ELLs on the Border Talk about Violence in Mexico

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 27, 2009 2 min read
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I’m reading with interest news reports on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Mexico and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s decision to increase the number of agents on the U.S.-Mexican border. For a while now, I’ve been hearing that members of drug cartels are shooting people right and left in Mexican border towns. But I’ve heard that the terror happens mostly at night. So, just last weekend, I parked a rental car and walked across the U.S.-Mexican border at Nogales, Ariz., to have lunch and browse in the markets in Nogales, Sonora.

I saw lots of wares for sale, including blankets, colorful pottery, and jewelry, but few tourists, as they likely have been scared away by the reports of violence. I ate stuffed chili peppers with corn tortillas for lunch and a mariachi duo played and sang a few songs at a table near me. I had a pleasant experience, but I was disheartened by the poverty—I saw a lot of children selling trinkets or begging in the streets.

Two days later, while visiting the Nogales Unified School District for Education Week, I learned from English-language learners that the violence on the Mexican side of the border is very real indeed. I heard two classes of high school students give short speeches comparing and contrasting gangs in the 1996 movie, “Romeo and Juliet,” which they had been assigned to watch, with gangs operating in the Mexican part of Nogales. (Much of the movie was shot in Mexico.) Many of the students said their families have a house on each side of the border. They said the violence is worse at night, and many avoid going out after dark in Mexico. They didn’t give any indication that the violence has spilled over to the U.S. part of Nogales.

In his speech, one student said that he’s afraid for his mother’s life because she works in Mexico. “I’m scared because she is an aggressive driver. She honks at everyone,” implying that her honking at other drivers might provoke criminals to hurt her. Another student said she hadn’t gone to visit Nogales, Sonora, for three weeks “because of the killings.”

Students said they don’t have faith in the Mexican police to keep the community safe. “There is a lot of corruption. If they stop you and they take you to jail, you have to pay them $100 to get out,” said the same girl who mentioned she hadn’t gone to Mexico for three weeks.

A few students in the class said they also thought some police on the U.S. side of the border are corrupt. Some also indicated that they thought some U.S. Border Patrol agents are corrupt as well.

As an outsider, the lesson was intriguing to me, and I think that Joanne Palella, the teacher for the class, managed to touch on a subject in her comparison-contrast assignment that was of interest to teenagers and made some of the action in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” as interpreted by the filmmakers, seem relevant.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.