The Secret School
A teacher struggles to educate in Juárez, where extortion is the cost of doing business
A small paper sign posted near the door is all that signals there's a school inside this small, yellowed house in south Juárez. Trinidad Vasquez teaches English here with the shades drawn. Inside, he leads four of his youngest students through a scenario involving paying the phone bill in English. Vasquez’ eyes dart to the door when he hears a car horn, a siren, a shout. “OK, on to the next one,” he says to his class, “calling the utility company.”
Vasquez is jumpy, and he has a reason to be. Around 5,770 people have been killed in Ciudad Juárez in narcotics-related violence since 2008, according to the office of the Chihuahua attorney general. That number was up-to-date as of Friday, July 16, but it increases every day. The U.S. State Department says that’s three times as many as any other Mexican city.
Vasquez has taught English to about 2,000 students since 2004, according to his records. He has eight students total—though that number varies—from elementary school-aged to teens. He charges about 380 pesos ($30) a month per student, and he sells burritos on the side. He also spends his mornings teaching English to workers at manufacturing plants around Juárez.
“I think I kind of found my calling here,” he says. “I feel that I’m doing something here.” Vasquez, a native of Durango, Mexico, returned to his home country from South Dakota 10 years ago. He taught at a Mexican public school for a while and started up his school, A.E.S. Language Specialists, five or six years ago in the old house in south Juárez. “Maybe I was meant to come back here,” he says.
Despite Juárez’ reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, it’s not the death toll that has Vasquez worried. He speaks casually about cartel killers who chop the arms and legs off their victims and nail the corpses to trees; he shrugs off the dozens of daily deaths. What he’s worried about is having to pay “protection” fees to blackmailing drug cartels, a fee that would force him to close the school.
“There have been so many instances where they’ve been witnesses or bystanders. That doesn’t help.”
English teacher Trinidad Vasquez
He says a chain auto parts store down the street was blackmailed and burned to the ground in the last month. A replacement was built in no time, but he says small businesses can’t rebound as quickly.
“Big businesses can do that, but small businesses like us or corner stores—how can they do that?” he says.
He mentions a business owner in his east Juárez neighborhood who operates a small convenience store. He says a cartel member called her and demanded she deposit 5,000 pesos into a bank account. She could afford only 1,000 pesos and now lives in fear, he says.
According to El Universal, a major Mexican newspaper, more than 6,000 Juárez businesses closed in 2009 because of “the lack of security.” The Mexican Chamber of Commerce reported in February that 10,670 Juárez businesses had closed since 2008.
Since the violence escalated, Vasquez has taken several precautionary measures to prevent his school from being extorted. First, he stopped advertising except through word of mouth. Next, he stopped picking up the landline to avoid being caught off guard by a cartel member looking for “protection” money. And he’s eliminated recess.
“I used to let them out, but it’s too dangerous now. Isn’t that right, Sebastian?” he says, raising his voice. Behind him, Sebastian grins and steps away from the door.
“It’s not as easy as people think, the American Dream.”
Next, the class moves onto a movie quiz. The students aged 12 and up join their younger classmates and sink into three ratty couches. Vasquez’ only employee, Carlos German Rey-Montoya, pops in a pirated DVD of Avatar, and the class settles down, eyes fixed on a small TV atop a filing cabinet.
“Most parents try to not make it [the violence] evident to them,” Vasquez says quietly to avoid disrupting the movie. “But there have been so many instances where they’ve been witnesses or bystanders. That doesn’t help.”
For two of his students, girls aged 11 and 13, the brutality is impossible to ignore. Their father, a homicide investigator, was gunned down outside his home in mid-June, Vasquez says. The kids stopped attending class.
“Not even a week ago they visited me,” he says. “I think they had already buried their father.”
Despite the violence, Vasquez and Rey-Montoya both say most of the bullet-ridden bodies belong to people involved with the cartels on both sides of the law.
“A lot of people have a misconception of Juárez. They think it’s like Iraq,” Vasquez says. “I don’t see any difference between Juárez and East L.A.”
And besides, Vasquez says, he has a mission here. He returned to Mexico to teach English, and he wishes other emigrants would do the same.
“It’s not as easy as people think, the American Dream,” he says. “I think a lot of Mexicans that don’t have opportunities there, they have a lot of opportunities here.”
He says jobs teaching English are widely available in Juárez, and he can’t think of a more rewarding career.
“When you’re in the States and you’re Mexican-American, you kind of forget about Mexico,” he says. “I think I had forgotten about this world.”