Unsung Heroes

My friend Anna Cruz was in town last week. I enjoyed getting together with her after too many years.

Anna was at one time the library coordinator for the San Benito school district in Southeast Texas. It’s about as far south as you can get. Go a few more miles and you’re in Mexico.

I owe Anna a lot. She invited me to participate in San Benito’s Author’s Festival twice. Each time was a memorable experience. I and several authors and artists—including several friends from Portland—presented in the schools during the day. The highlight of our visit was a presentation for the entire community in the Community Center. Some of us presented in English; some in Spanish. Either way, it was one of the most joyous experiences I’ve ever had.

Not to mention the fact that, being a big sponge, I soaked in enough atmosphere to provide ideas for new books. Cactus Soup, The Three Little Tamales, and The Three Cabritos all were inspired by my visits to San Benito. The Three Cabritos, especially. It began one evening when Anna took her authors across the border to have dinner in Progreso, a small town in Mexico. Anna insisted that I try something new, so I ordered the cabrito. Yum! However, when I tell this story, people wrinkle their noses. What’s wrong with grilled goat? You eat lamb chops, no?

Anna has a new job these days. As she explained to me—and I hope I’m remembering this correctly—she’s working with teenagers who have come into the district from Mexico. Some of their families come seeking work. A growing number, however, are fleeing the drug violence, which according to Anna is out of control. As she told me, “I would think twice about taking you to Progreso now.” People who have crossed the drug lords in some way have to flee for their lives.

The idea that Mexican immigrants are poor and uneducated is a stereotype, Anna explained. Many of the teenagers coming into San Benito’s high schools have been enrolled in high schools in Mexico. However, if they don’t speak English well or not at all, they are automatically put into the ninth grade. Imagine being told that you have to start high school from the beginning after you have completed several years! Many give up. This blanket policy only contributes to the drop-out rate, which is already sky high.

What Anna has done is set up an evaluation procedure and a program that takes each student’s prior achievement into account. People who are fluent in Spanish and familiar with the Mexican educational system evaluate each student’s record and, if need be, help obtain proper documentation from Mexico. Students can then get high school credit in the US for coursework they have completed. Anna’s program also offers online learning courses so students can complete their high school requirements in a comfortable setting at their own pace. Courses are offered in Spanish for those who are still working on English language skills.

The beauty of this approach is that it recognizes the fact that students who don’t speak English well are fully capable of doing high-level work in other subject areas while they are learning the language. The program helps them reach their goal of obtaining a diploma instead of throwing obstacles in their path.

Are most of these students here illegally? Could be. However, here’s how I look at it. If Mexico were shipping its gold reserves, its oil and natural resources across the border, do you think we would accept them? That’s a no brainer!

Well, how about human resources? Mexico is sending us its hardest working, most courageous, most enterprising, most determined-to-succeed young people. The only drawback is that right now many don’t speak English and/or don’t have much education. We can fix that. It only takes a generation or two at the most. Anyone would expect to pay millions for human resources like that. And it’s all coming to us for free.

That’s why Anna Cruz is one of my unsung heroes. She works quietly, modestly, turning failure into success; desperation into hope; poverty into prosperity.

I wish we had more like her.

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