PUEBLO NUEVO, Mexico—The children in blue and gray uniforms lined up on the playground waiting for their principal to start the school day.
“Buenos dias,” said Apolonia Sanchez speaking into a microphone.
“Gui Xatsi,” she added, also greeting the children in their native language, which isn’t Spanish. These children come from families where they speak one of Mexico’s 62 indigenous languages, called Hnahnu. They attend a public bilingual school here in the state of Hidalgo, about three hours north of Mexico City.
As the U.S. faces challenges educating immigrant children who don’t speak English, Mexico faces similar challenges in educating indigenous-language speaking children. Many come from low-income families and face pressure to drop out of school in order to work.
There are more than 16,000 bilingual preschools and elementary schools in Mexico that reach about 1 million pupils. About half of the indigenous-language speaking children in the country attend regular schools.
As many as 600,000 indigenous-language speaking children between ages 5 and 14 don’t attend school at all.
But officials are starting after-school programs to help indigenous-language speaking children whose families have migrated to Mexico City.
“We know that around 40 percent of the indigenous people already live in urban communities,” said Sylvia Schmelkes, general coordinator of intercultural and bilingual education with the secretary of education.
“We are taking the necessary steps to assist [the pupils] on an individual level,” Schmelkes added.
The city programs won’t be bilingual in nature, but have more of an intercultural emphasis. To be a bilingual program, they would have to find teachers who could speak multiple languages as the indigenous-language speaking pupils who live in the capital come from all over the country.
Part of the goal of the programs in the city and in the rural areas is to make sure the children learn Spanish while retaining their indigenous culture and language.
The elementary school in Pueblo Nuevo, which serves the 1st to 6th grades, is one of the oldest bilingual schools in Mexico. They started bilingual education there in the mid-’60s.
About 80 percent of the children’s parents are corn or bean farmers who primarily speak their indigenous language. Many of them can’t read or write in Spanish, or even in their own indigenous language.
The 244 pupils at the school have a curriculum with textbooks in Spanish and a separate textbook in Hnahnu. But official textbooks are designed only for 1st through 4th grades. Pupils in the 5th and 6th grades study the indigenous language with lessons designed by their teachers.
Sixth grader Bernardita Botho volunteered to go to the chalkboard, where she translated sentences from Spanish to Hnahnu.
Her teacher told her to write out the sentence “My mother makes tortillas.”
Botho carefully wrote, “Mi mama hace las tortillas,” and “Ma nana enta ra me.”
By the 6th grade the pupils should be able to transition easily between the two languages. But there are bilingual education programs in only 43 of the country’s 62 indigenous languages.
“We don’t want the children to lose their indigenous languages. Some of the languages are even in danger of becoming extinct,” said Erendira Galvez, a longtime teacher in Hidalgo.
One point in their favor is the phonetic similarity between English and Hnahnu, which could help some of these children in the future.