From the fields to the classroom
When Eagle residents Ted and Lori Seipel head back to their vacation home in Mexico this month, their car will be filled with clothes, food and office supplies.Most of the goods they will be toting across the border will not be for themselves – but for the students at Para los Ninos, who have to fit classes in between harvest season and their families’ migrant lifestyles. Lesson at the school – founded by the Seipels – are taught in an open-air, thatched building, located on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula.Ted and Lori Seipel were lured to Baja California Sur by the beach, but the place got under their skin and their visits became regular enough to require a more permanent residence. After making Mexico their part-time home for the past 13 years, there were just certain things the couple could no longer ignore.
They began rescuing the stray dogs that wandered the Mexican streets and bringing them back to Eagle to work with the Humane Society to get the dogs adopted. Thus far, 28 of the dogs have been adopted and one lives them on Brush Creek.”We clean them up and put their pictures in Town Talk,” says Lori.But there was something even harder for the couple to overlook.Their home is roughly seven miles outside of Todos Santos, just north of Cabo San Lucas. Almost every day during harvesting season, the Seipels pass migrant workers in the fields. The families often work from sunup to sundown for just $6.50 a day. The older children toil alongside their parents, picking crops or carrying heavy boxes of food on their heads. “That’s where our food comes from,” Ted said. Younger children amuse themselves by playing with broken wagons or makeshift toys, he said. Living in buses or cars, the families travel from farm to farm, sleeping on the ground – or, on colder nights, in cardboard boxes. “They’re the poorest of the poor,” said.
The transient lifestyle leaves families no chance to put down roots – or enroll children in a traditional school. But, the nomadic lifestyle is not the only reason these children are rarely schooled.
The transient lifestyle leaves families no chance to put down roots – or enroll children in a traditional school. But, the nomadic lifestyle is not the only reason these children are rarely schooled.These migrant workers are mostly Zapoteca and Mixteca Indians from the mountains of Vera Cruz in southern Mexico. Poverty has forced these Indians from their ancestral homes, and on to the roads in search migrant farm work. Largely overlooked by the Spanish conquistadors centuries ago, these tribes still speak lilting, native, pre-Columbian languages. These darker skinned farm workers are routinely shunned by lighter-skinned Mexicans with Spanish in their bloodlines.
“They have no rights; they are outside the community,” Ted said. “It feels like Mississippi in the 1950s.”One of the migrant workers told Lori that when she sent her Indian child to a public school one mother pulled her child out of the school, rather than let him attend with an Indian. “I can’t drive by these kids day after day going surfing or dining and not do anything,” Ted said.Lori and Ted began talking to some of the ranchers and several agreed to encourage their workers to send their children to the fledgling school. One rancher donated the land for the school, known as Para los Ninos, which translates to “For the Children.” Tables, chairs and school supplies were purchased from Office Depot and The Home Depot.”We were $10,000 in the hole before we had one class,” Ted said. But, when the first students showed up, he and Lori agreed the debt was worth it. “The response to the school has been outrageous,” says Lori. “They were so shy when they first went in.” Now, adds Ted, “they’re like little sponges.”
There are 22 children at the school, which has been up and running for a year. That number fluctuates with the growing season. The average age of the students is between 7-8, but ranges from as young as 3 to as old as 12.”We can only get the young ones,” Ted said. Mexican law does not allow children under 12 to work in the fields. Because the Indians still speak their own language, one of the primary goals of the school is to teach the children to speak Spanish.”We hope to teach them their basic letters and numbers, and some music,” Lori said. The school’s main teacher, Natalia Cota, all but appeared out of the blue when she was needed. A retired teacher who has 25 years experience, she was an acquaintance of one of the farm workers.”We try to stay in the background and let the teachers do their jobs,” Lori said, yet the couple said they knows every student by name. The Seipels also donate backpacks filled with school supplies and meals for all the kids.
A new, colorful brochure, the Seipels had printed is filled with the smiling faces of students at Para los Ninos. Thus far, the Seipels have paid for nearly everything themselves. It costs approximately $12,000 a year to run the school and $70 to $100 a day just to provide the children food. Ted and Lori insist they will keep the school running, donations or not. “Money is not a deterrent,” Lori said. But they could use some help to buy more supplies and to reach more children.”It could help us branch out and create a satellite school,” or build a bathroom for the current one, Ted said. Others have chipped in. Catherine Nanin, a teacher at Eagle Valley High School, rallied some of her students to help translate books for the Seipels to take to the school in Baja. The Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District donated a box filled with baseball and softball equipment.”We’re thrilled with what’s happened so far,” Ted said. “Everybody wants to help out.”This story appeared first in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.