Transnational students invisible in Mexican education system

Mexican schools are failing to recognize the unique value and needs of ethnically Mexican students who immigrated from the United States after spending years in the American education system, said scholars in a recent discussion.

Transnational students invisible in Mexican education system

Photo by NeONBRAND, courtesy of Unsplash.

UCLA International Institute, December 6, 2019 — Transnational students from the United States who move to Mexico join a society that is foreign to them but where their “foreignness” goes undetected, said Roger Waldinger in a recent discussion hosted by the Center for Mexican Studies and the Center for the Study of International Migration.

Waldinger, distinguished professor of sociology and director of the latter center, led a discussion of the Spanish-language book “Niñas y niños en la migración de Estados Unidos a México: la generación 0.5 [Girls and Boys in the Migration from the United States to Mexico: Generation 0.5] co-authored by Víctor Zúñiga of Tecnológico de Monterrey and Silvia Elena Giorguli Saucedo of El Colegio de México.

The book explores the unique experience of ethnically Mexican students who spent formative years of their childhood in the American education system and then migrated to Mexico, where they are often not recognized as “foreign” students. Waldinger and Patricia Gándara, professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, discussed the main findings of the book with Victor Zúñiga and then offered suggestions for a future English-language translation of the book.

Uncovering the invisibility of transnational students in Mexico


While conducting research with migrants in the town of Dalton, Georgia, explained Waldinger, Victor and his coauthor stumbled upon a new phenomenon: ethnically Mexican children who had grown up in the United States who were migrating to Mexico. As the researchers entered schools and began interviewing teachers, they heard that many students were simply “disappearing”. Upon investigation, the researchers soon realized students were actually returning to their ethnic country of origin: Mexico.

They then interviewed teachers and school administrators in Mexico and quickly discovered that Mexican teachers and administrators failed to recognize the existence of this specific group of students. The children were undetectable as migrants because they “arrived with Spanish last names, they typically spoke Spanish and they didn’t look all that different from the other children around them,” said Waldinger.

The UCLA sociologist commented that schools cannot be blamed for not noticing these unannounced changes in their student body. Even the social scientists who wrote the book, he pointed out, had to learn to work inductively in order to uncover the hidden existence of these students. Zúñiga explained that they began by interviewing U.S. students and teachers, discovered the absence of the transnational children and then expanded their research outward until they stumbled upon a paradigm to study.

That inductive approach led Zúñiga and his collaborators back to Mexico where they surveyed 50,000 students and interviewed 191 children and 83 principals and teachers. In doing so “Victor and his collaborators gradually learned to see a phenomenon that resisted their grasp,” Waldinger remarked.

Returning Mexican students face unique challenges

 Students who grow up in the United States and later return to Mexico face unique challenges upon their return. They experience fragmented socialization, difficulty assimilating into a culture with a different values system and, perhaps most importantly, lack the Spanish vocabulary to adequately speak about academic subjects.

Whereas Mexican students migrating to the U.S. initially cannot speak English and therefore stand out, ethnically-Mexican students migrating to Mexico go unnoticed because they can speak Spanish and look like their Mexican peers, explained Gándara. Teachers do not realize they are foreign and the students thus often don’t receive needed academic support, she continued.

Having spent the majority of their youth in the American education system, these transnational students lack the socialization needed to understand their role as students and citizens in Mexico, shared Waldinger. They must learn, he said, “what is sanctioned, permitted and applauded by the new society that they encounter… up until the migration, children had been prepared for citizenship in the United States.”

The fragmented socialization they experience, added Zúñiga “is not only between one school system and the other school system. The fragmentation of kid’s socialization also includes the family norms in their home in the U.S. compared to the norms in their [home in Mexico].”

Waldinger continued, “Students lack the cognitive academic language needed to survive in an academic setting,” a source of continuous humiliation because although they may speak Spanish, they have been taught academic subjects in English. This leads to psychological issues of identity and insecurity, added .

Reframing the knowledge of transnational students in the Mexican school system

Professor of Education Patricia Gandara. (Photo: Guilia Piscitellia/ UCLA.) The needs of transnational students are being neglected by academic institutions in Mexico because schools fail to recognize their presence in the first place, do not appreciate the skill sets and education they possess and lack the resources to meet students’ unique needs. There is much to be done to make these students visible and begin valuing them as assets, rather than burdens, in both Mexico and the United States, said Gándara.

“Pedagogically, the researchers found that the teachers overwhelmingly had absolutely no training whatsoever for how to teach these children or how to understand what their needs were,” observed Gándara. Teachers lack the tools to educate Generation 0.5 children; instead, they are “expecting them to just sort of ‘catch on’ when they have no frame of reference or sense about a lot of things that frame their education [in Mexico],” she stated.

“These students are incredibly valuable” claimed Gándara. “Those who are bilingual and bicultural have superior cognitive skills, greater creativity and a greater likelihood of actually getting a college degree,” she continued. Despite their value, “the knowledge these students have is completely discounted. They do know geography, they do know history, they do know social studies and civics. They have a lot of knowledge and it is totally discounted because its not in the context of Mexico,” she commented.

Instead of discounting their knowledge, explained Gándara, “we need to understand these students from a different perspective” and build upon the assets that they bring to both the United States and Mexico. Zúñiga agreed that the fractured socialization of these students can be a great resource because these children are able to discern different social, political and familial contexts and know how to conduct themselves. This is a valuable asset in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, he said.

On a broader scale, Gándara commented that “Mexico has to take seriously that it is now an immigrant receiving nation, and perhaps less an immigrant sending nation.” Waldinger added, “Researchers, as well as teachers and politicians, have a responsibility to expand their scope of research and understanding outward.”

Suggestions for English-language translation

Both Waldinger and Gándara offered high praise for “Niñas y niños en la migración de Estados Unidos a México: la generación 0.5,” noting that they eagerly awaited an English-language translation. They offered specific ideas for enhancing the impact of the English-language edition on a U.S. audience, specifically, less focus on the “0.5 generation” category and more reflection on the influences that affect the success of transnational students.


From left: Patricia Gándara (UCLA), Roger Waldinger (UCLA) and author 
Víctor Zúñiga (Tecnológico de Monterrey ). Photo: Guilia Piscitelli/ UCLA.

One of the primary concerns Waldinger had with the book was that Generation 0.5 doesn’t apply to all transnational students in Mexico. He commented that many Mexican-born returnees had very little exposure to the United States. Some students who Zúñiga and his co-author considered to be transnational, he continued, had spent only the earliest years of their childhood in the U.S. and are therefore are not truly bicultural.

Building upon this point, Gándara commented that more discussion is needed on how to compare students’ experiences and lives given that many factors are in operation at different levels. She asked Zúñiga, “What matters most? When transnational students migrate, where in Mexico they migrate to, or how long they spend in the U.S. prior to migration. Longitudinal studies of transnational students would be one effective method of determining the outcome of students from various backgrounds and developing effective interventions for students like them, she said.

Given the complexity of the transnational students’ lives, Waldinger and Gándara agreed that generational categories were not the best primary focus. Instead, they argued for a better focus on the impacts of students’ fragmented socialization and the benefits that their biculturalism can provide the U.S. and Mexico.