Reading Chilpancingo

By Linda Christensen

“The border” is not simply a wall, nor just a site for foreign investment. It’s where people live. In “Reading Chilpancingo,” English teacher Linda Christensen describes a visit to the Chilpancingo colonia in Tijuana and how she uses this experience to craft critical reading activities for her students. — the editors

When I met Lourdes Lujan and saw her contaminated river, I knew I had to teach about Chilpancingo, a Tijuana neighborhood where corporations’ toxic presence and women’s organizing against the monster in their backyards make for David and Goliath teaching lessons.

When our Rethinking Schools-Global Exchange tour first entered Colonia Chilpancingo and descended downhill to where the waste from hilltop factories bubbled into Río Alamar, the stench of burning rubber and untreated garbage filled the air. Lourdes Lujan, local activist, walked down from her home perched above the river. “When I was growing up, I played and fished in this river,” she said. “My family had picnics at that park.” She pointed to a sandy, trash-filled triangle at the edge of the river filled with discarded tires, pop cans, plastic bottles, baby diapers, and a lone picnic table. Her arms are pocked with rashes.

“Now, when the stream starts to flow, and it isn’t even the rainy season, the kids play in the puddles. You know how kids are. They play in the water, and get blisters all over their feet.”

Lourdes Lujan is part of a collective that works with women in their local communities and across the U.S. border to battle the giant corporations and their governments that have made her home a nightmare. But the horror story unleashed by Metales y Derivados, a U.S.-owned battery recycling company whose owner abandoned thousands of tons of hazardous chemicals that contaminated Colonia Chilpancingo, didn’t stop with rashes and blisters. Lourdes described children born without brainstems, children whose parents slept with them at night, fearful they would drown in their own blood from spontaneous nose bleeds, maquila workers who suffered miscarriages and had babies with birth defects, and neighbors with abnormally high rates of cancer. She pointed to the buildings on the ridge above Chilpancingo and explained how Santa Ana winds blow contaminated waste down into her village, how the rains sluice down the side of the mesa and pool in the grade school at the bottom of the hill.

I watch two boys walking on a muddy path, heading to their homes constructed from wooden pallets and tarps, homes without running water or sewage connections. The men, women, and children who seek shelter along this toxic riverbed have traveled from southern Mexico, hoping to find work on the maquila-saturated hilltop and a toehold into a better life. We ask Lourdes if they know about the contamination. She shrugs. It’s hard to get people to care about potential harm when daily they worry about getting enough food for their children.

Later, we learn about elevated lead counts, the high price of lead tests compared to maquila wages, and the long fight that Lujan and her group have waged to educate their neighbors about the factories’ toxic waste. We learn about the lawsuits they’ve sponsored to make Jose Kahn, the San Diego-based owner of Metales y Derivados, and the U.S. and Mexican governments clean up the poisons surrounding Chilpancingo.

Back Home

To bring the lesson back to my junior students at Grant High School in Portland, Ore., I start with a photograph of the hill opposite Chilpancingo that includes a shot of the makeshift housing for maquila workers and a polluted stream. Eventually, they will read an article about the toxic waste, but I use the photograph to stir their interest.

My students are a delightful mix of colors, attitudes, and ambitions. What unites them is that they didn’t choose to be in any of the honors, AP, or advanced English classes that Grant High School offers. Many struggle with reading and writing; about a third spend at least one period of the day in special education classes or they have a case worker; others have sophisticated literacy skills, but have disengaged from school for a variety of reasons. Any lesson I bring to my class must include reading and writing strategies for this diverse group. I’ve discovered through our lessons on race, class, and Hurricane Katrina that they care about the world beyond their cell phones. I attempt to build units that teach literacy skills embedded in larger world issues, and I try to find places where they can learn to read critically, but that also give them examples of how people have worked together to confront oppression. Chilpancingo fits my criteria.

I put the photograph of Chilpan-cingo on the overhead. (View color photo) I tell students: “Reading a picture is like reading a text. You read on a number of levels. I want you to read the picture first. Just make a list of everything you see in the photo. Don’t make any judgments about what’s there. Make a list.” My students verbalize while they work. Perhaps not everything they think comes out of their mouths, but they are not a quiet group: “Shacks,” one student says.

“Wait. Wait. You’re making a judgment,” I tell them. “Just write what you see. Someone give me an example.” Ann Truax, an outstanding Portland ESL teacher, taught me to begin reading lessons with visual texts to draw students in, but also to give English language learners pictures in their heads as they encounter new vocabulary. I’ve discovered this strategy works with all students as a pre-reading strategy.

The students catalogue details in the picture: Water. Bottles. Cans. Dead tree. Shadow. Smoke. Blue tarps. Water. Gray skies. Truck. Houses. Rust. Their lists grow long. They crowd around the overhead to get a better look. Later, I see that Charlie has written, “Sedges, a small weed-like plant that grows by water.”

Students share their lists with a partner. Then we go around the class with everyone adding items from their lists. When Dontay calls out, “Dirty water,” I stop the shout-out.

“Wait. That’s a judgment. Where’s your evidence? How can you tell that the water is dirty?”

Dontay looks back at the picture. “See the bottles and paper in the water? That’s what makes it dirty.”

“OK. Now when you do that in reading, it’s called an inference. You gather up information, then you make a judgment about it. For example, if you read about a man who slapped his child in the grocery store; what kind of inference would you make about him?”

“Child abuser,” Alley shouts.

I admit. I am shamelessly didactic, but too many of my students have bought into the idea that they can’t read. My job is to show them that they are “reading” all the time. I want to name their reading strategies, so when they read word texts, they can remember that they know how to do this.

“Now, I want you to list your questions.” When no one writes, I ask, “Who has a question?”

Josh starts, “The five w’s. Where is the picture taken? What is in the picture? When was it taken? Why was it taken? Who took the picture?”

“What’s in the river?” Katie asks.

“Is there piss in the river?” Vernell jokes to get a laugh.

“Now, on your own.” I use this question technique prior to introducing the reading because often my poor readers read the surface of words. They skim over the paragraphs, forgetting what they’ve read as soon as their eyes have passed the words. They even talk about their “comprehension problems.” I use activities like this one to teach them how to read with questions in their heads to provide hooks to slow them down, but also to capture images, facts, and ideas that slide by when they read without purpose.

“When we share out, I want you to write down other people’s questions. When you read the article about this place, I want you to read to answer all of these questions.” I’ve found that it’s not enough to practice strategies without discussing them with my students. When I make my reasons for using the strategies transparent, they understand what I’m doing, so they can transfer the process. At parent conferences, I was pleased when the parent of one of my mainstreamed special education students explained how her son was transferring the strategies he’d learned in my class to his history class. He showed her how he highlighted and wrote marginal notes and told her that it helped him retain the information.

After students review their questions with a partner, we share in the large group again. I write the questions on the overhead as students call them out. It’s clear that they’ve started caring more about what’s happening in the picture. Their cute, glib remarks are gone. “Who lives there? Is this human’s destruction or nature’s? Where did the garbage come from? Why doesn’t someone clean it up? What caused this mess? Where is the water coming from? Are there any dead bodies? Is this a dumpsite? Do people live there? Why is that tree dead? What is in that mound? Is this a wetland? Is that a neighborhood behind the trees and shrubs? Do people drink the water? What are they trying to show with the picture? Why don’t the people move to a better place?”

Making Connections

I move to the next pre-reading strategy — connecting new information to previous knowledge. Skilled readers and learners do this automatically, but struggling readers don’t. “Now, I want you to make connections between the picture and your lives. Does this remind you of any place you’ve been? Movies? News programs? Something you’ve read? Who can make a connection?”

No one answers. “Does it look like a spot on the way to the Oregon coast?” Still no answer. I continue, “When I showed this picture to a group of teachers, one of them said that it looked like a field where he and his friends hung out in high school. It kind of reminds me of Beggar’s Tick, the site where my daughter Gretchen took water and soil samples when she was in Mr. Street’s environmental science class.”

“It looks like the off ramp to the dump,” Ethan says.

“Great. The reason you want to make connections between the picture and your life is that when you make a connection, your brain finds a way to remember it. This is the same thing you do when you read. But it’s also to think about the similarities in their lives and ours — as well as the differences.”

Calais raises her hand, “This reminds me of Tijuana when Heather and I went there last summer with our church group to build a playground.”

“OK, now write your connections.”

Thomas writes that it reminds him of the ads about adopting poor children. “They always show them surrounded by trash.” Other students write: a relative’s backyard, New Orleans after the hurricane. Charlie writes that it reminds him of the “crap Tim Robbins had to crawl through at the end of Shawshank Redemption.” Brittany writes, “Driving through LA in September.”

“Now, it’s time to read about this place. All year, we’ve been keeping two ideas in front of us as we read: injustice and hope. When we read about Hurricane Katrina, we examined where there was injustice, and where we found hope. When we read Thousand Pieces of Gold, we talked about the injustice that Lalu faced, and where she found hope. Now, I’m going to give you an article that was published in the Washington Post; I want you to read to identify both the injustice and the hope in this situation. I also want you to use the same strategies we used to ‘read’ the picture while you are reading the article. Keep those questions in front of you as you read.”

The class moves into their work groups. In this class of diverse abilities, I strategically place strong and weak readers together. I hang group members’ names on the sides of the room where I’ve clustered their desks. I distribute highlighters and copies of Kevin Sullivan’s article “A Toxic Legacy on the Mexican Border” (included in The Line Between Us), which details the environmental devastation. This is a difficult read for many of my students.

“Feel free to read this out loud in your group. Highlight places in the article that answer your questions. Write new questions that the article raises for you in the margins. Find the justice and the hope.” Students’ outrage is immediate. I can hear Ethan cursing in his corner overlooking the soccer field. I hear Ryan, “Damn, man, this is cold.” The bell rings before we can discuss the article.

Adding Details

The next day I draw a circle on the overhead; I write Chilpancingo in the middle and ask students to return to their articles and notes. “Let’s review the reading from yesterday. What key pieces of information should I add to the ‘map’ of the article?”

Hillary says, “You need a section for birth defects.”

Russell adds, “You need a part for effects of the toxic waste on the people who live there.”

“How about a section on what happened to the environment?”

The overhead fills up as students tell me where to add details. Josh points to the overhead, “By birth defects you want to add still births, born without lower body and without skulls.”

Katie adds, “By the environment, you need to add toxic waste; Metales; Jose Kahn, the owner of Metales.”

I had worried that students wouldn’t understand the article, but without even looking back at their notes, they were shouting out answers. When they did return to the article, they looked for specific numbers — the amount of waste left behind, the cost of the cleanup.

“Now, tell me what new questions came up for you in your reading? What do you still want to know that this article didn’t answer?” I wind the overhead to a new sheet as students call out their questions. “You write them down too,” I say, “because we will read more articles about Chilpancingo.”

I list their questions on the overhead: What happened to the children? Did Jose Kahn ever clean up the waste he left behind? Are there still birth defects? Who helped clean it up? What happened to Carmen’s new baby? Their questions are specific. Pointed. They want to know what happened to these people.

“I want you to get back into your groups. Each person in your group is going to read a different article that gives more information. In order to answer your questions, you will each need to read carefully, take notes, and then share your information with your group.”

I distribute color-coded articles written from different perspectives about Chilpancingo. (These articles are online at For example, I give one student in each group Mariana Martínez’s article “Empowerment Brings Change.” This article describes how Factor X, a Tijuana women’s group that provides education to maquila workers, teaches women how to advocate for themselves and their communities. As Martínez explains:

Little by little people are learning to speak out, and become an agent of change. An example of the people taking charge was the case against Metales y Derivados, a company owned by New Frontier Company in San Diego. After many complaints from the community to the Mexican environmental authorities, after gathering over 500 signatures and organizing protests, the case was finally brought to the attention of the Environmental Cooperation Commit-tee, which was established as part of the Free Trade Treaty [NAFTA], who . . . established that the chemicals that this company manages are of “grave danger to human health” and that “Mexican authorities had failed to enforce their own environmental laws.”

I give the article “Environmental Health and Toxic Waste” to my struggling readers because it contains pictures of Lourdes Lujan and Magdalena Cerda, an activist from San Diego, as well as pictures of the Metales plant. It has shorter passages, but it provides some relevant information about how the toxic waste generated in Tijuana doesn’t stay there:

The air and water are shared. The runoff from the Industrial City flows into a stream in Colonia Chilpancingo …The pollution produced in Tijuana equally affects the people of San Diego. In addition, the capital which comes to Tijuana is American capital, which for the people here produces only a little money and a lot of pollution. People in Mexico need this work desperately, but it doesn’t allow them to live in dignity or comfort. This type of injustice is not tolerable, and this is why we work together.

I realize that I didn’t clarify to students that the second round of readings would contain overlapping information with the first. I also didn’t point out the different dates on the readings, so they were not as alert to the changes within each article as I hoped they would be.

“When you finish your reading, share your information with your group. Add this new information to your map. Then write a paragraph summarizing what you learned about injustices in Chilpancingo and where you find hope.”

Most expressed both outrage and hope about the environmental destruction wreaked on this community. Charlie’s anger at Jose Kahn was echoed by his classmates, but he did find hope in the community’s organizing:

I believe what Jose Kahn did was horrible and the United States should make him pay for the cleanup. The community around the pollution is paying instead. There is a lot of hope in that community, along with a lot of strength. They have come together and formed programs to educate themselves on how to deal with the problem. Meanwhile, the U.S. needs to do the right thing and make Jose Kahn pay.

Brittany blamed Jose Kahn as well, but again found hope in the neighbors organizing:

It was definitely wrong for Jose Kahn to just leave all that toxic waste in Chilpancingo. It was killing all of the residents. Not immediately, but slowly and painfully…. Jose didn’t have to pay because he crossed the border. But what is cool is that the residents are being informed and informing each other about how to protect themselves and deal with the toxins. There is a five-year project to clean up Chilpancingo.

My students didn’t travel to Mexico with me. They didn’t stand on the banks of Río Alamar, smell the acrid odor of a town drowning in toxins, see the rash on Lourdes’s arms. But sitting in a classroom near the banks of the Columbia River, they learned how to step into a picture and connect with a community on the other side of the border and question why it’s OK for a U.S. corporation to leave toxic waste behind, and discover how women organizing in local communities can tackle giants — and win.

Linda Christensen ( is an editor of Rethinking Schools. She is author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word.