Passport to Education
By Mary Ellen Flannery
Thirty minutes before sunrise, along the border crossing between Columbus, N.M., and the village of Palomas, Mexico, a silver sparkle flashes in the night.
It’s the reflective stripe on a My Little Pony backpack.
Moments later, another twinkle. This time it’s a sequined hair bow. The child wearing it hurries to a school bus, idling nearby. Then, out of the darkness, in the 38-degree, pre-dawn chill, hundreds of children follow, in puffy coats and fleece beanies, some wearing copies of their birth certificates on cords around their necks.
From their parents’ homes in Mexico, through the newly renovated, $85 million U.S. Customs and Border Protection-Columbus Port of Entry, students walk to their school buses. From there, it’s a quick 10-minute ride to Columbus Elementary School, where 70 percent of the 600 students live in Mexico. Older students, who arrive even earlier, face a 45-minute trip to the secondary schools in Deming, N.M., about 30 miles north.
All are U.S. citizens. Today, they live across the border. In years to come, they won’t. Educating them well for that future makes sense, New Mexico educators say.
“We want these kids to get the strongest possible education we can give them,” says local teacher’s union, NEA-Deming, co-president Charity Cheung.
That includes Valeria, a Deming High School senior who plans next year to follow her older sister’s path to Doña Ana Community College in Las Cruces, N.M., about an hour east, to study architecture. And Soledad, an eleventh grader who plans to become either a surgeon like her cousin or a U.S. Marine. “I see [the Marines] helping people, and I like to help people,” she says.
To get to class by 8 a.m., a future music producer named Brigid, whose dreams do not include Palomas, Mexico, sets her alarm for 4 a.m.
“I don’t want to miss the bus!” she says.
For as long as people here can remember, children living in Palomas have gone to school in Columbus. In fact, many of the teachers working in Luna County schools today made the same journey when they were students long ago.
“Back in my day, we walked from the border to the old school. There were no buses,” recalls second-grade teacher Lourdes Espinoza, a former Palomas resident who has taught for nearly 20 years at Columbus Elementary.
But, over the decades, one thing has not changed, she says. The purpose of the cross-border trip always has been the same: “To get a good education.”