It was a steaming-hot afternoon in southern Mexico.
We left the final small market town and traveled nearly an hour on rutted dirt roads to reach this indigenous riverbank community in Los Altos de Chiapas.
This was before the pandemic, and we had come to plan a church-based cattle co-op project.
Several young boys were eager to show us around. “This is our school,” one of them announced proudly.
It was early afternoon on a weekday, and I asked about classes. “Oh, we don’t have school this week; the teacher didn’t come.”
All four boys appeared to be between ages 8 and 12. “What grades are you in?” I asked them in Spanish. They looked puzzled and spoke in Tzeltal among themselves.
One small boy said that he was in the third grade. “Me too,” added a 12-year-old. The other two shrugged their shoulders and said that they weren’t sure.
The educational system appears to be failing these children. While data indicates a 70% literacy rate for the community’s approximately 475 residents, most persons age 15 and older have received an average of only three years of formal education.
Teachers come from outside the community and rarely speak the native language of their students, and children speak limited Spanish when they enter school.
Mondays and Fridays are teacher travel days, so children only have three days of classes per week. For students to continue studies past 6th grade, they must leave their village and go to a regional boarding school.
Since the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, I have been particularly concerned for the plight of the most vulnerable populations, including women, children and youth.
Students in Latin America and the Caribbean make up 60% of all children worldwide who missed an entire year of school due to COVID-19, according to a March 2021 UNICEF report.
As 2020 drew to a close, more than 97% of students across Latin America remained physically out of school, and schools throughout the region were fully closed for 158 days between March 2020 and February 2021.
Work with community-based projects in Latin America helps me to understand the factors that contribute to migration, and several key points stand out.
People want to live in safety and security, without fear as they go about the daily routine.
People want jobs so they can earn enough to support their families.
People need hope for a better future, which often comes through educational opportunities.
In just a few short years, these children for whom education opportunities are meager at best will reach the age when many decide to leave their community to seek work.
Some will end up in larger towns and cities nearer home, but many will go to El Norte – to the United States or the northern states of Mexico where there is work in both agriculture and factories.
Youth from rural, indigenous households with little education, no marketable skills and who live in poverty, have a bleak future in this part of Mexico and Central America.
They’re frequent targets for local gangs at home, and “going north” takes them into cartel country where they’re extremely vulnerable to either recruitment or exploitation.
Migrants often cite gang violence and the recruitment of youth as a major factor for migration.
During COVID-19, with schools closed, teens have much more free time on their hands, and this has been especially good news for gangs and cartels. The young adults are a source of revenue for the cartels – they’re smuggled, trafficked, kidnapped and victims of extortion.
For some youth, gang affiliation provides a sense of belonging and a means for earning income to help their struggling families. For others, it’s a matter of life or death.
COVID-19 has devastated many families, particularly those living on the edge of poverty. Education provided hope, and the prolonged closing of schools will have long-term consequences.
Students fall farther behind in learning, and many will not return to the classroom. Without opportunities for education or employment, many will be recruited by gangs or violent extremist organizations.
This will exacerbate the desire to migrate.
With COVID lockdowns and border closings, many migrants are faced with few options. Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, the US – these countries are already dealing with an overwhelming number of desperate migrants.
For children like my young friends in Chiapas, they are relatively safe in their rural, remote village, but the cost of obtaining land to farm and the risk of crop failures leaves them with little hope for the future.
Many will “go north” to seek employment to help their families, in spite of the danger. Every village family has its story of a youth who has fallen victim to extortion, rape and victimization by the cartels or recruitment by gangs.
In an ideal world, all children and youth would receive a quality education in a stable, safe setting that would provide them with marketable skills and tools leading to employment that pays a living wage. Post-pandemic, we should be strengthening communities by investing in sustainable development and improving educational opportunities. In this way, we decrease the risk of youth engagement in violent groups and also the need for migration.
*A version of this story appeared April 28, 2021 in GoodFaith Media.