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“Hot Spot” Interview — Teaching In The Midst Of Drug War

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I recently began a new regular interview series. There are always lots of “hot spots” around the world — places where there are natural disasters, political upheavals, etc. And English teachers can be found in most of those places. If you are an EFL/ESL teacher in one of those areas, please let me know.

Today, Janice Silva, from a Pre-K to ninth-grade school near Monterrey, Mexico, where 80% of the curriculum is taught in English, has agreed to answer a few questions.

Can you tell me a little about what you do, where you work, and what brought you to Mexico?

I work at a Pre-K to 9th-grade private school in a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico. I’m primarily involved with curriculum, instruction and professional development, so I work closely with teachers, but get to spend a lot of time in classrooms, too. I observe how the curriculum is implemented from preschool through middle school to ensure that instruction is coherent and aligned throughout the school. I’ve lived in Mexico for a total of 15 years. My husband is from Monterrey, which is largely why we’re here, but I’ve enjoyed living in Monterrey, which is home to me now.

How has the drug violence in Mexico affected your everyday life?

Within just the last two years, my family and I, like other families, have started taking some precautions. We rarely go out at night. We try not to leave the house empty, as the rate of break-ins and home invasions has risen dramatically. If someone rings the doorbell, we don’t answer at all if we don’t recognize the person. Although home robberies may not be directly related to the drug violence, the assumption is that the drug violence is keeping police so busy that they don’t have the resources to investigate other types of crime. As a result, there’s little probability that criminals will be detained and prosecuted. Kidnappings have also become more common, so if any of my family are late getting home, and if I can’t reach them on their cell phone, I start to get nervous.

Car robberies at gunpoint have also become common, so we’ve just agreed to give up the car rather than risk injury. We carry cards, produced by a local university, with the emergency telephone numbers of the army and navy, which have responded effectively to calls for help. We park as close as possible to stores if we go shopping, and we don’t stop at convenience stores at night. There have been cases of people being followed home from convenience stores and robbed when they arrive home.

If we have appointments or meetings to drive to, we give ourselves generous travel time, in case there’s a roadblock, typically organized by a cartel in order to disrupt traffic and prevent law enforcement officials from arriving at the scene of a crime or skirmish. We might also need extra time if there are police filters slowing down traffic as they’re searching for particular persons or vehicles. Roadblocks and filters are becoming acceptable reasons for arriving late for appointments.

How do you think your students would say it has affected their lives?

I asked some of our students this question. The first thing they mentioned is that their parents won’t permit them to walk to the park, the store or a friend’s house anymore. They have to wait for a parent to drive them. Some of them are not allowed to go beyond the suburb where most of our students live and where our school is located. In fact, some don’t even visit grandparents who live in other parts of Monterrey.

Our students generally have very active social lives – lots of parties and celebrations. They still go to parties, but on average, their curfew now is two hours earlier than it was prior to the problem with drug violence. Some also said that while they’re out with friends, their parents make frequent calls to their cell phones to ask if they’re all right or if they’re ready to be picked up.

Students or their parents also check the security situation of the roads and the area where social events are going to be held. Students told me that they check TV news, Facebook and Twitter for this information. In many cases, incidents of violence are reported first on Facebook and Twitter before they reach more traditional news services. (My daughter just told us that there’s a report on Facebook tonight of gunfire near the school she attends.)

Since Monterrey is located only 2-3 hours from the U.S. border, students and their families used to make this trip frequently to go shopping or to go to South Padre Island for a long weekend. Students reported that their families no longer drive to the border or else they go less frequently because of robberies, assaults and kidnappings that have occurred on the roads. When families do go, they try to go accompanied by several families, so that the vehicles travel together. Some families opt to fly rather than drive.

Perhaps saddest, every student I spoke to knows some family that has left Monterrey to escape the drug violence, usually to go to the U.S.

Have you ever considered leaving Mexico?

In the past, when I’ve heard news of countries experiencing violence caused by criminal organizations, political upheaval or war, I wondered how people could continue living there, and I imagined that those who stayed had no other option. I suppose that there are people living in Monterrey who would leave if they could. However, there are many who choose to stay despite the violence, and now I understand this choice. My home and family are here, as is my work, which I look forward to every day. Like many people here, we’re thinking about the situation here in terms of probabilities. Taking precautions can lower the probability of the occurrence of an unfortunate incident. Beyond that, we just hope that at the end of the day, we’ll arrive home safely. Right now, we feel we’d lose a great deal by leaving Monterrey. Of course, my family hasn’t been directly affected by the drug violence. If it were, that might change our perspective completely.

Interestingly, although the drug violence has made us more wary of strangers, it’s strengthened our relationship with our neighbors. We all watch out for each others’ homes and families. During my trip to the ASCD conference, I knew that my neighbor would watch for my daughter to get home safely from school every day. We all have a sense of commitment to each other and to our neighborhood. I assume that many people in Monterrey feel the same. My friends talk about people who have left Monterrey, but they rarely talk about leaving themselves.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

I’d only add that there’s still a faith here that this situation is temporary, and that it will eventually pass. Every day brings discouraging news. Yesterday 14 deaths in the Monterrey area were attributed to drug violence – 3 police officers, 5 suspected criminals, 5 armed criminals, and a university student who was an innocent bystander. Still, people get up every day to go to work and school, they spend weekends with extended family, they go shopping and to restaurants and movies, and they make plans for the future. Monterrey has always been known for its industrious people who place a high value on education. People who make Monterrey their home deserve to maintain this reputation.

Thanks, Janice, and be safe!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. I am one of the teachers that has the privilege to work closely with Janice. She has been a mentor and example to me, with her constant patience and understanding. She introduced me to this blog as a way to lighten the recommendation load of what tools 1:1 laptop teachers can be using. I built an afternoon training around this incredibly resourceful site and it has helped so many teachers with lesson plans. Janice is a true leader in this school with many teachers consulting her advice and expertise. And for me personally, I always consider her “A coach for the technology coach.”

  2. Thanks for starting this column Larry, and thanks for telling the world how things are in Monterrey. I am also in Mexico, halfway between Guadalajara and Mexico City.

    Drug violence has not changed our way of life, although our city and state have experienced violent repercussions due to the fact that it is the President’s home state.

    Just like Janice, “people get up every day to go to work and school, they spend weekends with extended family, they go shopping and to restaurants and movies, and they make plans for the future…,” the difference being that here we take very few precausionces and have changed our lifestyles little. Burglaries and crime are on the rise; however, we credit that with the economic crisis we are in caused by media hype about violence in our tourism-based state. Tourism was down last vacation in Christmas, but so far I’ve seen lots of out-of-state license plates of visitors coming to Michoacan.

    By the way, I work in the public university and have made the rounds of private schools in the state capital, Morelia.
    Ellen

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