By Eli Baldrige
Juan Centeno, age 12, does not like algebra, just like many of his classmates at Our Lady’s School in downtown San Diego. He dresses in the same uniform and plays tag at recess like everyone else in his grade.
But there is one major difference between Centeno and the rest of his seventh grade class.
“I don’t even think my friends know I live in Mexico,” Centeno said.
Centeno and his younger siblings attend school across an international border every day. The family crosses the U.S.-Mexico border 10 times a week for what they believe is a better education.
“I sleep only a couple of hours at night,” Centeno said. “But maybe it is worth it to have a better education.”
But there is more to Centeno’s life than school. He also has a full time job.
Zoom out to see the places Juan spends most of his time.
He helps his family run a tamale stand in Tijuana, Mexico. Every day after returning from school in San Diego to his home in Rosarito, Mexico, he works.
Centeno does not finish until the job is done, which usually isn’t until 11:00 p.m, leaving him just a few hours until he has to wake up and cross the border again on his way to school.
According to Norma Iglesias, professor and chair of the Department of Chicana and Chicana Studies and San Diego State University, it is actually quite common for students to live in Mexico and go to school in the United States.
“A lot of families send their kids to San Diego for school,” Iglesias said. “And it’s not just the upper class. It’s all classes.”
These students attend school in the United States completely legally.
In all of the four states bordering Mexico, the laws requires students to live within the district in order to attend a public school. However, there are many private schools in the border towns that do not require U.S. residency.
Peter Hickey, principal of Our Lady’s School in San Diego, says students have fill out forms, but can come to the school without any problem.
The students in Mexico have to fill out paperwork for the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, a database used by the Department of Homeland Security. With the paperwork comes fees, and on top of that, the families have to pay tuition for the private school.
But SEVIS recently moved online, which means no hard paperwork and an easier transition for the students.
Enduring the commute
Centeno describes his typical day, which consists of crossing an international border twice for school and working a full time job. Photos by Juan Centeno.
Waiting in line to cross the border can be tedious.
“Sometimes the line can be two or three hours long,” said Gabriella Armenta, who teaches in San Diego but lives in Mexico. “But a lot of these kids have the SENTRI pass, which is for people who travel across the border a lot.”
The SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) program was created by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a way to allow daily commuters to cross northbound into the United States more quickly. But it doesn’t always work.
“Earlier this year, the bridge was down by the border where we cross and we had to wait over two hours in the regular line,” Centeno said.
Despite the difficulties with the commute, Hickey says the kids find ways to adjust.
“One of my students came from Ensenada, which is about two hours into Baja California,” Hickey said. “She was never late for school; she would always arrive on time.”
The end goal: graduating
According to Organization for Economic Coroporation and Development, a worldwide research organization, the United States has a high school graduation rate of 77 percent, which is high compared to Mexico’s rate of 43 percent. However, the graduation rate for Latinos in California, according to the California Department of Education, is about 67 percent, seven percent below the statewide rate and 10 percent below the national average, but still comfortably above Mexico’s rate.
These numbers indicate Latinos have a better chance of graduating in the United States, but Iglesias believes there are more reasons than graduation rate as to why Mexican families choose to make the commute.
“It’s not because the United States has a better education,” said Iglesias, who raised her daughter in Tijuana; her daughter now attends University of California, Berkeley. “It’s because studying (in the United States) gives you a better opportunity.”
She said students who study in the U.S. are able to master the English language. And being bilingual doubles the opportunities.
“Actually, it’s like three times the opportunities, because it’s not just about translation,” Iglesias said. “These students learn a whole new culture. They can get jobs in either country.”
Iglesias said that Mexicans living in Tijuana see the region and the border as one big urban center, so the commute is not a problematic issue.
“People in Tijuana see San Diego as opportunity,” she said. “For San Diegans, Tijuana is a problem.”
But recent problems with the job market in the United States and California’s education budget, may change that perception.
Iglesias said some Mexicans are now telling their children, “You have to learn Mandarin.”
Peter Hickey and Gabriella Armenta detail their experiences with students crossing the border.