched up, too. It has deteriorated over time. We need to repair it because it helps us to keep our students safe and our property protected. Our tables and school benches are very old, too.
We have a united community and parents always step in to try to help. We hope to find furniture and service providers that can help our school.
Blue Skies and Open Spaces
Our playground is an open ground. Children don’t need much. Just fresh air, and a big space. Our students use their imaginations to entertain themselves. They like chasing each other during break, jumping rope and playing hopscotch.
Jose Cecilio Del Valle, a resilient school in Las Crucitas
We have 96 students in our school and we teach all 6 grades from 1st to 6th grade. I am the school director and also its oldest teacher. I teach 3rd and 4th grade. Our students range in ages from six to twelve years old. Our day begins at 7 am. We stop for lunch at twelve and some days continue on until 3pm. We start our day with daily prayer, spiritual and moral teachings and then move on to natural sciences, Spanish, math and other courses.
A Day in the Life of Gloria
I wake up at 6 am. I head to school, go home for lunch, and return to school at 1pm. Due to scarcity of food, the families have asked that the children be allowed to walk home, eat with their families and return to school. I have allowed it.
Our school does not have technology, computers or internet signal. But we do have electricity and water.
The children are good children. They need more education after completing their schooling here, but while here, they apply themselves and they like to learn. We expose them to everything we can. Some love history, math, drawing and the arts. We don’t have a lot of discipline problems in our school. We find the time spent inculcating values, morality and love of your neighbor helps keep discipline problems at bay.
My job as a School Director
I write reports on our performance. I pray for the wellbeing of my school and oversee it’s welfare. Here, we have a good time. Work is enjoyable.
The Competitive Field of Teaching
The government hires our teachers. You take an exam, and then we fight for our jobs. To earn a job as a teacher entails education and stiff competition. We barely have any openings. Even when teachers want to work and are willing to go up the mountains, to remote villages, anywhere to work, there is still no work.
We have many unemployed teachers. They become homemakers while they search and patiently wait for an opportunity to serve.
The job doesn’t pay well. But it makes us so happy. When people find jobs in Honduras they are happy for many reasons. One, is that they are able to be of service, and two, they are one of the few who can say, “I am working. I have a job!”
We like to work hard and to have something to offer, even when we don’t make enough to survive and barely get by.
Our Teaching Pedagogy
We believe that students learn by doing, by solving problems, by research and group learning. My pedagogical style is to teach a lesson, followed by conversation with the students, and then we move to practice. There is value in learning by doing. I encourage them to investigate solutions. When they get stuck they work in groups to find answers, and I guide them, too. My goal is to inspire them to learn and pursue answers. I provide them with opportunities to practice what they learn, problem-solve and learn to search. I hope they never stop asking questions.
Life in Las Crucitas
The children don’t have much, but they are good children. They take pride in grooming themselves to come to school with their little uniforms and their one pair of dress shoes.
The families live very close to one another. Only 3 or 4 children live about 2 kilometers away from school.
The community is tranquil. We don’t have delinquency problems. Families work hard and receive sustenance depending on the seasons, the weather and the crops.
Parents Have Big Dreams for Their Children:
The parents hope that their children will graduate and find work; that their lives will be easier and more prosperous than theirs. They want them to have a better economic, social and cultural life.
There’s 3 of Us
We each teach approximately 30 students.
After They Graduate
After completing 6th grade those who can afford it transfer to a city school. They go to a school, Instituto de Union Oriente in Danli, Honduras. Not everyone can afford to go. The majority stays home, here locally. The boys will follow in their fathers’ footsteps and work in the fields. The girls will become homemakers.
The city school is a public school, so families don’t have to pay monthly fees. The problem is the charge for transportation. The school is 6 kilometers from us. Few can afford to pay.
The Big Challenge of Unemployment in Honduras
It is very disheartening to teach our children, to witness them grow up with dreams, to hand them their diploma only to watch them have nowhere to go. It breaks my heart when they ask,
“Prof, please find me a job?” I don’t have the means to help them with that. They graduate almost for nothing. There’s no work here.
Honduras is Facing a Crisis of Unemployment, Especially in Our Rural Areas.
There is so much poverty and scarce opportunity. Ours is an agricultural village. We used to raise cattle but not anymore. Those who work in the fields work hard for very little. The children who attend our school can only wish for the basics. Their fathers grow crops and their mothers are home makers. We raise corn and beans. The wealthiest families, only about 3 or 4, have a few livestock.
Gender Roles in little rural towns in Honduras:
People in our villages are humble, shy and respectful. But this doesn’t mean we don’t dream. Our families have goals, aspirations for their lives and the lives of their children. Before, no one could study beyond sixth grade. Now, we have most students completing primary school. Some are able to go to college and become professionals. Others, are still fighting to improve their lives.
Life in the village is different than in the city. The main difference is opportunity. All of us Hondurans share the same love of culture for our country. But depending on where one lives, the rhythm of life changes.
I am a daughter of farm workers. I grew up in a rural village close to Danli. When I was 7 my parents bought a little house here and sent me to school. I loved school, and went on to study to become a teacher. The students loved me so I decided to root myself in the community. I got married here and stayed. My father has passed away, but my mother is 93 years old. They were hard-working, dedicated people. They worked in agriculture and stockbreeding. We had great parents. I’m very grateful for them. Now my mother is very old, like a little girl, very dependent on us and we take care of her. I have three children, two of them are teachers.
Lessons I learned from My Parents
My parents never made it to school. They grew up in the school of life and taught themselves how to read. They didn’t make it to school but made sure that we did.
It was important to them to raise us to have a spirit of solidarity. My parents expected me to help others, to be of service. We grew up with lots of love and above all, we were taught to love God.
From them, I learned the value of perseverance and hard work. They taught us the importance to stay humble and to respect those who are different from us.
I love my Honduras
Honduras is a beautiful country. It has many beautiful natural resources that sadly, have been exploited. In my opinion this is the most beautiful place on earth. We have to protect it. We used to have precious animals and flowers that man has exhausted. In chopping down so many of our trees, whole floral and animal families have grown extinct. Their homes are gone.
It is a stunning place. We have two oceans on each of our coasts and a beautiful lake, lago de Yojoa.
One of our favorite past times is to cook and eat with family and friends. We eat paletas, corn cakes with beans, rice and seasonal vegetables. When we can afford it, we add a little beef, chicken or pork.
Our local families cannot afford to spend on entertainment. After a hard week of work, we like to stay home, go to church, rest. We take walks, clean our homes and do our chores. Sometimes, we watch tv, Christian television, soap operas, sports or cultural programs.
Modernity is changing us. Machismo lingers on but it’s not our defining cultural trait. Parents continue to have the biggest impact in orienting the character of their children.
Unfortunately, even with the best teachings, one cannot invent jobs. This is why we have such big immigration waves.
Those who leave Honduras don’t leave because they want to. They have to. They want to protect their families. They want to work. Some go to Spain, some to other Latin American countries, some to the U.S. Many fail along the way, and many families are fractured and suffer long separations and hardship while relatives leave in search of work.
The rise in single mothers and single fathers have to do with immigration flows, lack of work, and changes in the family.
The single parent here is extra resourceful. Each day they have to recreate strategies to survive. How to bring the “pan de cada dia,” how to find the daily bread. Life pushes them to become entrepreneurial. They make and sell things. They do gigs for others. They clean homes, sell items, make items and exchange favors. They sell tamales. They do what they can.
On Health Care
When our children get sick, we have a health center 20 kilometers from here, but it doesn’t do us much good. Mothers do what they can to come up with their own medicines. We do have one doctor working at the center but we don’t have medicine. Hospitals do not have medicine for us.
The doctor writes a prescription, the mother puts it in her bag and figures her own way to heal her child.
Do you want to know how we heal when we get sick? Well, through God’s providence (laughter), of course.
Diosito is very busy in Honduras. Our God is very busy in Honduras. He gets called around the clock. The good news is that He is powerful and can do all things.
We can retire at 50, but why stop? At sixty-five I still work and there’s so much work to do. I have started the process of retirement, but I’m not in a hurry to get there.
Some of my ex-students are working as teachers, engineers and lawyers. I feel such deep joy that I had some impact in their upbringing.
How Do you Want to be Remembered?
Over the years some of my students have returned for a visit and have told me, “Prof, I remember when you used to tell us to be kind and to be generous.” These visits make me smile. What I hope they remember is my little voice encouraging them along: Charge forward! Choose the right path, and choose wisely. Love your creator. Cherish your families and fight for their welfare.
Efrain Cornejo (left) rural teacher in El Savador, teaches Robotics. Here, he poses with his students and their award-winning creation, a 360 degree robot that students use to record and spread their culture.
“I know of rural teachers who swim across rivers to get to class. They put their clothes in a plastic bag, swim across the river while holding it up, and get dressed once on dry land. This is what it’s like for us. This is what we do to spread education to every corner of El Salvador” Maestro Efrain Cornejo, El Salvador.
An Interview by Soledad Quartucci
Last week, Primer Impacto, a news show broadcast by Univision television network covered a story of Central American children who travel several kilometers on foot, horseback, on dirt roads and across rivers and mountains to get to school. The story followed a family of five siblings living in a remote area of El Salvador. Each day, they rise before sunrise to embark on the perilous journey to school. Journalist, Ernesto Rivas, of Primer Impacto, traveled to Ahuachapan, El Salvador, and accompanied the children on their journey from home to school. It took them 40 minutes on a small boat, followed by 40 minutes on foot to get to class. With a smile on her face, and wearing a school uniform, Eloisa Garcia, the eldest sister, navigated the small vessel carrying all of her younger siblings to school. She told Rivas that she was happy. Without school, she may have never learned to read or write.
The swamp hides snakes and crocodiles. Thankfully, Rivas reported,“we were lucky and didn’t see any today.” After arriving safely on dry land, the children joined others on the long walk to school.
I was fascinated by the story of these young children’s dedication to their education, and their courage and determination to travel hours through the wilderness to get to school. The piece focused on the dedicated, brave rural children, and left me thinking, What about the rural teachers?What is it like for them? Who are they? What are some of the challenges they face, and What are the most rewarding aspects of teaching rural children in El Salvador?
Below is the story of Efrain Cornejo Rivera. He is a rural teacher in San Vicente, a departamento of El Salvador. After researching rural teachers in El Salvador, I came across an article praising him as an innovative teacher, the recipient of national and international awards. With some research, I was able to locate him, and asked him for an interview. Thankfully, he shared generously of his busy schedule and spoke with me at length.
We talked about his students, the difficulties he faces in the classroom, his views on Salvadoran gangs and his belief that STEM education is the road to transcend poverty, destroy stereotypes, and build a brighter El Salvador. What follows is his story in his own words. Photography, courtesy of Efrain Cornejo Rivera.
El Salvador-A Teacher’s view of His craft and his Culture.
Efrain lives in El Salvador in the department of San Vicente. El Salvador is divided into 14 departments. San Vicente is about an hour from the capital.
My country is a small country, so small in fact, that one can travel across it in just 4 hours. All schools located outside the capital, are considered to be rural schools. I live about a 25 minute drive from my school. I work in the Centro Escolar de Achichilco.
The school is located in Llanos de Achichilco. The name is an indigenous one, and means lugar de aguas cristalinas, the place of the crystalline water. Our school is surrounded by many rivers. Gracias a Dios, thank God, they are not contaminated by the factories, like others in other parts of El Salvador.
The canton is about 20 minutes from the San Vicente zone. Here, the population is small, about 400 families.
Two Worlds Apart-Urban vs. Rural Life in El Salvador
El Salvador is split into two worlds. The rural zone, where people lack basic needs, like potable water, and basic services like electricity. To access water, they dig a hole in the dirt and collect underground water using buckets. They care about the environment and live in a way that seems difficult to urban folk, but to them, their struggles are part of everyday living. When thinking about urban life, I’ve learned that we are not necessarily better off. It seems to me that the comforts of urban life have not appeased us. We are constantly looking for the next best thing, wanting more. People in rural areas of El Salvador have a peaceful charm that we lack. They are kind, hospitable, happy, and welcome others with open arms.
My Students: Family Role in Student Participation
Our student population comes from these rural families, yet our numbers fluctuate a lot depending on US policies and politics. Many families send their children to the United States to reunite with relatives. This affects our student population.
To Help Fathers in the Fields or Go to School-Para Que? For What?
Many of our children’s parents care more about their children’s participation in agricultural labor than in studying. This means that when a young boy reaches age 10 or 12, he may drop out of school at the insistence of his family. Fathers need their labor and want to take them to the fields to work. These families survive on harvesting corn, sugar cane, beans, so there are cycles throughout the school year when we struggle trying to keep our students in the classrooms and coming up with ways to help them so they don’t fall behind.
The Students Who Make it to Our Classrooms Really Want to be There.
One way in which rural teachers help is by participating in a program that makes home visits. We keep track of our students. When they stop coming to class, we visit them at home to find out why.
To make it to the classroom means students negotiated with their parents their desire to learn. These students want to do better than their parents could. They want to know about a world outside the fields. We open up that world for them. We show them opportunities, creativity and hope. If they apply themselves, we teach them that their lives can thrive.
Gender Equity and the Rural Classroom:
Our approach to gender equity is to work every day to destroy the stereotypes that have teachers focusing on boys and labeling courses and activities as classes solo para varoncitos (for young boys, only). Sometimes, we have to convince girls to take chances. Our young girls sometimes buy into the gender stereotypes that knowledge and educational opportunity depends on gender. At times, when we treat them equally, the girls respond with “como soy ninia no lo hago,” since I’m a little girl, I don’t have to do that. We are working on it.
To change stereotypes we teach our students the value of team work. A strong teams need everyone, boys and girls alike.
Girls Vs. Boys: How Do They Do in the Classroom?
Interestingly, we have two phenomenons: rural girls surpass the boys in the classroom. They apply themselves more. Why? The girls rarely miss class. And if they do,“se ponen las pilas,” they charge up and get to work. They don’t settle for missing information, falling behind or not having all the materials. They want to catch up and excel.
Our young boys arrive tired, not only from the long trek to school, but also because they are exhausted after working the fields once they get home from school. Boys don’t ask for what they missed. They don’t ask for copies of materials handed out. So if we measure girls vs. boy performance in the classroom, the girls have better grades.
But sadly, in our rural culture, young girls, regardless of how smart or applied they are, they only tend to study up to the 9th grade. The parents don’t want to invest in an advanced education because the thinking is “para que? Si se me va a juntar o casar, no vale la pena pagar para estudios.” For what? My girl will cohabit or marry someone soon, so what is the point of investing in her education?
Regarding our rural young men, from 1st to 9th grade they tend to demonstrate a bit of lazy tendencies, but, for the dedicated ones who finish, these young men have higher chances to go on to the university and build careers, technical ones or academic ones.
Computer Science, Technology and Rural Girls-Fathers Worry
Sometimes fathers don’t want their daughters to learn computer science. The wide availability of cell phones in El Salvador have brought Facebook and WhatsApp to the rural world. Parents worry about the negative aspects of technology in their daughter’s lives. In keeping technology at bay, some parents feel they are preserving their daughters’ innocence and protecting them from an uncertain world. We are working hard on ways to convince parents that technology can also transform their daughters lives for the better.
A Rural Teacher’s Pedagogical Approach is Different than the Urban one.
El Maestro Rural Se Sacrifica: The Rural Teacher Make Sacrifices Every Day
Our pedagogical approach is different than the approach of an urban teacher. A city teacher demands of his students. In an almost militaristic style, the urban teacher demands learning. The students in these classrooms are receptors of knowledge and don’t question it. We think of the urban teacher as a privileged teacher. All he/she has to do is expect students to learn based on repetition and redundancy of concepts. At home, the urban teacher receives support by urban parents who also pressure their children to memorize information and do well in school. Part of why parents are so involved and tough with urban youth is that there is no future for students who don’t finish school. Kids who don’t do well in urban schools live in the streets. This doesn’t benefit the student nor his family. The urban student receives a strong message from both the teacher and the family that they must study and must do well.
Rural Expectations are very different. Parents tell the kids, “Para que?” For what are you going to study? You want to help me? Let’s go to the fields. Because we are faced with this challenge, we must be very creative in how we bring them to the classroom and keep them coming back.
We have to motivate them. We have to convince them and show them that the sacrifice is worthwhile. We are constantly thinking of creative ways to stimulate them. We want them to have a happy life and to have choices.
If happiness is working along their families in the fields, then we support that. But if they want something else based on studies, then we want them to have those options, too.
We also have the rural families that realize the value of an education. They have suffered from illiteracy, and have experienced discrimination and rejection. These families understand the value of education and want a better life for their children.
Rural Life vs. Urban Life. Which is best?
Most of us live in San Vicente. It is incredible how a simple 20 minute car ride will take you to a drastically different El Salvador. It’s not just economic difference, but also, a way of life.
For those of us who live in an urban world and commute, life in the city is highly unsafe. We cannot, for one-second, leave our doors open. We are always aware of danger. We can get robbed.
This is not the same in rural places. Rural family homes are separated by weak wire fencing, if at all. You could easily cross over into someone else’s home. But, you’d be surprised. Even though they can, they respect someone’s land and they don’t. They even look out for each other.
What It is like for Our Students:
Rural teachers meet with community leaders to come up with projects for our youth. We are encouraged and know we are succeeding when our students continue to make the daily journey to school. I have the comfort of my car driving me to the classroom. My students do not. These students come from way deep inland. They somehow manage without water, electricity and of course, no internet. Even at my school, our internet connection is weak, at best. We have lost coverage. The government does give us funding for internet in the classroom but internet companies don’t service us because we are too remotely located.
Our students carry buckets of water to their homes. Ironically, they have cell phones.
These families don’t have refrigerators or television sets, but they do have cell phones. The children walk on average 3 hours per day. They leave home at about 9 or 10 and arrive around noon. They arrive hungry and with the hope to be able to eat perhaps the one meal that day. Our schools provide food for our students.
Our students receive free lunch and a glass of milk.
Our Day: Sometimes We Don’t Eat. When Students Show up Hungry to Class after a 3 hour Walk, We Give Them What We Have
We start class at 7:30am until noon. From Noon to 1pm we take an hour break. But, for us teacher, there is no break. The parents usually come by while we try to eat and rest. We have to meet with them and talk about how the children are doing or learn why our students will be missing class.
We sacrifice our lunch break and our lunches. Sometimes, we teachers go hungry. We bring our lunches from home but there is nowhere to heat them up. The microwaves are broken and sometimes the electricity does not work. More commonly, we share our lunches with hungry students. This is typically the case for the students who stay for the extended period.
The really motivated students stay to develop their creativity. We lead workshops in music, art, cinema and robotics. We received an award for one of our projects, Quiero Hacer Cine. I Want to Make Film.
Below: Robot Fotografo: (photo robot), designed by the students to capture the beauty of their environments and their history.
Gangs and Youth in El Salvador
Rural youth live immersed in a culture of machismo. They want to show society that they are capable of any challenge, inclusive of attacking their own brothers. To be a man means to hurt others without remorse or feeling; it means disregarding the pain that violence may cause a family.
The way I see it, the rise in gang numbers in El Salvador is directly connected to the US deportation system. The US deportation system has sent waves of young men who had adjusted to American culture back to rural El Salvador. When these youth are deported to El Salvador, they find a country that has little way to enforce rules. Here, they can run wild. They can explode fireworks every day if they want to. Once back in El Salvador, the deported find other deported youth and they start forming groups. These groups look different than the local youth. To the locals, the deported group looks clean cut, well dressed, Americanized, and tattooed.
El Salvadoran views on tattoos is not as open minded as it is in the US. We are more traditional coming from a dictatorial history and strict parenting. The tattoos culture conflicts with our culture. These differences are aggravated by violence at home. Some fathers believe in teaching through beatings or through sacrifices demanded of their children. When the youth is deported from the US back to El Salvador, they are in crisis and find that they don’t fit at home or that at home they are mistreated and so they join or form gangs.
At home they don’t love me. The streets do.
But then, they face the problem of subsistence. So they steal. They take coins from public phones. They teach local youth bad ways. They use marihuana and all sorts of drugs. We have few policemen and weak enforcement of the law.
Rural teachers worry about this, as does the government. Many schools are installing cameras everywhere to prevent drugs from infiltrating our classrooms.
The Government is Doing What it Can to Provide Alternative Spaces for Creative Projects
This is a big problem. The government is trying to prevent gang activity by building recreational homes where youth can engage in healthy activities. In these recreational homes, we teach them values, computer skills, photography, and paint. We have exercise rooms and technology courses. We hope that by providing them with a healthy space they will stop living in the streets.
How Rural Teachers Use Art to Rehabilitate Youth
We try to come up with creative projects. We have introduced them to the making of film shorts. Our students make movies that address local myths, transmit culture and preserve history and national pride. We encourage science and technology, creativity so they can develop not only healthy attitudes but also competency for 21st century skills. Our projects have earned us national and international acclaim. We count our blessings and we are so proud.
Efrain Cornejo’s innovative teaching earned him, and El Salvador, international teaching recognition and awards by Microsoft.
This year my goal is to work in reducing the gender gap in education and especially in training our rural girls in science and technology. We still have a long way to go. We take it day by day.
At the end of the day, politicians, free computers, and empty promises don’t fill classrooms. The true force of change is the teacher, who has to understand his students, be dedicated, creative, passionate and very patient.
Our dream is to rescue our youth, to motivate them so there is no allure in getting off track. Ultimately, we want our youth to stay here in El Salvador, not leave us for the U.S. We want them to invest in their country, to innovate, to continue our fight to be more than a consuming country and instead become creators of opportunity.
“I see myself in a lot of these students. They want to learn. They are very curious about everything and very aware of the long hours and the hard work their parents are doing. They don’t want that for themselves. They want something different, something better.” Oscar Ramos, Sherwood Elementary teacher in Salinas, California, as told in East of Salinas.
The documentary film, East of Salinas, tells the story of Oscar, a heroic teacher and his student Jose, both the sons of migrants. There are many powerful themes packed in this documentary: A devoted teacher, a precocious undocumented child, migrant families struggling to survive, and the effect of immigrant reform on all of their lives. As the documentary tells, Oscar has big dreams for his students and for Jose, a young 8 year old student that reminds him of himself.
He teaches his 3rd graders to dream big, to imagine a life beyond the lettuce fields. He, too, was born in Mexico. Ramos has been teaching children of migrants at Sherwood Elementary for 15 years.
Below, are excerpts from East of Salinas that capture the voices, thoughts and hearts of Oscar, Jose, Jose’s Mother Maria, and Jose’s Stepfather Jaime. Together, their stories take us to the fields of Salinas, and to the daily dreams that weave their lives.
“My students are mainly Mexican students. Half the class is migrant.”
Oscar Ramos on becoming a Teacher:
I was in the 4th grade when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. The students see me as their teacher, but my life could have ended up very differently. I was born in Mexico. My parents came here from Mexico, to give us a better opportunity.
Oscar grew up in the labor camps, working in the fields from a very young age, 7 or 8 years old. He worked in the garlic fields, onion fields, and chile fields.
I remember my mother’s hands, and my father’s hands but, mostly, my hands. Black finger nails cut up, bruised, bumpy and rough.
In the inspiring film, East of Salinas filmmakers Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow introduce us to the challenging lives of migrant families picking lettuce for all of us in the Salinas Valley. The poignant story follows the lives of Jose Ansaldo, a bright 8 year old student and son of migrant workers, and Oscar Ramos, Jose’s teacher, mentor, and friend.
Laura Pacheco was inspired to film the story after reading an article in the New York Times discussing the difficulties of educating migrant youth in America’s remote fields. Laura contacted Oscar Ramos who teaches migrant students at Sherwood Elementary in Salinas and through him, she met young Jose, and his family.
The story highlights the effect of current immigration legislation on young children and their hard working families.
Jose’s mother works ten hour shifts picking lettuce. Because she is undocumented, she cannot access health care. She suffers from asthma made worse by the pesticides she inhales every day as she works to provide for her family, and for us.
Every day I wake up at 3 a.m. Sometimes I sleep only 4 or five hours. Sometimes I don’t even want to wake up. Then, I remember all of the bills I have to pay, and I get up. I leave the kids with the babysitter and then I take the bus to go to work. We work 10 to 12 hours a day. My work is very hard. Cut lettuce all day and withstand the heat of the sun. I was 13 when I came to the U.S. I didn’t know it would be so hard. I have three children, and of the three, Jose is the only one that was born in Mexico.
He doesn’t know there will be problems. For Jose, every day is a good day. He is a good son and he loves school. But if the law doesn’t change, he won’t be able to study after high school.
Work and Health Problems:
I have asthma. It affects my work a lot. I can’t breath sometimes. I think my problem started with the stuff they spray in the fields. Makes it harder to breathe. What worries me the most is that if I get sick I won’t be able to work. I have Medicaid for Jaime and Daniel, but not for Jose or for myself. It’s good that Jose is never sick.
When step-dad, Jaime is Gone:
No work until April, even if I want it. Yes it’s very hard when Jaime is gone because it’s double the bills. Rent there, and rent here. Plus bills and food in both places. They had cut off my electricity. I rented a room and with that money I paid the electric bill.
A devoted teacher-a very special student
Mr. Ramos on Jose:
“Jose is a fantastic kid. He is extremely smart. Very Happy Student. He is always smiling and jumping around. He is one of those students who is eager to learn about everthing. Jose reminds me a lot of me growing up. We both love school. And even at such a young age, we were already thinking about the future.
The students in my class are only 8 or 9 years old. They don’t understand that if they are not U.S. Citizens they might get kicked out of the country. They do fear their parents getting deported because it’s in the news, and they’ve heard of some cases. But I think it’s more fear for their parents than themselves.”
Jose Ansaldo in his Mom’s Workplace
Mr. Ramos on picking up Jose and his brother to take them to school.
Jose’s family is constantly on the move to help pay the rent. The parents agreed to let him pick them up so they could finish the school year in his class with their friends.
“Jose, this is his 5th school he’s attended already. He came in the middle of the year. There is an adjustment period when a student has a new teacher, and when you have to do it 2 or 3 times in one year, well, that just sets you back a bit. We have to be very creative in the way we help these kids catch up. They can contribute great many things to this country, they just need to be given the opportunity.”
Jaime, Jose’s Step dad:
“When there is no more work here, I move to Yuma, Arizona. It’s a 12 hour drive from Yuma to Salinas. Minimum 200 dollars food and gas. That’s why it’s very difficult for me to come home. It’s far. Yuma, Arizona is on the frontier… Many patrol agents and migration checkpoints. There’s more work. But people don’t go there because they are afraid. As a father the most difficult thing for me is to leave them alone. I have to be separated from my family for 5 months. If something happens to them, to get to Salinas is 12 hours. The hardest part is closing the door behind me.”
Being migrant means that their parents follow the agricultural season. They have to constantly move following the harvest. Regardless of whether the whole family leaves, one parent, or both, it still affects the children, stresses Oscar Ramos.
Mr. Ramos on Parent Conference with Migrant Parents Who Want the Best for their Children
“Parents want to know, what can I do to help my child. Simply sit next to them. Have them read to you, and you listen to them. Ask them questions. Open their backpacks. Look for their homework. Talk to your child. We have to all work together so they can get ahead. Alone is much more difficult.”
Jose Ansaldo, 8 year old student, child of Migrant Workers in Salinas, California
“I’m 8 years old. I like to play and run, and study, too. I like to add and subtract and multiply and divide. When I grow up, I’ll be a fire-fighter or a cop.
When I wake up in the morning it’s 4 o’clock. I brush my teeth and my mom drops me off with the babysitter so she can go to work. The babysitter wakes me up at 6 o’clock.”
“I have to do my homework alone, because my mom and Jaime speak Spanish, not English. But I learn more when I try by myself. It’s important to me to work really hard, because if you don’t do good in school you are going to flunk your grade and then you don’t go to the next grade, or field trips or swimming.”
“It’s kind of hard getting food since Jaime is gone (to Yuma). Sometimes, we don’t have nothing to eat. We don’t have any food for my mom to make. So we have to sleep without eating. Until the morning, till we go to school. Sometimes if you don’t eat for a while, your stomach starts to hurt and starts growling.”
On being home alone:
“My mom and my dad work really hard so me and my brother have to stay home by ourselves. I would like to go outside and play. But, my mom says that I can’t go alone.”
Salinas is tough, tells Oscar Ramos, “way too dangerous outside. Parents worry about kids getting shot or gang activity.”
What does the immigration law mean in the life of an 8 year old who wants to study math?
Jose wants to be an engineer when he grows up, but as the filmmakers point out, “not everyone shares those dreams.”
Mr. Ramos and the Community:
“13 years ago a bunch of my friends who graduated from Berkeley, we got together and started donating money to start helping out less fortunate families; bring them a little joy during Christmas.” Today, these friends work in education, law, the medical field and are business owners. Together, they distribute Christmas gifts throughout the community.
We all do something different but we all grew up working the fields. We knew how hard it was so we all focused on doing well in school. We must not forget where we came from.
To Watch the Full Film, East of Salinas, click here.
East of Salinas was produced and directed by: Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow; edited by Rachel Clark; music by Joseph Julian Gonzalez. Additional Cinematography: Samantha Grant, Vicente Franco, Jason Blalock Sound Recordists: Laura Pacheco, Ray Day, Todd Dayton, Phil Turner, Mario Furioni Additional Editing: Jessie Beers-Altman Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer Executive Producer for LPB: Sandie Viquez Pedlow
Laura Pacheco is a filmmaker and anthropologist who loves to tell stories about spirited heroes rising against all odds. East of Salinas, premiered s on PBS Monday, December 28, 2015. Check your local listings to view the touching film and to meet Jose, the bright, undocumented son of migrant farm workers and his guardian angel- dedicated teacher Oscar, once a migrant kid himself.
Jackie Mow (Producer/Director) is passionate about science and education,and makes films with a great diversity of subjects.
“Given what we experience in foster care, it’s hard to trust people. What we need is the same someone to push us in the right direction year after year until we finish school and get a job.” — Youth in Foster Care
Each year, tens of thousands of children in communities across California are removed from their homes and placed in the foster-care system with the goal of finding a safe and permanent home for each child, either through reunification with the child’s family (after the family has met certain conditions), through adoption, or through placement with a permanent legal guardian. While these children are in the foster-care system, the state assumes legal responsibility for their health and safety.
According to The Transitional Housing Placement Plus, THP-Plus, a program created by the California State Legislature in 2001 that provides affordable Housing and Supportive Services to Youth Transitioning from California’s Foster Care and Juvenile Probation System, foster youth comprise an alarming rate of the homeless population in California.
In 2014-15 more than 1 in 4 youth (28%) entered THP-Plus directly from homelessness.
THP-Plus, a Statewide Implementation Project published by The John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes recently released the FOSTER CARE Annual Report 2014-2015. Following is a summary of its major findings for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014-15.
“I bounced around a lot of schools and never got comfortable being there. Since I knew that I’d be at a school for just a little bit, I felt like I didn’t need to care about my studies.” — Student in foster care
EDUCATION-Foster Youth-Academically At Risk
California is committed to providing high-quality public education for all students. Yet, until recently, reform efforts rarely acknowledged a group of students who persistently underperform: students in foster care.
California has had little statewide information about the education of school-aged children and youth who are in the foster-care system and for whom the state is legally responsible.
This is largely due to challenges related to the availability, collection, and sharing of information about these students across the education and child welfare systems.
As a result, the education needs of these students have often gone unrecognized and unmet—leaving many of them trailing their classmates in academic achievement.
Students in foster care are especially at risk for school failure, as evidenced by poor grades and high rates of absenteeism, grade retention, disciplinary referrals, and dropping out of high school.
California is now setting out to track the academic progress of students in foster care—the first state in the nation to do so.
Thus, the findings reported below are especially timely. California students in foster care have unique characteristics that justify their identification as a separate at-risk student subgroup and that this subgroup has a significant achievement gap compared to the other student groups.
Students in foster care were 3 times more likely to be African American
Are classified with a disability at twice the rate of the comparison groups
Are 5 times more likely to be classified with an emotional disturbance than other students.
Are older for their grade level
Had higher rates of enrollment in grades 9, 10, or 11 than the comparison groups, a likely outcome of grade retention and a risk factor for dropping out.
Are more likely than other students to change schools during the school year. Suffer much higher rates of school mobility than other students.
Are more likely than other students to be enrolled in nontraditional public schools. Enrollment in these schools suggests that students were unsuccessful at traditional schools and, thus, were transferred to other schools.
Are more likely than the general population of students to be enrolled in the lowest-performing schools.
High school students in foster care had the highest dropout rate and lowest graduation rate. Reducing dropout rates and boosting high school graduation rates are state education priorities. To be on track to graduate from a California public high school, students are required to pass both the English language arts and mathematics parts of the California the graduation rate for all grade-12 students statewide was 84 percent, but for students in foster care, it was just 58 percent—the lowest rate among the at-risk student groups.
“When I was in elementary and middle school, I was switched around a lot. I didn’t leave those schools with teachers or kids I knew. Then, for the first time, I was in high school for four years and made friends. Really, it was the teachers who helped me the most. They showed me that I can finish homework, get good grades, go to college, and have a future.” — Student in foster care
“In foster care we live with the unknown—about where we will be living or going to school or what will next happen in our lives. We often get punished for behaving in ways that are reactive to the unknown. Instead of addressing the real issues, at school we are just treated as troublemakers.” — Student in foster care
“I was in a living situation where school wasn’t a priority. There was no time or place to do homework except after my caregiver went to sleep. There was no one in my life who wanted me to make it through school except a few teachers who talked to me and helped me graduate and go to college.” — Student in foster care
“My life was chaotic all the time and so was my school experience. I changed schools a lot. I made and lost friends. I didn’t try in classes I knew I wouldn’t finish. I got in trouble to get attention. Then after a while in high school I turned it around because I wanted a better life, and there were a few teachers who cared enough to help me pass and get a diploma.” — Student in foster care
“No one knew why I messed up in school. No one was there to help me be successful in school. No one told me to stay in school. No one cared when I stopped going.” — Student in foster care
Housing: A Critical Post-Emancipation Need–What type of Housing is Available to Help Emancipated Foster Youth?
The housing program provides emancipated youth with two years affordable housing assistance. A year is extended for those in college. However, most youth exit THP Plus without strengthening their capacity to achieve long-term economic stability.
Given the number of parenting youth and youth with disabilities exiting the housing programs many will need ongoing housing assistance in the form of permanent, affordable housing.
The Challenge: Accessing permanent, affordable housing is often seen as an “extra” rather than a requirement.
Of 1,436 youth placed on July 1, 2015, the most common housing model was remote-site housing. In this model, participants live in individual rental units leased by the THP provider.
In FY 2014-15, remote site accounted for 80 percent of all housing sites. The second most common was the staffed housing model (19%), followed by the host family model (1%)
What does it cost to provide Emancipated Youth with Affordable Housing in California?
THP-Plus costs per youth 2013-14.
During fiscal year 2014-15, monthly rate was:
$2,457 for a single-site housing model
$2,300 for a scattered-site model
$1,892 for a host-family model.
EMANCIPATED FOSTER WOMEN –Young Foster Women with Children: The Struggle to Meet the Unique Needs of Parenting Youths.
Almost half of young women served by the housing program for foster emancipated youth are custodial parents. Many of them become parents while living in THP-Plus. The main public benefits received by the women include CalWORKs, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and the nutrition program, Women, Infant and Children (WIC).
Securing child care
Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the participant’s child
Additional cost associated with providing a parenting youth with an adequately sized apartment
Challenge of repeat pregnancy
Parenting youth’s partner’s related problems:
intimate partner violence
collection of child support.
Lack of Childcare-A Barrier to Employment and Education:
The vast majority of children are living with their mothers.
Roughly 1 in 3 young women in THP are a custodial parent.
Lack of child care is a barrier to employment and education.
Almost none are able to access child care due to the high level of demand among low-income families in the community.
Infant supplements are unevenly administered.
All custodial parents placed in THP are eligible for a $411 infant supplement. However, interviews with providers and counties revealed that the infant supplement is administered differently across the state.
Some providers keep the infant supplement, with the rationale that custodial parents require a lower staffing ratio and larger units. Other providers pass the full $411 through to the parenting youth.
EMANCIPATED FOSTER YOUTH AND COLLEGE ACCESS
How Does THP PLUS Participation affect Foster Youth College Enrollment?
According to the latest report, only 1 in 5 participants are enrolled in college.
While staying in housing, participants make gains in employment and earnings, but struggle with enrolling or remaining in post-secondary education.
At the entry of THP Plus, 72 percent had graduated from high school or had earned their General Equivalency Degree (GED).
A total of 21 percent of youth were enrolled in community college. However, at the exit, just 22 percent were still enrolled in post-secondary education.
In 2014, the California State Legislature changed the eligibility criteria for THP-Plus, allowing a youth who is enrolled in school to stay in the housing program for 36 months instead of 24 months (Senate Bill 1252).
Challenges in Pursuing and Completing an Education:
Lack of preparation for college-level course work and youths’ preference to work affects college completion. Among all students with disabilities, students in foster care had by far the highest rate of emotional disturbance, which is a disability associated with difficulty maintaining relationships, inappropriate behaviors, and depression. These students were affected by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and intellectual disabilities. The largest disability classification for students in foster care was specific learning disability (39 percent), an impairment associated with challenges related to thinking, reading, writing and/or calculating. Students in foster care were also about half as likely to be classified with a speech or language impairment or autism as the comparison groups.
EMANCIPATED FOSTER YOUTH AND SPECIAL NEEDS:
Many youth exiting THP-Plus have special needs.
Of youth who exited THP-Plus in 2014-15, 22 percent were identified by their THP-Plus provider as having a special need, defined by the program as a serious physical or mental disability such as a mental illness, intellectual disability, cognitive impairment, or chronic health issue.
As of July 1, 2014, 17 percent of THP-Plus participants reported that they did not have health insurance, despite their eligibility for Medi-Cal to age 26 under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Foster Youth and Mental Health Needs: How does Emancipation affect care?
Providers and counties are challenged to provide youth with mental health needs.
The inability to provide therapeutic services required to safely house youth with serious mental illness prevented many youth from being placed into housing programs.
When Affordable Housing and Mental Health Services End
At age 21, specialized mental health services for children end. In a survey of county representatives, this challenge was identified as the greatest area of concern.
What’s Being Done to Support Transition into Self Sufficiency:
Students exiting the foster care system are in critical need of academic coaching, financial aid counseling and pathways to career and technical education programs. A greater effort is needed to prevent first and repeat pregnancies for young emancipated foster mothers. Providers and counties must deepen knowledge and capacity to help youth secure permanent, affordable housing post-program. The findings in this report serve as new evidence for policymakers to use in continuing efforts to improve the academic success of students in foster care. Building the knowledge and organizational capacity to help youth transitioning from both programs in accessing affordable housing will ensure that parenting youth and youth with disabilities have the long-term housing support that they often require.
Love and Support from caring volunteers are greatly needed. If you have a little time to spare and a big heart, consider giving an hour of your time weekly to organizations like School on Wheels, where volunteers meet with foster youths to help them with their homework. There are also organizations like, CASA, For many abused children, CASA volunteers are the one constant adult presence in their lives.
A Word From Social Workers:
“Remarkably, some of these same students ‘make it’ anyway. They do well in school, graduate and head off to college. Nothing makes me happier than hearing from someone who was in the foster-care system and, despite all the challenges, went on to earn a college degree and get a good job. Just imagine how much more often this would happen if all of our systems—whether in education or child welfare—worked together to understand and address the unique needs of these students.” — School Social Worker