Crossing Borders

Transnational Schooling Means Linguistic Ruptures

by and | Apr 1, 2020

Photos by Victor Zúñiga

Eleven-year-old Tito was summoned to his school principal’s office in Tepanco de López, Mexico. He was not in trouble, at least not in a disciplining sense. He was summoned because we wanted to meet him due to the way he had answered a survey we’d handed out a few months back. So, in June 2010, one of us, coauthor Zúñiga, got a chance to meet him in the principal’s office.


Auto Plates in Santa María

Tepanco is a municipality of some 20,000 people (census 2010) in the southeast region of the state of Puebla, from where many move back and forth to and from the United States. We were concerned about whether his school anticipated students like him and was doing its best to both respond to his background and consider his future prospects.

Like many of the children and adolescents that we have called “transnational students” (and education specialist Patricia Gándara has called “the students we share”), Tito had experienced at least two geographical dislocations.

What do we mean by geographical dislocation? In the case of Tito, he was born and started his schooling in Tepanco with one full year of kindergarten; and then he moved with his father and his older brother to Los Angeles, California. There, he attended the Valley View Elementary School from first grade to fourth grade, while his father and brother worked in a construction company. During this time his mother and his younger sister stayed in Tepanco.


Primary school for transnational students

Then, when Tito was nine, his father decided to send him back to Tepanco. When we asked Tito why he returned to Mexico, he answered (in Spanish), “A year ago [2009], my father’s boss told him that the economy had worsened, and would be even worse in the near future. Viewing this, my father reacted, sending me back with my mother in Tapanco.” Tito’s father and his oldest brother were still working in California in June 2010. But, in the interview Tito was convinced that his father would return to Mexico soon.

Tito had experienced “linguistic ruptures. That’s what co-author Zúñiga and linguist Catalina Panait have called this kind of moving back and forth between languages without reinforcement on either side of the border. Neither his Mexican nor his U.S. schools recognized his full linguistic repertoire. His American school did little to account for the fact that he arrived as a Spanish speaker, although it was concerned with his lack of English. His first Mexican school (kindergarten) did not help him develop the language skills he would soon need in Los Angeles and his second Mexican school did little to acknowledge the linguistic (and literacy) skills in English that he gained at Valley View.

Generally, skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing in English are not competencies recognized or developed by Mexican schools (except as a foreign language to add starting in secundaria [which matches grades 7-9 in the United States]), although there are a few new exceptions in the border state of Baja California and at some expensive private schools. Similarly, skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing in Spanish are generally not viewed as resources for learning in U.S. classrooms, but rather a problem to be solved.

Linguist Barbara Zurer Pearson noted somewhat incredulously in 2002, “It is an amazing fact that in the United States, bilingual ability is rarely seen as an asset but more often as a handicapping condition.” Tito’s self representations about his proficiency speaking English and Spanish shows that transnational schooling can indeed entail a double- handicapping condition.

About his English, Tito responded (in English): “Speak English? Well, not really.” About his Spanish skills, he began his answer in English before shifting to Spanish, “I was scared [when I returned to school in Mexico]…I was afraid because I knew not much Spanish, I guessed I would fail in the school. I really don’t like to fail in the school.”


Secondary school for transnational students.

Tito clearly demonstrated his mastery in both languages and his adeptness at translanguaging—speaking about half of the time in English and the other half in Spanish during the interview—exactly the way anthropologist Marjorie F. Orellana identified the linguistic practices of bilingual or multilingual children. Even though his interviewers asserted several times that he spoke both English and Spanish very well, he continued insisting that he was not proficient in either language.

We wondered why. What messages about desirable and undesirable language skills had Tito absorbed from his binational school biography? Did he compare his own use of two languages to best express himself as some kind of perverse ‘proof’ that he was not strong enough in either language to fully express himself in just one (ignoring an alternate explanation that having two language repertoires to draw from perhaps afforded him greater communicative precision, particularly to a bilingual audience like his interviewers)?

We analyzed Tito’s school experiences searching for explanations for why he considered himself as not strong in either language. We include several of his comments below, adding our own subtitles as summative themes and enabling them to more easily be individually contemplated even as they form part of a larger story. After each comment we note (in bold) whether it was offered in Spanish, English, or both.

(1) Erasing Spanish — little opportunity to practice Spanish in U.S. schools: “In Valley View, there was no a teacher who spoke or understood Spanish” [in Spanish]; “There (referencing Valley View), there was a misterwho taught me mathematics and I discovered I was good for math, but I was not good for English” [started in Spanish and then finished in English]; “I had just two friends in my (Los Angeles) school, but they barely speak with me” [in Spanish].

(2) No support for transitions into Mexican schools: Referencing his return to Mexico as a nine year-old, “When I started school, I did not know anything, I did not know to read [in Spanish]. I wrote a little bit; I felt like a weirdo. It took me a lot of time to read something. Now I read a little bit faster [than I did a year ago]” [in Spanish]; “No teacher helped me” [in Spanish]. “My 5th grade teacher did not like me, she asked me to work but I just looked at her, smiling, because I did not understand [what she said]. She thought, I guess, I was making fun of her” [in Spanish].

(3) Psychological barriers regarding moving between two school systems: “I don’t want to return to the schools there [California], well, I don’t know, I think I forgot English, and it will be hard for me to learn in seventh grade” [in Spanish]. Talking about the opportunities to continue practicing English in Tepanco, we asked Tito if he was speaking English with his friends in California. He sharply responded: “I don’t have friends” [in English]. Noting his response had been about California, we persisted, asking him if he had friends in Tepanco with whom he could practice. His answer illuminated his sense of feeling/seeming different, “I don’t have many friends here because they don’t come from California [like me]” [in English].

In juxtaposing these three categories of responses, the first two sociological and structural and the third exhibiting some of Tito’s psychological responses to those structures, we want to emphasize how what could/should be a strength—Tito’s actual bilingualism revealed through his interaction with us—instead becomes internalized as a weakness. Tito clearly feels lonely and misunderstood, but he does not critique the structures that have made him feel that way.

We contend that that loneliness comes from both the U.S. and Mexican systems not seeing Tito’s previous experiences as something they could or should build on. Key among the overlooked domains is language. Tito recalls that no adults spoke Spanish at Valley View Elementary. The primary medium for his first six years of life was suddenly not available for his formal learning in a new environment, while for many of his peers (i.e., the English speakers) their medium of learning was. To Tito’s apparent credit, his facility with math was sufficiently strong that it shown through whatever language barriers he struggled with, but it sounds as if even then his teacher left him self-conscious that his lack of language (i.e., of English) was a barrier. He saw his lack of English as the problem (locating the problem within himself) rather than the school’s lack of having ways to build on what he already knew as being the problem.

Vexingly, this idea that he lacked language then also resurfaced as a limitation when he returned to Mexico, but in this case the language he was now apparently lacking was Spanish (the language that his U.S. school had ignored for four years). As he considered whether he would again go to school in the United States., he expressed concern that he would have forgotten so much English by then that language would yet again impede his sense of progress and capability.


No parking at school

Tito is not the only student who has circulated between the United States and Mexico. Our survey research of 56,000 students in Mexican elementary and middle schools in five Mexican states between 2004 and 2013 found 1,400 students who also had that experience. Demographer Claudia Masferrer and colleagues in a recent piece in the journal Demographyestimated that 600,000 students ages 5-17 living in Mexico were born in the United States. And we estimate that there may be almost 300,000 more who were born in Mexico, then lived in the United States and attended school there before returning to Mexico.

Even though U.S./Mexico migration is now moving at larger volume from the United States to Mexico than from Mexico to the United States, estimates of Mexico-born populations in U.S. schools are still more than a million. So in raising Tito’s story, which is particular in details to be sure, we want to emphasize that considering the movement of students between these two countries is hardly just the story of a single student. More than a million students may be attempting to negotiate the messages of both systems which ignore/reject the language background of students whose background is not in the dominant language only.

Noting its central ubiquity in the teaching of practically all content in any subject area, education researchers know that language is the tool of tools for learning. Language is the core mechanism human beings have for learning and acquiring competencies for life and for being productive. Language is the source of comprehension of the world. Language is not just an instrument of communication. It is the medium for storage of knowledge and the material for the symbolic scaffolding human beings need for building the social universe. Thus, when Tito responded to our question about why he repeated 4th grade in Mexico, he did not say “because the principal of the school decided it,” instead he told us (in Spanish): “because I knew nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.” That poignant answer showed how schooling can be a powerful subtractive instrument—to use the well-known phrasing of education researcher Angela Valenzuela—that divests students of their learning resources, language principal among them.



In 2004, from the survey we conducted in the state school system of Nuevo León, we found that 18 percent of the transnational students then in fourth to ninth grades considered English was their primary language. A year later, in the school system of Zacatecas, the proportion was similar (20 percent). The survey in Puebla was conducted in 2009 using an improved version of the questionnaire we applied to the students attending from fourth to ninth grades. Instead of asking “which is your primary language?” (with three options: Spanish, English, other), we added other option: “both.” As a result of this decision, we found that 22 percent of transnational students (all of them had previous school experience in the United States) identified English as their primary language, and three percent declared they were bilingual. The survey in Jalisco (2010) brought a surprise: 15 percent of transnational students considered that English was their primary language, while 35 percent selected the option “both” (English and Spanish). Finally, in Morelos (2013) 30 percent of transnational students chose either “English”or“both.”

The transnational students arriving to Mexico in recent years were more likely U.S.-born, more likely with developed skill in English, and consequentially more comfortable with the label “bilingual.” Yet this prospective asset of bilingualism was rarely recognized or cultivated on either side of the border. Instead, students like Tito have negotiated linguistic ruptures and are more likely to see their bilingualism as a weakness rather than a resource.


Edmund Hamann’s short presentation on his and his colleague’s work during the ReVista billingualism colloquium.

Fall/Winter 2019-2020Volume XIX, Number 2

Víctor Zúñiga, professor of sociology at Tecnologico de Monterrey, was co-awarded the 2018 AERA’s Division G Henry T. Trueba Award for Research Leading to the Transformation of the Social Contexts of Education.

Edmund T. Hamann, professor of education policy and practice at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, was co-awarded the 2018 AERA’s Division G Henry T. Trueba Award for Research Leading to the Transformation of the Social Contexts of Education.

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