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Deported 'Americans:' Products of California's Educational System

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Kleyn_Students.jpgTatyana Kleyn, professor at City University of New York, with U.S.-educated students in Mexico. They are working on a guide for Mexican teachers.  (Photo: William Perez)

By William Perez

MEXICO CITY—When I first arrived in Los Angeles, California, as a ten-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, I never thought that one day I would identify as a "Californian" or "Angeleno."  But after completing my public K-12 schooling, undergraduate, and graduate education in the Golden State these labels—Californian and Angeleno—became an important part of my identity.  

I was reminded of that fact while reviewing an interview with a young man who grew up in California but was deported to Mexico a few years ago.  When asked how he identifies himself, Hector (a pseudonym) proudly stated, "Mexican-Californian!"  He went on to explain, "I'm happy to say I'm from California.  I can't say I'm an American 'cause I'm not, but California is my home, California will always be part of me wherever I go.  I will always have that Cali swag... no matter if I was born here in Mexico... California is where I grew up.  California is what made me."  Tragically, he's now a Californian in exile.

Hector's response led me to look into other Mexican-Californians in our study of Mexican deportees and returnees.  Reviewing the data, I came across familiar Los Angeles Unified School District high school names: Fremont, Lincoln, Fairfax, Garfield, Roosevelt, and Santee.  Although participants lived in 34 states before being deported or forced to return to Mexico, 43% of the 284 young adults we surveyed attended California public schools.  After investing in the education of these young adults for years, California is now unable to benefit from their talents due to ineffective immigration policies.  To make matters worse, Mexico is also losing out on a golden opportunity.

13 Years in the U.S.

Most of the 284 young adults in our study are like Hector.  On average they immigrated to the U.S. at the age of five, lived there 13 years, returned to Mexico at the age of 19, and have lived in Mexico for about four years since returning.  Forced to leave the communities they still call home, many struggle to belong and redefine their future goals and aspirations.  A young woman we interviewed stated, "I don't have any memories of my childhood here, so first day that we got here, I just started crying."  Hector noted, "I miss home...I mean Mexico is cool, I like it, I like the food...but I can never really call this home..."

Cultural ties to American traditions, many of which they first learned about in school, remain deep among returnees.  Hector still celebrates several American holidays and traditions:

My friends and me are having Thanksgiving if you want to come.  We have Halloween parties. Christmas is like an American Christmas.  We always have Super Bowl parties. We go online because we don't like the narration in Spanish.  We have a projector and we hook up a laptop, go to U.S. websites and watch the whole game in English.  We keep a lot of traditions here.

Another interviewee described how his Christmas traditions were different from his Mexican family and friends, "Here in Mexico Christmas is basically the 6th of January...with my friends, I give them presents on the 25th or the 24th.  We open our presents and we celebrate like over there (United States)."

Discriminated Against in Mexico

Despite high levels of bilingualism and biculturalism, those that have returned to Mexico face exclusion based on deep-rooted anti-American sentiment, a legacy of the historically complex and contentious relations between the two countries.  

In all, 85% of the young adults we surveyed reported some type of discrimination during the past year, including 70% who report having been told not to speak English and 72% who report that they have been made fun of for the way they speak Spanish.  One interviewee noted, "we went to a really nice restaurant...and I was ordering and the waiter started laughing at me because of how I spoke... Even in the states I never got made fun of the way I spoke."  Another young man noted, "One time I was in the subway and we were talking English and they called us pochos, kind of like wetback here.  I was in a bus one time and they were like, Why are you speaking English?  You're in Mexico." For Hector, the sense of exclusion for being different is clear and painful, "It makes me feel bad, it makes me feel out of place...I feel like I don't belong here, like an alien."

There is a large and growing return-diaspora of Californians, Angelenos, and many other young adults who are Mexican by birth but culturally American, many longing to return to the communities in the U.S. they still consider home.  As these young adults continue the slow and painful process of adaptation to their country of birth, they retain a transnational identity that transcends the limits of the U.S.-Mexico border. While some consider themselves, Los Otros Dreamers  others still consider themselves "Dreamers," in the original sense of students who are hoping to normalize their status in the U.S.  As Hector explained, "I do, because [like] a lot of Dreamers, we never had the choice to go over there (U.S.)...my parents went out there to fight for us...to give us a better life...I mean they were trying to do the right thing...I think it's only fair that we get a chance to be part of the country and the culture instead of being thrown back to something that we're not used to."

Studying the Return Migration

During a recent visit to the state of Oaxaca, my Fulbright colleague Tatyana Kleyn, invited me to attend a meeting in the town of Tlacolula with a group of high school students who are U.S. returnees.  She is also studying the return migration experiences of Mexican students who attended U.S. schools.  With her assistance, the group is working on a guide for Mexican teachers to help them support return migrant students like themselves.  

They seemed excited that an educator was actually interested in their experiences and needs. Tatyana notes, "The lesson for educators, regardless of which side of the border you are on, is that we need to understand the realities of our students and support them in coming to a new or nearly-foreign country, create spaces to allow them to talk about their experiences and struggles, and offer psycho-social, academic and linguistic supports within our schools."  The students decided they should have a group name. Rather than follow Tatyana's suggestions of "Dreamers of Tlacolula," or "Los Otros Dreamers of Tlacolula," they came up instead with, "The New Dreamers."

As an American educator, I agree with Tatyana that, although they now live south of the border, these young people are still our students. They are products of the American educational system.  We taught them, mentored and advised them, and shaped their dreams and aspirations.  We have invested in them a great deal and owe them our continued support to help them develop their full potential, just like our students in the U.S.  We can start by engaging in a binational dialogue on educational access for those that are deported or forced to return to Mexico.

(In my next post, I will summarize the educational challenges students face, highlight the potential benefit to both countries if we develop appropriate mechanisms to facilitate trans-border school movements, and provide recommendations for immigration and educational policies that reflect the reality of the profound cultural and linguistic transnational ties between the U.S. and Mexico.)

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William Perez (BA, Pomona College; Ph.D., Stanford University) is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar/Visiting Researcher at Colegio de México (COLMEX) in Mexico City. His research focuses on the social and psychological processes associated with academic success and higher education access among immigrant Latino students. He is recognized as one of the nation's leading academic experts on undocumented students. In 2009, he received the Mildred Garcia Prize from the Association for the Study of Higher Education for his book We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream,  His most recent book American's by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of American Higher Education, was selected for the 2013 Critics Choice Award by the American Educational Studies Association. Follow @williamperezphd on Twitter, Become a fan on Facebook

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