Education Amidst Violence: The Columban Study Center in Anapra, Mexico

By Fr. Robert Mosher

I recently met the sparkling and energetic Cristina, who manages for the Columbans, a library and study center for 385 school-aged children in Rancho Anapra, the residential area covered by our Columban parish of Corpus Christi, on the outskirts of Juárez  Mexico. Columban supporters are familiar with her reports, posted on our website over the past several years, and have donated generous amounts towards the upkeep of the study center.

Cristina is very proud of the students who have used the center over the years. Every year, a few of the students graduate from high school, most of whom go on to higher education. The study center consists of several large rooms attached to Cristina’s house and an outdoor patio for younger children to learn and play in. She carefully points out the laptop computer and the photocopier in a corner of one office-like space, fruits of donations, and tells me that seven more laptops have been donated for the use of the older students. She waxes emotional in spite of her hardheaded approach to the challenges of running the afterschool program, Monday through Friday, throughout the academic year, in one of the poorest places in Mexico.

One of the challenges is convincing parents to send their children to the study center. So many parents see prolonged education as a luxury they can ill afford, preferring to send their children to work and bring income to the family as early as possible. Cristina tries to show them how education is an inheritance for their children, something won for them by years of struggle, so that they needn’t face the hopelessness of temporary, dead-end jobs that the adults now have to put up with. It’s not easy to convince parents of the connection between an education and a better future for their children.

Registration with the local public schools at the beginning of each school year, for each child, cost 600 Mexican pesos – about $44.00 in US currency – for kindergarten, 1,300 pesos (US $95) for primary school. However, thanks to the support of Columban donors, they study center can partially pay for the school registration of children of the poorest families in the area. On top of that, school uniforms and supplies are also required of each child, and the center helps with those expenses, as well, often contributing the writing and artwork supplies directly, with the help of funding from the US.

The Mexican public education system is slightly different from the US system. Education is usually divided into three periods: Primary School (primaria), grades 1-6; Junior High School (secundaria), grades 7 -9; and High School (preparatoria), grades 10 – 12. The first two periods are compulsory for Mexican citizens, although the third is not. In 2001, kindergarten, or a preschool year (preescolar), also became compulsory. Escuelas (schools) is a term generally reserved for public schools, while colegios (similar to “colleges”) refers to private schools, which usually charge higher tuition fees. Public schools serve 87% of all students in Mexico.

Public school teachers are often saturated by the sheer numbers of students in their classes, Cristina told me, and thus the study center fulfills an important role in their education, an auxiliary role that focuses on reinforcing the lessons of the day. When Cristina and her team of volunteer helpers treat each child with attention to their educational needs and challenges, they also help to overcome the problems faced by children at home, where poverty often forms the chaotic background to alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic violence.

Recently, the wave of violence since the drug cartel wars began in Juárez  in 2008 has drawn alarmingly close to Rancho Anapra. Just a few days before my visit, a young man was gunned down in cold blood in the middle of the day by a group of armed men in a speeding taxi, right in front of the main gate to the local primary school! Parents from all over the neighborhood descended on the school to whisk their children away, and chaos reigned for nearly an house. Blood stained the sidewalk in front of the school for several hours after the young man’s body was taken away while the police arrived to photograph the crime scene and keep the area clear. Cristina tries to keep the violence out of children’s conversation, so as not to let fear dominate their lives. The growing presence of such illicit groups also makes the drug trade tempting for poor young people, who sooner of later weigh the choice between easy money and struggling for work in a period of high unemployment.

“They taught me to read in the study center library!” a child will occasionally boast to his or her parents, which fills Cristina with pride. Her own education trained her in social work, with a specialty in economic law. “My children,” Cristina declares in a proprietary manner, meaning all the children in the program, “they come her clean, with decent clothing.”

“I make sure they don’t lack shoes or uniforms,” she adds. Cristina is very happy with what she regards as an “opportunity” with which God has entrusted her. She raises the spirits and motivates children who may have lost a parent to violence, which is not unusually in the area, and treats them with special attention.

“I’m strict, too,” she tells me, with a sharp look, somewhat softened by the friendly sparkle in her eye. “I don’t allow makeup or any of that nonsense on the older girls. Hair and dress are to be appropriate for their age!” She also insists that mothers and fathers need not be ashamed to ask for help. “There’s no shame in asking for help for one’s children,” she insists. Moral behavior is also strongly encouraged for both parents and children as the young girls and boys approach sexual maturity, and Cristina usually warns parents to pay more attention to their kids. “If you don’t want your daughter to end up pregnant, keep her from going to all those parties at night! You must put some restrictions on your children, although they complain about it!”

The reality of Juárez is that many young women have disappeared, and sometimes turned up in mass graves, over the past few decades, and the problem continues today. Cristina tries to head such crimes off early in a young person’s education but know several cases of missing young women from the area. She always fears for the worst.

She also tries to be fair, selecting only the most deserving families for financial and educational help for their children. “Not everyone is happy with me,” she admits. “I think that those families who have salaries coming in should leave their space to other families.” But with faith in God, she can make the hard decisions, whatever the personal consequences to her or her husband, who often helps maintain the facility. “You have to have faith in God,” she insists.

Fr. Robert Mosher lives and works in El Paso, TX. This article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of Columban Mission, the monthly magazine of the Mission Society of St. Columban.