Category Archives: Education

The Challenges of Living in Poverty in Mexico

After my Herbal Material Medica and Permacultural courses were finished, I signed up to audit the MIT sponsored online course entitled The Challenges of Global Poverty.  The text for the course was entitled Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo who were also the instructors.  While I’m not by any means an economist or statistician, I knew enough about statistics to know when something was statistically significant or not but not enough to figure out the more complicated equations.  I managed to slide by with a 75 final grade.

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I did learn quite a bit about living in poverty and as a consequence, I was able to look at my life here in rural Mexico with new eyes.  Most of the samples in the class were from rural India, but it was amazing how similar the culture of poverty is throughout the world.

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Here are some of the things I learned and how that information relates to my life here in Mexico:

Many poor are unable to obtain traditional credit or open bank accounts. As a consequence, complicated processes are invented to set aside money needed for future expenses. One method of saving is known as a tanda in this part of Mexico.  A tanda is a group of people that contribute a set amount of money each week or pay check or whatever the time frame has been determined.  Each member is assigned a number.  One member receives all the money each pay period. (See A room of her own–furnishings) It allows the participants to ensure that the money needed for a particular item is available when that expenditure is due.

Personas que deben (People who owe money)

Mentioned in class was the institution of money lenders.  In India, repayment is enforced through public shame and the possibility of sending a eunuch to show his genitals to the delinquent borrower (a form of intimidation).  While Mexico is not known for its eunuchs, shame is a big motivator here as well.  Often lists of people who owe money are posted outside establishments for the entire community to see. 

Many villages in India have a sort of informal lending between families which allows those in need to receive money or assistance with the understanding that it will be paid back in the future. In Mexico, the madrina/padrino (godparents) tradition is a version of this informal lending.  When a family is planning a major event like a baptism, wedding, graduation, quinceanera, etc.,  a variety of extended family or community members are asked to take on the role of godparent.  The so honored are financially responsible for a particular aspect of the event, napkins, shoes, seating rental, mass, etc. This is done with the understanding that at some time in the future, such expense will be repaid by the recipient family in the form of another madrina/padrino setup. (See Chambelan at the church, Chambelan at the party, Secondary Graduation)

Mexico, like India, has a high number of micro businesses.  Often these businesses are run by women.  These are self-limiting businesses.  Time spent on the business is often scheduled around other obligations such as child care or meal preparation.  A larger investment in the business is not feasible because the business is limited by its product or demand.  So each day, the business owner earns just enough to get by, never more. (See Failing at your own Business)

The course mentioned the excellent health care in Mexico.  Perhaps it is excellent in comparison to India, however from personal experience, the health care in Mexico, while affordable, is not magnificent.  (See All Around the Health Care Bush, Mexico’s Seguro Popular) Health care impacts the poor the most since a major illness and/or death of a family member often eliminates any savings the family may have accumulated.  (See Mass and Burial Mexican Style)There is also a tendency to request injections or pills from doctors so doctors prescribe them whether they are needed or not.  Again, very similar to Mexican customs.

I found it interesting that India has a version of curanderos as well.  Since actual medical professionals are beyond the limited means of the poor, sick family members are often brought for prayers and herbal treatments. (See La Curandera).  

The poor find it difficult to save money for several reasons.  One reason is that women, who tend to try to save more often, frequently find their money being appropriated, whether with permission or not, by male family members.  Men are more likely to spend the money on impulse buys and non-essential goods, like alcohol and tobacco.  No comment from the peanut gallery on this startling scientific find on gender bias and spending habits.  

Because of this appropriation of funds and the difficulty of self-denial, cash is often converted into physical goods. Gold jewelry is a common investment that is easily liquidated when the need arises.  Here in Mexico, the US dollar, considered more stable than the pesos, is another way people save.  When the dollar is low, people buy it from the casas de cambio (money exchange places) and then try to time the resale to a period when the peso is low.  Of course, jewelry and cash can be stolen as well. Sometimes the investment is in livestock, although this sort of purchase carries the additional risks of illness or death. And still the very determined can make off with goats lifted over a 6-foot wall. (See Good Fences make Good Neighbors–unless your neighbors steal them,  Where oh where have they gone?)  

The poor sometimes choose to invest in building material instead.  La Yacata is a silent testimony to the hopes and dreams of the poor.  Half-finished homes, foundations poured, rooms open to the sky, just waiting for another small windfall of cash.  (See Building a dream, constructing a life)

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With all these negatives to saving, many poor would rather spend the money while it’s available instead of trying to save towards some future goal.  This is a predominant cultural norm in this area of Mexico and it’s hard to argue against it.  Every month there seems to be a festival or other event where you can spend money. (See Mexican Holidays)  Every business and home have a TV to while away the slow hours.  Homes with no indoor plumbing have 2 or 3 cell phones per family.  The idea is life is hard, might as well enjoy what there is to be had.

Neither the course nor the text provided any real solutions to overcoming poverty.  In fact, there was sort of a general shrugging of shoulders and dismissal–well, we’ll always have the poor.  It was interesting to learn that once an individual or family falls to a certain income level, they are trapped in poverty and it takes an incredible amount of effort (and good luck) to rise to an income level where real progress can be made. For the most part, the poor just don’t have the social contacts, knowledge or investment opportunities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps into wealth.

One of the biggest factors in global poverty was found to be institutional corruption.  In this, there was less hopelessness expressed by the authors.  Small things, such as adding a picture to voting ballots, changed the outcomes and thus the structure.  However, I’m not so sure how much change really can be brought about.  Institutional corruption is pervasive.  It not only encompasses the political arena, but also health care, the environment, and education. (See Mexican educational reform and political wrangling, Politicking, Local Elections)  Those that are affected most are the poor.  Their water is polluted because of corruption.  Their children are not well-educated because of corruption.  Their health suffers and they are unable to receive proper medical attention because of corruption.

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In fact, one study highlighted in the course demonstrated that the type of colonization an area was subjected to affected the living conditions of the people hundreds of years later.  Mexico was unfortunately conquered by the Spaniards who were bound and determined to extract every last bit of wealth from its soil.  The subsequent governing body set up by the Spaniards was established with plunder, not social good, in mind. Thus it remains down to this day. (See Women in Mexican History–La Malinche)

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to cover all 12 weeks of the course in one blog post. These are the points that stood out to me having first-hand experience in my poverty stricken life here in Mexico.  All in all, it was just a tad depressing. Not to be deterred,  I’ve signed up for a new course–The Science of Happiness. It certainly promises to be a lighter topic!

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Secondary Graduation

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This week the kids in our area head back to school.  I am delighted to say that neither myself nor my son is a part of that throng.  Instead, I am going to take a few minutes to talk about the last stage of my son’s education, secondary graduation.

Perhaps it was partly due to my son’s lack of interest in the proceedings, or perhaps it was that I didn’t know what was expected, being a foreigner and all, in any case, we didn’t get the invitation to the special after-ceremony dinner, so our whole experience was cut short, but not by much.  It was a LONG, drawn-out affair.

The day started early for us as the animals needed attending before we went anywhere.  Then there was the showers and the fixing up process.  Since my son became a teenager, this stage of the morning routine is agonizing in length.  Once we were all ready, we hopped into the truck and headed to the salon (hall).  We arrived in plenty of time and stood around with the hoards of people milling around the entrances.  

I handed the family invitation to the doorman and he said something about my husband needing to go around to the other door.  We paid him no mind, having no IDEA what he was talking about.  We found some seats and sat down.  

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Nothing in Mexico ever starts on time so we did some people watching.  Each of the 10 (yes ten) graduating classes had a lona (banner) with a blown up version of their class picture.  We were quite near 3F’s display and could clearly see my handsome son.  I don’t know why they had such a fit that he wore a red tie instead of a brown tie.  Some of the boys didn’t even have ties on.  In any event, the shadowing of the photo made his red tie look brown.  We did, however, get a brownish tie for today’s graduation ceremony.  Geez!  Ties are expensive!

After about 45 minutes, the show finally got on the road with the presentation of the invitados de honor (the important people that sit on the stage).  Much to our surprise, the president of Moroleon was the guest of honor.  Even more surprising, his daughter attends the school my son goes to, which is a PUBLIC school.  Most of the well-to-do send their kids to private schools. So this really was something.  There was some blah-blahing about recent renovations to the school and the funding for those renovations, thanks to the president.  None of this concerned us since my son was graduating and wouldn’t be a beneficiary.

Suddenly, I realized that I shouldn’t be there sitting in the parent section, but standing with my son as “madrina” (godmother).  Customarily, someone outside the family is asked to perform this function.  I figured that since I took my son to school every morning, made sure he had a clean uniform and finished most of his homework, I was the most qualified to stand as madrina.  Only, I had entered as a parent and now didn’t know where my son was.  

I spent 15 frantic minutes crossing back and forth looking for his group, asking people that seemed in charge, only to be sent back to where I had just come from.  Finally, I located my son, no mean feat in a sea of identically clad teenagers and took up my position.  Being on the short side, meant I was unable to see much of anything.

Eventually, we all marched forward.  My job as madrina was to escort my son to his seat, which I managed to do quite well thank you very much.  Then I was supposed to sit in the specially set aside madrina/padrino section.  Thinking I could just get by if I followed the padrino in front of me, that’s what I did.  Only he ended up some other place and I had to march in FRONT of the stage to get to my seat.  My son said I was so short that nobody noticed that faux pax as my head didn’t even clear the stage floor.  I scampered along and managed to get the seat right in front of the speakers.

chicken marching

The next item on the program was the himno nacional (national anthem) and the passing of the flag from the graduating honor guard to the next level down.  This is quite a big deal.  There are formal words that need to be recited.  The flag has to be presented in a certain way.  And the departing group must leave in a dignified manner, well it would be dignified if they actually had sabers strapped on.  All very military.  Only no one took into account that the flag might get caught in the white drapey decorations, which is what happened.  And personally, I thought the elbows out march looked a bit like a chicken walk.  But again, I’m not Mexican so perhaps the solemnity of the situation escaped me.

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After everyone involved in the flag exchange was gone, the first of the 10 (yes, ten) graduating classes was called up on stage.  The teacher read off the attendance list.  Each student was to take a step forward and call out “presente” when they heard their names.  After which, the teacher called out a last group attendance call, and all students took a second step forward with one last “presente.”  Of course, some groups were rather large, my son’s class had 39 graduating students,  and this second step nearly was the end of a few of the teachers teetering on the stage edge.

final class step forward

After everyone in the group was accounted for, the jefe del grupo (prefect) was called to the head mucky-muck table to shake hands and receive the pack of class documents.  My son is the jefe del grupo of 3F.  Instead of leaving the stage, walking around to the back steps and going up them to the raised tier where the important people table sat, my son, with his long legs, just climbed up a tier, shook some hands, accepted the documents, and hopped down the same way.  His short round teacher had to go the long way around.

photo op with pres

Then there was the group photo shoot with the school director and the president of Moroleon.  After that happy event, students filed offstage.

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In between group presentations, there were several entertainment segments.  Some of the teachers prepared a “surprise” dance routine that began as Thriller zombies and then morphed into a soulful rendition of Despacito with some getting jiggy with it moves to round it all out.  I totally was not expecting zombies at the graduation ceremony. There was also a dramatic recitation or two by students and a song by a rather talented curly haired sophomore.  

marching on stage

My son’s group was the last of the 10 (yes, ten) graduating classes.  Just when we thought it was over, there was the awards ceremony.  Highest promedio (grades), special participation in events throughout the year, and so on.  Not only were the awards for the graduating students, but also for the other two grades.  The president’s daughter received a certificate of some sort, so there was more picture taking which made it even LONGER.

Then the school principal took the stage.  More blah-blah.  And another artistic performance by a girl from each of the 10 (yes, ten) graduating classes.  By that time, people were getting restless.  The graduation misa (mass) was supposed to start at 12 pm and the madrinas and padrinos were filing out like sheep to make it to the church on time.  But it’s not over until the fat lady says “clausura oficial” literally.  The students hurried through the Himno a la escuela (school song) so that fat lady could make the pronouncement.

Not being Catholic and all, we opted out of the special mass and went for tacos instead. Much to our astonishment, the president of Moroleon also stopped at this same roadside taco stand and congratulated my son before sitting down at the next table with all his entourage (and daughter).  They serve some pretty good tacos there!

good conduct certificate

So for all that rigamarole, the folder my son was given contained nothing more than a certificado de buena conducta (Good behavior certificate).  His official diploma I had to download from the SEP site and print out myself the following week, which I did.  He needed it to enroll in his next course of study–Online Prepa!

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Transition year

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If you recall, a few months ago, I outlined my busy work schedule (Juggling all the eggs in one basket) and wondered if really these things were worth the effort I was putting into them.  I decided shortly thereafter that they were not.  Thus began the transition year.

The first to go was my Saturday classes. (See Saturday classes)  Some days I had been pulling in a whopping $600 pesos, but more often, I had a single class.  $50 for a 6 hour day was not profitable.  So when my student finished the book we were working with, I told his mother that I was going to take a break from teaching on Saturdays.  She and her 8-year-old son were disappointed, but I consoled them that I may start up again in the Spring.  The uncle, who had been my student but gave his hour to the nephew, sent me an email demanding to know why I wasn’t going to teach English anymore.  I explained that I was still teaching English, just not on Saturday mornings.  I had too many other obligations and I needed more time to do things like laundry and shopping.  He wasn’t happy.  Oh well.  Can’t please everyone.

I still taught online Saturday afternoons, but I wanted to transition to my new place in Sunflower Valley (See A Room of Her Own).  It took over a month, but I finally was able to make the little house my base of operations rather than the school.  Having a kitchen made the afternoons easier.  There’s a little store across the street, so whipping up a light meal for a hungry teenager boy was more manageable.

Then I started dropping my afternoon private classes one by one.  The first to go was in mid-November.  We finished our book and that was that.  She begged and pleaded that I not abandon her.  I told her that I’d start teaching in the spring but that if she really wanted classes, she’d have to come to my little place in Sunflower Valley.  She said she would. We would see.  That freed up 2 hours a week.

Then in December, right before Las Posadas, I dropped the other 3.  All of them said that yes, it would be a good idea that I took a break, but that they didn’t want to lose their classes.  Maybe I could drop everyone else, and just teach them?  When I said that I really was planning an extended break, like maybe until Semana Santa, their eyes went wide and said, well, they’d be waiting here for me to return and give them classes again. That freed up 2 afternoons per week.

I didn’t start teaching afternoon classes after Semana Santa. Instead, I began going through my things at the school, readying it for my final transition.  I reviewed the supplementary books I had made for each grade level for errors and changes.  I also checked that there were assessments and exams and grade sheets for each unit of all 6 levels.  I would be leaving the entire system in place for whoever takes my place.

Finally, in July, I told the owners that for health reasons I would not be returning the following school year.  It’s not that I hated my job at the school.  After all, I had designed the entire ESL program myself.  I was getting some results, not as much as I would have liked, but some.  I had my own classroom, which is a rare perk in the schools around here.  Yet, at $65 USD per week, it was not in my best interest to continue. The health problem wasn’t invented.  I’m really working myself to death at this rate.  

I interviewed and recommended 2 teachers, one for first, second and third grade, and the other for fourth, fifth and sixth grade.  Yep, two teachers were needed to replace me.  I agreed to do a training session with them in August before everyone returns to classes.

The owner asked if I would consider staying and teaching at least 2 groups or at least the phonics classes since the main focus is pronunciation there.  Nothing doing.  I would, however, make a book for the sixth-grade group for the new teacher to use.  And if I got around to it, make a recording for the phonics books.

My first schedule with my newest online job came out the week after we finished classes.  Twenty-six hours paid in US dollars.  So provided I have a full schedule each week (and with online work nothing is a given) I’ll nearly triple my income for half the work and less than half the time.  

Hasta la vista baby!

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A Trip Down Memory Lane

Today my son graduated from secondary school marking the end of his traditional education here in Mexico.  It comes not a moment too soon.  He’s been butting heads with the school administration about his haircut, his final project choice (transparency in school expenditures) and having an awfully hard time getting up at 5 am to make the trip to town.  Be that as it may, he graduated with a 9.1 (91) which is pretty dang good considering he never did master those dratted Mexican moral value classes. (See Why we sent our child to Mexican preschool and Why we sent our child to Mexican elementary school)

So in honor of the end of his formal education process, I thought I’d indulge in a little trip down memory lane. Forgive me if I tear up and can’t write any more for this post!

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Graduation day 2017

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Hanging out at the secondary school

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First day of secondary school

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Graduation day elementary

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First day of sixth grade

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First day of elementary school

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Graduation day kindergarten

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Kindergarten graduation ceremony

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