Francisco, my seatmate on the 20-hour bus ride from Campeche to Mexico City, has detailed views on my people, though I’m the first Irish person he’s actually met.
‘I think of the Irish as being tall, big, strong, and brutish,’ he says. Altos, grandes, fuertes y brutos. ‘Also they have blue eyes. And Greek profiles. They look like Vikings, but with dark hair.’
Greek profiles. I glance at him, but he isn’t joking.
‘I formed this impression when the Irish football team played Mexico. But you are skinny. So maybe this is just the men.’
Last time I followed Irish football, twelve years ago, the team was full of squat little Scottish fellows like Ray Houghton. I wonder if they’ve all been pensioned off and replaced by Pierce Brosnan lookalikes, which might renew my interest.
Francisco, a squat little fellow himself, is from the Yucatán peninsula. He is sports mad. For years, he went to a special baseball training school, and was scouted by the Texas Rangers for third base, which amusingly turns out to be a position in baseball as well as a life goal for the Dungeons and Dragons set. I glance at him again and realize that what I took for chubbiness is mostly brawn. He still has a ballplayer’s shoulders, but a few years ago he fractured one in a training session. That was the end of the professional hopes. Now he is a primary school teacher, and trains a baseball team of seven-year-olds.
He works in Campeche state, which is an eight-hour bus ride from his home outside Mérida. For the last two years, he has trained other teachers in new methods. He travels to Campeche city once a week to take classes, then organizes training courses in his own district.
‘It used to be that the teachers did all the talking here. We try to get them to engage the kids more through activities and play. When the kid is having fun, he’s learning. It’s hard getting the new ideas across, and I miss being in the classroom myself, but it’s a great opportunity.’
Class size varies from district to district, he says, but it’s usually 20-25 kids per class. My mother has taught classes of up to 38 five-year-olds in Ireland, with no teaching assistants, so a class of twenty sounds like money for jam by comparison.
I ask him if he misses home.
‘Ah, !Yucatán es lo máximo!’ he says, proudly. But the government has a policy of dispersing teachers widely, partly, he says, to encourage cultural homogeneity. Senior teachers can request placement in their hometown or state, but younger ones rarely get it. It’s a problem, he says, especially because housing and food expenses cut into a small salary for young teachers, who would otherwise live with their families.
‘But you’re Maya. You speak some Maya. Surely the kids in the Yucatán would be better off learning from you than from some white-bread Ladino from Mexico City or Tiajuana?’
‘That’s not the way the government sees it.’
In Zapatista-controlled areas outside Chiapas, villagers have refused to accept any more Spanish-speaking monoglot teachers from central headquarters. They want teachers who respect their customs and speak Tzotzil and Chol. But there aren’t any—after years of neglect and poor treatment, the literacy rate in rural Chiapas is a shameful 8%. So instead, they take international volunteers, who teach as best they can, and train local teachers as best they can. Since parliament voted against their list of requests in 2001, the Zapatistas have rejected central government’s help or interference.
‘It’s very sad,’ says Francisco when I ask him about this. ‘I understand why they feel so strongly. Even though I think they hurt themseleves with it.’
Francisco is cool. He is 28, but he reminds me of my parents late Sixties generation in Ireland, the first to have had wide access to education. They were grateful for the privilege too, and proud to become teachers. With luck, the Mexico City bureaucrats will screw up and assign a few Franciscos to Chiapas, where they are so badly needed.