Educations of Out of School Youth in Tepito; Reflection from AC4 Fellow, Jordan Corson
When I lived in Mexico in 2013 and 2014, I knew even less than the little I now know about the country. As part of my education, I would often ask friends and colleagues about education systems in Mexico. From these conversations, I learned a bit about topics such as Zapatista schools and autonomous communities in the country and the organization and operation of Mexico’s public universities (particularly the famous UNAM in Mexico City and its deep history of activism and scholarship). Within conversations about powerful and complex educations, however, a common narrative emerged: Tepito, a neighborhood and informal marketplace in the downtown area of Mexico City, is a place “without education.” Of course, those who told me that Tepito does not have education referred to the low enrollment and completion rates for formal schooling in the neighborhood. While efforts such as the new secondary school Jose Guadalupe Posada aim to increase completion rates, many youths from Tepito do not graduate high school.
Yet, this narrative may be placed into a larger context of how people often talk about Tepito. The neighborhood is marked by high crime and poverty rates. Tepito, and those from the neighborhood, are subsequently often framed in deficit narratives. So, from this repeated statement of Tepito as not having education I became interested in a general question of what education might be for those often considered “without education.” In other words, my AC4 project sought to examine education in Tepito not as an investigation into schooling practices or the effectiveness of some implemented educational program but as an examination of already-present and ongoing everyday educations of those living in and working in Tepito.
During my first weeks in Mexico City, I began my research by wandering through the tianguis (a Mexican word for impermanent, open-air markets) that dominate Tepito. In Tepito, one can purchase just about anything imaginable. In these first visits, I was often accompanied by friends looking for pirated movies or video games. At the same time, the availability of something like drugs or guns can be palpable. Beyond the tianguis, many vecindades (tenements with large communal spaces) line Tepito’s side streets.
In these walks, I found the most instantly noticeable aspect of Tepito to be a mix of vibrancy and intensity. From the moment you exit the turnstile in the train station until the moment you leave the neighborhood’s loose borders, Tepito is filled with shouting vendors, hoping to lure you to their stall. The walkways through the tianguis and in the individual stalls, simply metal poles holding up colorful tarpaulin, are a crushing overload of people in a way that I have never before seen, and I say that as someone who commuted through midtown New York City for a year. Additionally, you will frequently find murals and other artwork decorating walls and streets in the neighborhood. Whenever I stopped for food, I encountered musicians would call “what’s up? güerro (a word for a light skinned person), where are you from?”
Tepito has a reputation as a tough neighborhood, and one not welcoming of outsiders, something many residents told me is a source of pride. A common phrase heard and seen written onto walls in Tepito proclaims, “Tepito exists because it resists.” While neighborhood walks provided a wealth of information, I wanted to hear more directly from those from Tepito. To do so, I began talking with some of my academic contacts in Mexico City. My closest contact was a man who has lived and worked in Tepito for over 60 years. In fact, his formal title is the chronicler of Tepito. One early and relatively empty (at least for Tepito) Saturday morning, he led me, a sociologist, and a documentarian on a formal tour of the neighborhood. In contrast to what I have read about poverty tourism, the Tepitour, as he calls it, seemed deeply community-based. For the majority of the tour, the chronicler simply introduced us to his friends and associates, who spoke at length about life in Tepito.
Chatting with some people from the Tepitour, I began scheduling more formal interviews. These people would also help me arrange other interviews by introducing me to their friends. Over the next months I spoke with over a dozen people, including 7 artisans, about their education within the neighborhood. Though they may not have finished secondary school, they spoke at great length about their education both in their trade and in daily life in the neighborhood.
I wanted to learn about how those working in Tepito learned the skills and abilities of specific jobs. I was also interested to explore about how Tepito as a neighborhood educated people. The overall research project will hopefully culminate in more detailed descriptions of these educations, but I was immediately interested in how people cobbled together various experiences and lessons, creating educations that showed traces of autodidact learning, community education, and other sources. For example, I spoke with a furniture maker who held a number of random jobs in his youth. One of these jobs was selling auto parts. Using a book someone gave him, he taught himself a great deal about the functions and values of various auto parts. Years later, he worked with a family member to make furniture simply because he did not have any of his own. From these experiences, he began making chairs, tables, and other pieces out of used auto parts.
As I am sure is a common case for ethnographers, I often became the subject of research for those I met in the street or those I interviewed. At times with suspicion and at times with curiosity, people would often ask why I wanted to come to Tepito and what I wanted to do there. During an interview with a shoemaker, someone stopped at her stall to ask if I was with the New York Times. While chatting with a barber and a few of his customers, I was interrogated about my views on Trump. With any question or conversation, people wanted to make sure that I understood and that I would share that Tepito, like anywhere, has problems, but it is a place that should not only be associated with crime or poverty. Instead, especially in education, people both explicitly told me and demonstrated that Tepito is a creative and playful place where people make do on an everyday basis.
Author: Jordan Corson is a doctorate student at Teachers College, in the Curriculum and Teaching Program. For his AC4 sponsored project, he has been conducting ethnographic research on the dynamic everyday educations of youth in Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City.
Images provided by author, Jordan Corson.