Now Sonoran schools are faced with a problem all too familiar to many American school districts: The task of educating students who do not speak the language and do not know the culture.
Fidel Avalos was born in Sonora, Mexico, but raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is currently the only 16-year-old at the Secundaria Estatal 38 school in Nogales, Mexico who speaks with a distinctly Southern accent.
“Like I said,” he drawls. “My English is better than my Spanish.”
Fidel grew up listening to his mom speak Spanish, but he always answered her in English. He does not remember having any books in Spanish in his house, so he never learned to read or write in anything other than English. When he started school in Mexico last fall, he was lost.
“So I had problems with it,” he said. “I struggle with the words, with the homework that they give me because it’s in Spanish. English class I always get a 10.”
This was a problem not only for Fidel, but for thousands of other American-raised kids who are also here. Sonora’s department of education reports that the population of migrant school kids from the U.S. has gone up by nearly 25 percent in the last year, and some teachers don’t know what to do.
“Because sometimes the teachers are afraid to receive to his classroom students coming from the United States,” said Sandra Hernandez, a superintendent with Nogales schools. “Because they say: ‘What am I going to do if he doesn’t understand Spanish?’ ”
Hernandez said she tells the teachers: “Don’t be afraid. We can work with him, because (there are) only one, two, three per class.”
All totaled, there are now about 9,000 migrant students in the state of Sonora, all with varying levels of Spanish language skills. This is a lot for Sonora, but it is still very small compared to some states in the U.S. For example, Arizona has more than 100,000 students learning English. California has more than one million.
But in Sonora, these English-speaking students are the minority. They have the advantage of true immersion. They are in homes with parents or grandparents who speak Spanish and they are in neighborhoods where everything is in Spanish. Hernandez says this is different than in the U.S., where Spanish speakers are exposed to English often only at school. For these reasons, Hernandez said that here in Sonora, teaching the kids Spanish is not a struggle.
“When a kid comes from the United States, they learn Spanish so fast, believe me,” she said.
School officials in Sonora see a more pressing need for their migrant students: emotional well-being. Last month, they piloted a new support program in 25 different Sonoran schools.
Jesus Ramirez Cordobo works in Sonora’s department of education. He says the kids need the program because many of them are in Mexico "against their will." If their parents were not deported, they often fled the states out of fear that they would be.
“They were changed from one place to another without being asked,” Ramirez Cordobo explained. “Their parents just got them, brought them over or maybe their parents were brought over without asking them. And that made them feel not very good, not very well.”
Fidel and his classmates report that their American habits earn them no popularity points at their new school. If the teasing isn’t about their Justin-Bieber-like haircuts, then it’s about their music or their clothes.
“They told us to stop wearing skinny jeans!” Fidel said.
“And people here tease you – they call you gringo, and stuff like that,” added Marcos Torres, one of Fidel’s classmates.
Fidel went on: “They act like if we weren’t Mexicans like them.”
But even Fidel admits – he is not like them. He likes football and fried chicken. He’s too American. And, like 80% of the migrant students recently surveyed by Sonora’s department of education, he wants to go back to where he came from.
“I came here and I’ve seen what it’s like,” Fidel says. “And I just want to go back and not come back here. Ever.”
Fidel’s visa application to go back to North Carolina and live with his uncle is still pending.