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Dispatches from the present


Bad Education


Every November the Feria Internacional del Libro returns to my hometown of Guadalajara. The FIL is a massive book fair—second only to Frankfurt’s and frequented yearly by the world’s literary elite. Thanks to this event, Guadalajara is regarded as the literary capital of the Spanish-speaking world. But despite its glamour, the FIL hides a truth that I consider one of Guadalajara’s greatest shames—the city’s failure to educate its young people. When the fair comes to town, visitors will notice the preteen children swarming the streets to perform tricks and make a few pesos, cleaning windshields, selling chewing gum and spewing fire, like little dragons, out of their mouths at busy and dangerous intersections. Shouldn’t these children be in school?

This May will be three years since I received my Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago. This would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the fact that I, too, was one of those kids from Guadalajara, working from a very early age. I am an undocumented man from Mexico, and by the time I crossed the border in 1993, it had been years since I had left formal education in my home country. Or rather, the Mexican educational system had abandoned me when I was only twelve years old. In a country where high school is compulsory only on paper and requires an entrance exam simply to get in, this is also quite unremarkable. As a matter of course, working-class Mexicans have historically been denied access to books, libraries, high school and college. It was expected that a young kid from a poor family like me would drop out.

The number of children who are abandoned by the Mexican school system every year is staggering. Even though high school is supposed to be compulsory, the national dropout rate at the lower-secondary level (seventh to ninth grade) remains high, and of those who go on to high school, 70 percent manage to graduate—a rate reached for the first time just last year. Given its weak school system, it is not surprising that, during its participation in testing and until it opted out of it in 2021, Mexico consistently ranked at the bottom of the OECD’s international ranking of student academic achievement.

The Feria Internacional del Libro was founded in 1987, six years before I crossed the border, as an initiative of the Universidad de Guadalajara (UdeG). Throughout its history it has hosted literary luminaries from around the globe, including the Nobel Prize-winning novelists Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Orhan Pamuk.

Last week, the FIL’s founder, Raúl Padilla López, was found dead in an apparent suicide. Padilla, who also served as the rector of the UdeG from 1989 to 1995, was a man of many shades: enlightened as seen from abroad and darkened for those in his vicinity. Throughout his decades as a public figure, Padilla established a series of alliances with local politicians in key positions overseeing the allocation of local, state and federal funds. This allowed him to control most major decisions regarding education in Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco: how much money schools and universities received, how many students were accepted each year and how many were left out. Padilla played a key role in shaping the fates of tapatío youth, and that of the state of Jalisco.

For many a foreign observer, Padilla was a sort of a cultural icon, an esteemed figure who counted France’s Légion d’Honneur and Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award among his accolades. Many of his fellow citizens, however, regarded him as a cacique, a power-hungry individual who climbed his way to the top of institutions that take in large sums of public money, like the University of Guadalajara. While serving in these positions of power, Padilla was accused of misappropriation of public funds and faced significant opposition from the political establishment as well as education activists trying to reduce his influence. During his tenure as director of the University of Guadalajara and up to his death, Padilla had budgetary quarrels with at least three state governors of different parties, which sometimes went beyond ordinary political jockeying. One of these governors, Aristóteles Sandoval, was assassinated shortly after his term in office ended.

The Feria Internacional del Libro that Padilla founded and presided over was but one part of his original idea to marry business and culture. His most ambitious project was Centro Cultural Universitario (CCU), a vast cultural complex that will feature theaters and a library alongside luxurious living spaces, hotels and boutiques. The complex, much of which is still under construction, was designed by the same architectural firm that designed the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, and is located in one of the most exclusive areas of Guadalajara. Between 2001 and 2020, investment in the CCU had already reached almost five billion pesos, according to reporting in Reporte Indigo. Out of that, about one billion pesos had been taken directly out of the UdeG budget, where Padilla exerted total control even decades after retiring from the rectorship. Meanwhile, for at least the past ten years, the great majority of students (up to 65 percent) who have applied for entrance to the Guadalajara public university system have been and continue to be rejected.

My native city is a place where reading as an enjoyable, challenging and potentially rebellious activity has not been inculcated; many tapatíos cannot even afford to buy books. It is a city where teenagers are lured into drug trafficking because they can’t pass a high school exam, a city where public libraries (also controlled by the UdeG) are treated more as private museums, ornamental homages to architecture and solemnity, rather than institutions at the service of the citizenry. As recently as 2016, after a speech and ceremony celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of a public library in downtown Guadalajara, the esteemed author and director of the branch, Fernando del Paso, proudly took his picture with the recipient of the first book to ever be allowed to be checked out. Padilla leaves behind a shiny annual book fair and huge cultural complex, but one thing is abundantly clear—in Guadalajara, the idea of reading and, especially, access to reading, still hasn’t sunk in.

Image credit: © Courtesy FIL Guadalajara/Paula Vázquez