Gold Medal

From Despierta, Mexico
 “Eleven year old inhabitant (Paloma Noyola Martínez) of  Matamoros garbage dump wins nation’s Mathematics prize.”
A friend shared that news item with me via Facebook. As Matamoros is the border “sister city” of Brownsville, I happened to be familiar with that particular garbage dump (there are several in the area).
It would take a mathematical genius to create an algorithm that could capture the degrees of social misery that abound in the place. One could start with the organic data, counting the flies, or the rats, or the buzzards. At some point, of course, the inorganic data would need to be configured—the slow burning fires that melt the plastic of the junked fax machines, computer consoles, cell phones and other electronic garbage to make it easier to capture the copper and aluminum and similar precious leftovers.
(Photo by M. Seifert)
And then there are the harder to quantify social factors—single room structures  with no privacy for eleven year girls-becoming-women, the stench that clings to the residents’ clothing, unmasking them as garbage pickers, wherever they may wander in the city. There is the sheer misery of walking through the garbage, dodging glass and sharp metal, or, worse yet, the packs of feral dogs.
Only a personal visit to Paloma’s home–the winner of this prize–would allow a proper appreciation of her achievement, for typically, there are no desks in these shacks, neither is there a quiet space for study. Noise and danger and stress abound. And did I mention the stench? I know that I did and that I should insist on this factor, for it is a sticky smell of death and rot that worms its way into one’s heart.
In my visits to the dump, I found it hard to breathe, much less to think.
I am tempted at this point to say, “You get the picture,” except that in the midst of all of this is Paloma, whose ability and hard work and particular genius was captured by a national examination. She, and the many other still hidden treasures, ruin this sort of calculus of misery.
(Photo by M. Seifert)
What kind of a place, then, would this garbage dump be? And what indeed do we discover in a human being—a young girl at that–who not only survives the basurero, but has managed to thrive in the midst of its squalor?
Paloma’s story is a gospel type of scandal, a social fact that trips up the political thinkers and social planners, those who, in the USA as well as in Mexico, divert  resources to where they are expected to pay out the highest dividends. Not, for example, to garbage dumps or rural Texas school districts.  
It is so much easier to divide people into the “47%” or into those who live in a civilized place, and those who live in a garbage dump. The algorithm that employs the premises of social class and race and gender offers a joyful simplicity that is much in vogue these days, even as it is wrong.
The proof for the refutation of that simplicity is Paloma and her gold medal.  
(Photo by M. Seifert)
A further mistake, in my mind, would be to think that Paloma is the exception that makes the rule, for she is not.  The end of the article that features Paloma’s story notes that there are schools throughout the poorest parts of the city with children who regularly out perform their wealthier peers.
But of course we know that. “Rags to riches” stories abound, with the unfortunate tendency to make those who succeed seem out of the ordinary and exceptional, making “unexceptionableness” an inborn characteristic of all poor people.

Paloma is not an exception. She is not the only brilliant child living in that garbage dump. Her story, however, is amazing. She found a way to protect her intelligence from the horrors of a place in which “fight or flight” is rightfully about the only thing that occupies peoples’ minds. But Paloma and some teachers had a meeting of the minds, so to speak, and she worked a test to the 99th percentile.
I would like very much to see the formula for that brand of amazing. I imagine that one day soon, Paloma could oblige me that.
Paloma estudia en ‘El Basural’; obtuvo 921 puntos en la prueba ENLACE.
Por: La Jornada-El Universal. 22 septiembre 2012
MATAMOROS, TAMPS.- Paloma Noyola Martínez, una niña de 11 años que vive en un barrio de 
pepenadores de Matamoros, es la mejor estudiante de matemáticas del país, como demuestran los 921 puntos que obtuvo en la prueba Enlace.
Paloma, alumna de la primaria José Urbina López —que por su ubicación en las cercanías del viejo tiradero municipal es conocida como “El Basural”—, de origen humilde y zapatos gastados, es el orgullo de su familia.
Guadalupe Martínez, madre de la niña, pidió apoyo a la Secretaría de Educación de Tamaulipas para que Paloma continúe con sus estudios de secundaria.
“Mi esposo murió hace seis meses; trabajaba en un rancho y nos dejó solas. Ahora una hija mayor es la que me ayuda con los gastos de la escuela, pero si la niña no obtiene una beca veo muy difícil que siga estudiando”, añadió.
Los más sobresalientes
Los niños académicamente más sobresalientes de Matamoros estudian en las zonas más pobres de la localidad. En el extremo oriente de Matamoros, hijos de obreras inscritos en la primaria Guadalupe Cavazos de González obtuvieron la mejor puntuación del estado. Por los rumbos del basurero, Paloma camina a la escuela asediada por las gaviotas que se alimentan de los desperdicios.
José Guadalupe Hernández, director de la primaria donde Paloma cursa sus estudios, afirmó que la noticia siembra esperanza en un barrio donde la miseria y el hacinamiento son las constantes.
“Nos hace reflexionar que algo bueno se está haciendo para desarrollar el potencial de los niños en esta escuela que todos conocen como El Basural”, señaló.
A falta de reconocimiento de la Secretaría de Educación de Tamaulipas, el director de primaria prometió a Paloma regalarle una computadora portátil para que se siga preparando. “Aunque va a ser difícil que se conecte a Internet, cuando en la colonia ni luz hay”, puntualizó. 
‘La educación es de todos’
El rector de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), José Narro Robles; el secretario de Educación Pública, José Ángel Córdova Villalobos, y el presidente de la Fundación del Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, Emilio Zebadúa, coincidieron en que los problemas que vive México en cuanto a educación no se reducen a la responsabilidad de un actor específico.
“En el campo de la educación todavía hay que hacer un gran esfuerzo, este no es un problema de un secretario, de un dirigente en un sindicato, de los gobernadores estatales o de los legisladores federales, es un problema de todos los mexicanos”, dijo Narro Robles.
Por su parte, Emilio Zebadúa reconoció que hay retos en la formación de los maestros para el Siglo XXI, pero que no se puede derivar la reforma educativa “a un cuestionamiento, un ataque al sindicato, o a una denigración de los maestros”.
En sus intervenciones en el panel “¿Cómo hacer competitiva a nivel global la calidad educativa y la capacidad de Innovación en México?”, organizado por la Cumbre de la 
Comunicación Actitud Positiva Por México, señalaron los retos que enfrenta la educación en el país.
Córdova Villalobos aseguró que para alcanzar, en los próximos 10 años, la cobertura universal del nivel medio superior, México necesita incrementar, cada año, el presupuesto en 15 mil mdp.


The taco place is popular, located in downtown McAllen. “Expensive, though,” said a friend.

But no one bought lunch there last Thursday. About twenty of us gathered in front of the place at noon, having been asked by Fuerza, the Equal Voice Network’s workers’ center, to protest on behalf of some of the restaurant workers. Two of the cooks who  had been working  in the kitchen had recently complained to the Fuerza leaders that the owner was refusing to pay them, claiming that he “was short of cash.” 
Hector, the charismatic Fuerza leader, had taken the workers’ complaints and then had gone through the protocol—making sure of the facts, getting names and dates, seeing if the Department of Labor would take the complaint, and then, called the owner, asking for restitution.
Normally the owner gives in, although rarely admitting guilt. This time, though, the fellow kept putting the workers off. Days of delay turned into weeks and then months. Hector felt that it was time to pressure the guy, to show some force.
Thus, our lunch time protest.
We had signs that said “No to wage theft!” and “Justice for Workers!” and a small megaphone for chants.
The restaurant owner refused to come out to talk. He locked the door, and placed a “Closed” sign in the window. Every now and then a potential customer would come up, pull on the locked door, then look at the protesters, and move on, his inconvenience written across his brow.
Juanita, one of the workers, walked with us in front of her former workplace.  She was so angry that tears welled up in her eyes when she explained how she had helped the owner set the restaurant up. “The menu, the recipes, I created those. I feel humiliated.”
As the noon hour came to a close, we gathered into a circle, and, speaking past the closed front door, assured the owner that we would be back, again and again, until he did right by his workers.
Two days later, and on the other side of the Rio Grande Valley, stands at a ballpark were filled with fans looking forward to a last baseball game of the summer. Two of my friends joined the crowd. They struck up a conversation with another spectator, a woman who turned out to be married to the home team’s pitcher. 
As game time approached, my friends noticed that only the visiting team suited up. The pitcher’s wife, speaking on her cell phone, quietly said, “Our team is refusing to play. The owner won’t pay them their salaries. The checks that he wrote them bounced. So they won’t come out of the locker room.” Not a lot of money in any case, the wife explained—only about $600 a month. She, pregnant, and her husband, share an apartment with two other players.
After a while, the ballpark manager invited the kids to come down to the field to engage in a dance contest. And then, to a second dance contest. It was now forty-five minutes past starting time, and it was clear that there would be no game.
My friends got up, headed down to get their money back, and then set out for home.  They stopped by our house to share their excitement. “We saw a strike! Imagine that, we saw a strike on Labor Day weekend! What a great thing!”
The Labor Day weekend is bookended this year by the two major political parties’ campaigns. Both campaigns are making promises about having the answer to our nation’s economic woes, both campaigns claiming to understand “the big picture,” and that “big picture” seems to be all about powerful, untouchable greed
Locally, a couple of cooks and some minor league ball players are doing their best to get paid their very small wages. However small, they are their wages, and they are  wages that had been stolen.
While the greedy ones are indeed quite powerful, on this Labor Day weekend, I was pleased to be reminded that workers, in their own way, also have a good deal of power, of “fuerza.” What could happen if all that fuerza were harnessed and then unleashed? Now that would be a ball game worth watching.