CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico – It isn’t perfect English, but pretty darn close. Spoken in unison, the words flow effortlessly from a group of smiling students. So does their message.
“English is important to me,” said 11-year-old Silvia Alejandra Briseño, “because it means more opportunities and better communication when I grow up. Hopefully a better job, too, here or there in Texas.”
Her bilingual teacher, 36-year-old Mary Lou Tamez, said: “English is critical, especially when you realize who our neighbors are, Texans.”
Without fanfare but with great hopes, the state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas, has declared itself the first bilingual state in Mexico. It has decided that its 320,000 public school students, from elementary to high school, will learn conversational English.
State authorities say the pilot program will break down language barriers and create opportunities. They see Tamaulipas as a giant laboratory.
“Our efforts are aimed at preparing students for a more competitive world filled with technology and English,” Gov. Eugenio Hernández said at a ceremony last month formally inaugurating the program. “Let’s face it. The world speaks English. And even if you can only speak a little, you can defend yourself and compete.”
The Tamaulipas effort is one of several under way in Mexico – from Mexico City to the Texas border states of Chihuahua and Nuevo León – to teach English to students and business leaders. Tamaulipas, however, represents the biggest experiment.
One of four Mexican states abutting Texas, Tamaulipas shares a long border with the Lone Star State. Annually, millions cross the border on foot or by car to shop, work or play. More than 50 percent of all U.S.-Mexico trade crosses through Tamaulipas and Texas.
The top industries are agriculture, foreign-owned manufacturing companies, fishing, ports and petrochemicals. Because of its geography and proximity to Texas, the state also has long been a magnet to drug traffickers and to the violence they unleash.
Hernández and the federal government are injecting millions of dollars to build up the state’s infrastructure along the Gulf Coast in hopes of turning the area into a beach gateway for Americans who either want to visit or live.
“We have the tools and resources to rival Padre Island,” he said, referring to the South Texas resort island popular with both Americans and Mexicans.
To serve those potential American tourists, Hernández and educators say, Tamaulipas students must learn English. Hernández said he hopes the classes will become a permanent part of the school curriculum by fall semester. He’s working with the teachers’ union to hire the teachers permanently.
James Taylor, a Texan who grew up here in Ciudad Victoria and is now a political consultant for Austin-based Vianovo, said the goal is to start the students young “to get them [to] focus on the importance of speaking two languages.”
“Because of our geographical location and history, English is key in the daily interaction with Texas,” Taylor said.
His mother, Maggie Taylor, is a supporter of Hernández’s efforts. She served as a translator for then-Tamaulipas Gov. Praxedis Balboa when he hosted Texas Gov. John B. Connally in 1964.
“My mother never lost the importance of learning to speak two languages and navigating two cultures,” Taylor said. “That’s certainly been a key element to the successes I’ve had and to the relationships that I’ve been able to establish on both sides of the border.”
A bilingual Texas?
On his last visit to Tamaulipas as U.S. ambassador, Tony Garza, a native of neighboring Brownsville, appeared in mid-January with Hernández and Taylor at Leona Vicario Primary School, one of the pilot schools in the bilingual program. About 1,200 students, teachers, parents and mayors from throughout the state came out to show off what some called “the laboratory of the future.”
Two students gave Garza an overview of the pilot program in both Spanish and English. When Garza, a former Texas railroad commissioner, addressed the crowd, he began in Spanish and then switched to his language of comfort, English, saying half-jokingly, “When I was growing up, we didn’t have a program like this one.”
Tamez, the teacher, whose mother is from Alabama, suggested that Texas should also become a bilingual state “to ease communication among neighbors and friends.”
Garza, who plans to split his time between Dallas and Mexico City, later said he was impressed with the program and suggested a similar effort in Texas to teach students not just Spanish, but English, too. Garza said Texas is home to an estimated 800,000 children with limited English proficiency. They come not just from Mexico but also from places like South Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East.
“I think the focus in our state needs to be on giving Texas schoolchildren what they need to compete, and that’s English,” he said. “And then allow for a robust program in languages that provides English speakers the opportunity to learn a second language, and my guess is for many that would be Spanish.”
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News