The Immigrants’ View of Education

Carlos Monsivais is a Mexican journalist, historian and social critic. His most recent book is "Los Rituales del Caos" (The Rituals of Chaos)

One of the more alarming findings of a recent Rand study on how immigrants fare in the U.S. education system was the low academic aspirations of Mexican immigrant children, compared with other immigrant groups. Even more disturbing, the study found that their academic aspirations weakened in subsequent generations.

Among the many explanations--poverty, classroom size, the language barrier, etc.--offered for this phenomenon, one has been largely unexplored: how Mexican families, particularly the poorest and those most likely to go north looking for work, view education. Whether it is a byproduct of a traditional Catholicism that fears reading “because it poisons the soul” or rooted in the popular belief that “licenciados” (a professional with a degree) exist only to exploit people, it is quite common for Mexican families to harbor anti-intellectual attitudes, which, in turn, shape their responses toward education.

Many studies have shown that poor Mexican families see little intrinsic value in acquiring an education. As a result, parents do not ordinarily get involved in their children’s education, save for signing the report card. Students are supposed to do their homework without bothering the rest of the family. For single mothers, who make up a very large percentage of the heads of households in Mexico, it is particularly difficult to assist their children with school work.


As long as the current economic crisis continues, more and more children will have to leave school to help feed the family. This is neither considered a deplorable act nor a premature failure in life. It does not precipitate a family crisis. Leaving school is regarded as a natural, albeit undesirable, response to either economic hardship or personal problems. It reflects a deeply held belief, shared by many poor families, that to study is useless, because, as the popular wisdom has it, “no one in the family was born for studying,” which is another way of saying that “either you are born successful, in the right social class and in the proper family, or you will always be a failure.”

For a poor Mexican family, the effort needed to obtain a degree does not imply a devotion toward schooling. There is no cause-effect relation. And lacking a support network, many students face their academic fate not only in isolation but fighting an adverse environment. Even in the still rare instances where professional parents can assist their children educationally, the environment does not reward their involvement. It is not uncommon in Mexican homes to hear parents scolding their kids for reading when they “could be doing something useful, like fixing the door.”

It thus should not be surprising that the education landscape in Mexico is shocking. Only 14% of 19- to 24-year-olds are in college; merely seven of 100 adults have had some college education, and only 18 of 100 have a high school diploma. Last month, the vast majority of students who took a standardized test required to register for high school flunked the exam.

Mexicans, on average, complete 6.6 years of schooling. An estimated 2.5 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 never “drop into” a school. Thirteen percent of the population is illiterate.

For the last 15 years, annual government spending on education has remained slightly above 4% of the national budget. The average monthly salary of a teacher is $300.

Still, the surprise and joy of having a child attending college remains a source of pride for Mexican families. In large part, the growth in college attendance is a result of Mexico’s economic progress, which has created a middle class more inclined to believe in the value of education. In addition, since the 1970s, many obstacles blocking women from attending college have fallen.

These advances, however, have a weak cultural foundation. One consequence of the economic catastrophes of 1982 and 1994 was to rekindle the anti-intellectualism that is skeptical of the value of an education. Even the educated are not immune to economic hardship. Consider this recent ad in a newspaper, “Wanted: five lawyers with bicycle.”

Unfortunately, modernity in Mexico, and among many Mexican American families, has yet to turn learning into a family enterprise, though, certainly, more and more Mexican Americans are attending college. The negative attitudes toward education that poor Mexican immigrants bring with them are not easily replaced by more positive ones. Until they are, Mexican immigrant children will continue to fare poorly in U.S. schools.

They will not go away, either. Mexican immigrants do not go to the United States to get a free education for their children. They go looking for better economic opportunities, and they will keep on going as long as there are jobs for them there. As for their children, the worse that can happen is to take them out of school.