EL PASO — She cried in her apartment numerous evenings last semester even when she had homework to complete. The young student’s only comfort was her sister, who shares the same reality.
“I want to go back. I miss a lot my house, my friends and my school,” said Krista Penagos, a junior at Loretto Academy, a private, all-girls, Roman Catholic elementary school and high school here.
Penagos’ story has become common on this side of the border: when drug dealers demanded her father sell drugs, he closed his restaurant’s doors and her family fled to El Paso the next day, a temporary solution for escaping the increasingly dangerous city of Chihuahua. However, the whole family could not stay in the United States.
“He can’t work here,” Penagos, the youngest of four girls, said. “My mom and two sisters come and go because they work in Chihuahua.”
Her father now works in Veracruz, while her mother and older sisters, who still live in Chihuahua, visit Penagos and her slightly older sister, who both stay here because they are students. For Mexican families, U.S. private schooling is a temporary blessing.
Drug-related violence has taken more than 35,000 Mexican lives since President Felipe Calderon stepped up efforts to combat drug syndicates when he took office five years ago. Mexico’s U.S.-backed drug war has taken more than 7,000 lives just in Ciudad Juarez.
In the crossfire of war-waging drug cartels seeking control of U.S. drug routes, many Mexican families are adopting new living situations, often anchoring their children in El Paso’s private schools as a mode of safety, even if just for a few hours a day.
“I think our schools here do provide a point of safety where a child can feel they’re free to play, learn, to do what they want to without fear,” said Elizabeth Swartz, Catholic Diocese of El Paso education superintendent.
In the 2010-2011 academic school year, 743 Mexican students from Cd. Juarez attended catholic campuses, according to statistics reported by the 11 individual campuses in the El Paso region, 60 less than the ones that registered for the 2008-2009 academic year.
To attend a private or public school, university, college or other institution, international students must apply for a 1-20 form, showing they have the means to afford tuition.
As a whole, Mexican student populations fluctuate inconsistently and show little change to the longstanding traditions of Mexican students attending catholic schools. However, the small trend shifts, per school, may indicate various situations related to surging violence and the adoption of new living situations.
At schools situated near ports of entry, where tuition is lower, the student population has grown. Schools in the interior, with higher tuition are less consistent.
Increases in student population may indicate more students are crossing for school, while decreases may display traditional commuting students are making new U.S. homes and are no longer counted as residents in Juarez, or no longer attending the given school, depending on various financial and safety issues, said Swartz.
At Loretto Academy, President Sister Mary Boesen said Mexican nationals consistently account for 20 percent of the school’s students. Most of that percentage attended the school prior to the drug war.
“We’ve always had an integrated campus,” Boesen said. “It’s not unusual for us to have a campus with a percentage of students from Mexico.”
Changes as a result of the conflict are elusive and hard to gauge because of the tradition of U.S. schooling. Only through interaction can she confirm students are affected or relocating because of violence.
“We don’t know for sure because we don’t pry into that stuff,” Cynthia Hoffmann, Loretto director of advancement, said.
Melissa Austin, Penagos’ English teacher, said teachers are notified of the students’ situation when they come in.
“I had three girls this year for me personally that were sent up here from Chihuahua,” Austin said. “Three girls when I only have, I think, there are less than 80 junior girls, when you get three girls, that’s a difference.”
St. Joseph’s Principal Brother Edwin Gallagher scans the yearbook girls’ basketball team photo and motions at the student athletes by name and family.
He points to a student, who wears her dark tress down, bangs hanging over her forehead above her brown eyes, wearing the St. Joseph’s eagle on her purple jersey.
“She still lives in Juarez,” Gallagher said. She crosses from Juarez every day to attend school, a pilgrimage her family has done for years.
“At first they were scared ‘like how can you live over there and everything,’ but that’s never bothered us,” said Mariana, the athlete in the photo.
Lorena Gutierrez sends her daughter Mariana and her two sons to St. Joseph’s. Mariana speaks, reads and understands English well and plays on the tournament basketball championship team.
Gutierrez said that she sends her children to U.S. private schools because of the level of academics and also because she wants them to learn a new language.
Generations of families have sent their children to schools like Loretto, Cathedral High School and St. Joseph’s, which are well known by families in the region, Swartz said.
“My mom loves Loretto, that’s why I came here. All my family came here, since my great grandma,” said Loretto senior Natalia Ostos.
Veronica Escobar, whose family relocated from Monterrey, Mexico, said they chose St. Joseph’s through recommendations and affordability, and because public schools were too different from the Mexican schools her children attended.
“My sister-in-law lives here and she has her children in St. Joseph’s,” Escobar said.
At Father Yermo School, Sister Karina Tapia doesn’t have to look far to realize the reality of her students. With a quick glance out her office window, cars parked along the street carry mostly Chihuahua plates.
“It’s because of the location. This year we have a really high number of people that cross,” Tapia, the school principal, school said. “It’s over half of our students.”
She explained that her school has a higher concentration of commuting Mexican students because they offer lower tuition than interior schools and their proximity to the ports of entry.
Father Yermo, both an elementary and high school, reported 294 Mexican students this year. The highest amount they’ve seen since 2006.
Families without the means to move over usually turn to Father Yermo and Our Lady of the Valley, Tapia said. Although Father Yermo has one of the lowest tuitions in the area, paying for it is a strain on low-and-middle income Mexicans because of the grim economic situation in Juarez.
“It’s a big sacrifice for a lot of them,” Tapia said. “We have some families whose economic situation changes and can’t afford it anymore.”
While population does increase in some schools, the hardship of financial reality remains the same throughout the campuses.
“They (parents) are now struggling to make tuition because of the impact of the violence,” Swartz said. “That’s probably the biggest piece of what we’re concerned with.”
Loretto senior Natalia Ostos said her family has struggled as well. Ostos works as an office assistant at the school.
“They’re having trouble paying for school,” Ostos said.
Loretto, which has one of the highest tuitions in El Paso, and other private schools offer financial aid, scholarships and work-study.
At St. Joseph’s, principal Gallagher said a handful of families have approached him this year with financial concerns.
“Right now three students (are) morally obliged – that (means that they) just have to pay nothing this year or next year until the family gets stabilized,” Gallagher said. “We have a moral obligation to help.”
Swartz said families who cannot continue paying often move to public schools if they have U.S. residence or go back to Mexican schooling.
“The last thing that some of our schools want to do is turn these children away. Part of our thing, when the family needs it most, you want to be there for them,” Swartz said. “At least the school gives them stability. That’s what we try to provide for these students from Juarez.”
Struggling with English
Tapia said the school has also had to make other efforts to accommodate the increasing trends. Father Yermo High School is developing English as a Second Language (ESL) program, while its elementary branch has had it for years.
ESL was not needed at the high school level because students usually go through those programs during elementary school, Tapia said, but with the increase in Mexican high school students the need exceeds more than tutors.
“That’s a new challenge for us,” Tapia said. “We have some kids that come over here knowing some basic English.”
Father Yermo is one of the only catholic private schools to have an ESL program. Other schools depend on total language immersion and tutors to raise students’ English proficiency.
In Austin’s English class at Loretto, the new migration is clear and is seen in schoolwork.
She said she recognizes it through language issues when reading her students’ assignments. She looks for clues like odd syntax, word selection and sentence structure.
Austin said students are given tutors on a case-to-case basis, but total language immersion is depended on.
“Even if they are at school in Loretto all day, they’ll go home and speak Spanish with their parents,” Austin said.
Penagos said learning English at Loretto has been difficult.
“Last semester my grades were terrible, I was failing everything because I didn’t know English,” Penagos said.
Tapia said Father Yermo’s situation is unique and cannot depend on total immersion.
“The last couple of years have been a challenge (because) any time they can go back to the comfort zone, they do,” Tapia said.
Adapting to a new culture
With one of her children about to enter high school, Escobar, newly arrived from Monterrey, chose to send her children to private school, fearing they would be subject to a liberal culture in public schools.
“Where I lived in Monterrey it’s still very old-fashioned. There are practically no drugs in the zone I lived in Mexico and we knew everybody,” Escobar said.
Escobar’s daughter Natalia, who plays alongside Mariana, has helped out the winning team this year, said St. Joseph’s basketball coach Tony Tafoya. He said there are no complications within his winning girls’ basketball team.
“I can see there is a worry, but they shut it out. They forget about what’s going on for a bit when they’re on the court,” Tafoya said.
Although his team is a mixture of El Pasoans, relocated Mexicans and commuting Mexican students, the team gets along well and doesn’t have issues playing alongside each other, Tafoya said.
The same dynamics exist at most schools, however, senior Maria Mendoza, who commutes to Loretto, admits she is more prone to hang out with girls from Mexico because it is easier to sustain these friendships outside of school.
“We hang out with the same kind of people because we’re the only ones (living) in Juarez. We’re the only ones left,” Mendoza said. “My best friend lives here, so I have to ask for permission see whose is going to pick me up in the morning.”
Loretto senior María Fernández said there are still cultural differences that separate students who live in the U.S. and those in Juarez.
“I don’t know anyone, I don’t feel like anyone cares here about you,” Fernández said.
Mendoza and Ostos agree rumors are also issues at Loretto. They said students and staff members only feed into the tension by reacting without understanding the impact of drug violence on Juarez students, like when they announced the name of a student who lost a father to the violence over the intercom.
“They over do it. They don’t know what’s exactly going on,” Ostos said.
Mendoza and Ostos said there needs to be more understanding of the situation facing Juarez students at Loretto because they’re living it, such as violence, long bridge waits and other complications.
“They don’t really understand, I wasn’t late because I wanted to be late,” Mendoza said.