Hearts and Minds
The Learning Center in Palomas comes alive.
by Marjorie Lilly
The Learning Center in Palomas is one long narrow room slapped onto the side of the library a couple of years ago by Border Partners volunteers. It's finally being used regularly by local kids and adults.
It started being used early this year with five or seven students. As of mid-May, word had spread and about 25 kids were showing up in the late afternoons as well as adults on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Organizers are considering more expansion before too long.
Enjoying the Learning Center in Palomas are Dayán Cano Porras, left, who dances la bachata, and Dulce Maria Lopez, who just learned to read. (Photo by Marjorie Lilly)
One 13-year-old girl has learned to read for the first time, a 7-year-old learned to say the alphabet in English overnight, and a 12-year-old is so good at computers that he hacks into one of his instructors' computers in the evening to say hi.
Three- and four-year-olds bring a hand-made booklet of English vocabulary words home to their parents for them to learn. One girl found something about yodeling online and wants to yodel. This cracks up Sheila Bjeletich, the forever supportive and bubbly promoter of the project.
There are 10 desktop computers, four laptops, and eight tablets. A 20-foot-long mosaic lizard by artist Dago Rodriguez ("Frieze Frame," September 2013) covers much of the floor.
The first germ of the Learning Center can probably be traced to Clinton Friberg, who lives in Columbus. He started teaching poor kids one-on-one at least five years ago. Sheila came along about two years ago and offered the use of her computer tablets.
They both are helping some families get their kids higher education with the assistance of the "Mexico College Fund," found on Facebook.
They started teaching at the Del Rio pharmacy near the Port of Entry. "We moved on to private homes, the park, street corners, and then the Learning Center was completed," says Sheila. Peter and Polly Edmundson of Border Partners, based in Deming, had been building a Learning Center all along.
"Peter offered the use of the center and all those computers," says Sheila. "Oh my God, we were in heaven!"
The center now has its own entrance, separate from the library entrance. It can now be open five days a week and on Saturday. Mostly adults come on Saturday.
"We're getting grownups here to learn the computers," says Juan Rascon, the thoroughly bilingual supervisor of the project. "Even something like a gas station is computerized. You need it to run the cash register."
Some kids have parents who are involved with the narcos, or very poor, or screwed up in other ways. Some have been selling chicle (gum) on the streets or washing windshields. Some girls may be perilously close to becoming prostitutes to support their families. It doesn't matter. They are all welcome.
"We need to keep them off the streets," Juan emphasizes.
The computer-hacking boy visits a website with the words "El niño sicario" (the boy murderer) on it. Juan is concerned about this, and says if the boy continues going on websites like this he will tell him he can't come to the center for three weeks. The shadows are so close to some of these kids.
Juan takes care of things here, and gets paid by Border Partners. He is sober, sincere and quiet.
He and two of his brothers spent most of their lives without papers in the US, for the most part in Gallup, Farmington and Colorado. A few years ago they were deported. Juan spent eight months in detention and was returned to the Mexican side at Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in 2010, at the height of the violence.
But Juan says he is "a very positive person," and sees his work for the Learning Center as perhaps one reason for his being in Palomas. He says that for a while he was depressed about the violence in Mexico, but he's learned to look on the positive side.
There are two sisters who are very devoted to this work, too. Their names are Sheri and Ruth, and they are a laugh-a-minute. They say, "We came to Palomas to get our teeth fixed three years ago and stayed here."
These two blonde Americans hardly speak Spanish, but say they communicate with Mexicans without serious problems. "I don't know if it's the heart?" Sheri asks, voice rising.
Ruth grasps for words to explain what is clearly a spiritual thing to them: "You've got to hear from here," she says, pointing to her stomach. "When you feel at home, there's an underlying peace. When things are in sync and working, everything works."
They teach English at the Learning Center, which is a popular subject among the kids. The women don't have water in their house, and they use a day pass for the Pancho Villa State Park to take showers.
Around the dining-room table in Juan Rascon's mother's house in the warm evening, Sheri struggles to describe the situation in Palomas these days in regard to the invisible narcos. "It's like a circle of light with dark around it. Or it's as if there's a dome in the middle. People are creating their own peace," she says.
"It's really wonderful to see," she adds. "It's love!"
Juan says, "The people were very traumatized by the violence. They want peace."
Sheri has learned second-hand about the wives of narcos, and says they say to their husbands, "It doesn't matter what you do, but just don't do it here." Sheri alludes vaguely to acts of violence and disappearances that are carried out beyond the city limits, or to rumors of these acts.
Out on the porch of the library I talk to the 13-year-old girl who had just learned to read through a phonics website online at the Learning Center. Her favorite subjects in school are science and biology. Self-assuredly she says she's planning to go to Casas Grandes for both high school and college, where she'll learn to be a nurse.
A younger friend spins around on the porch, insouciant and funny. She talks about her favorite singer called "Piz roi" (she writes this in my notebook very decisively, although I can't' find it online) and a dance called la bachata.
A 10-year-old girl, Andrea Santillanes Garcia, states calmly that she'll go to college in Michigan, where she'll learn to repair computers. She already fixes computers at the Learning Center.
I've gotten pretty cynical at times about Mexico over the last seven years of mayhem. But these kids are to me like the bright green blades of grass that keep springing up on earth completely oblivious to human tragedies.
The blades are inevitable and spontaneous, but helped along by people like the ones in this article.
To contact Sheila Bjeletich or Clinton Friberg about the Learning Center, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.