Maria has been an excellent student in Mexico and had read everything she could locate in the local library, Biblioteca Pública Municipal de San Pedro Xalostoc, about astronaut Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to go to space. Ochoa had served on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery, where she and a team of astronauts studied the Earth’s ozone layer. Ochoa would return to space three more times, spending nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. Today, she holds the NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal and serves as the Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Maria Christina Torres was born in Los Bordos, a slum in Ecatepec de Morelos, deemed one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico where at least 600 women have been murdered since 2012. It is located just half-an- hour from the capital. Much of Los Bordos has no running water or electricity, few schools, and fewer hospitals. Most young children attend primary school where only half of the students who begin primary education finish and 7 out 10 teens do not understand what they read or know how to multiply. Only 62 percent reach secondary school of which 45 percent graduate in contrast to about 75 percent of U.S. students who graduate from high school on time with a regular diploma. The public education system remains one of the most arduous challenges that Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, faces. Mexico falls to last place in the Pisa report (Program for International Student Assessment) on education.
Maria was in the sixth grade when she emigrated from Mexico to the United States with her mother and younger sister. Maria’s parents were divorced, and she had little contact with her father. The Torres family moved in with Maria’s aunt, who had come to the United States from Mexico ten years earlier and lived in a two-bedroom apartment in rural western Texas. As a little girl in Mexico, Maria’s nickname had been Luna, which is the Spanish word for moon. She had dreamt of one day travelling into space and maybe even visiting the moon.
Maria was disappointed when her mother informed her that they were moving to Texas and staying with her aunt. Maria’s mother told Maria about the school she would be attending and the STEM classes that Maria could take in hopes of cheering her up. It worked. Maria looked forward to going to the new school and attending STEM classes. When Maria started classes at the new school in Texas, it was a transition that she was not prepared for, and she felt overwhelmed by the size of school building as well as how many students there were. The middle school that Maria had attended in Mexico had four hundred and fifty students, so in addition to the language difference, she was uncomfortable in the large school setting in Texas.
Maria spoke limited English and Spanish was the primary language spoken in her home. Maria diligently worked at improving her English but struggled in class with the academic language needed to be successful. Her science teacher in Mexico, Ms. Rios, recognized Maria’s intertest and ability in science and soon became Maria’s unofficial mentor. But now in Texas, Maria felt alone and very confused with the multitude of new things she had to learn- using lockers, catching the school bus, changing classes, buying lunch, confusing schedules, and having to change during gym class.
Although Maria’s English language skills had continued to improve based on her language proficiency assessment in all areas; reading, writing, speaking, and listening, she still scored low for reading and writing. Maria wanted to enroll in the STEM program but was denied due to her low English proficiency levels. The school’s policy was that students must be considered proficient in English due to the rigor of the STEM classes. Maria was not allowed to take any STEM or advanced classes. This made Maria miss her school and home in Mexico. Maria began missing her life in Mexico and yearned to return.
Although Maria was not permitted to enroll in the STEM classes, Maria noted that there were not many girls in many of the STEM classes, and none of the girls was Hispanic. But none of that mattered any longer to her because she was not permitted to be in the class. She was sorry that her mother ever moved to Texas. As the months and school year passed, Maria began to spend less time studying and doing homework and her grades began to decline. There were also several days when Maria’s mother had an opportunity to work overtime at the warehouse and kept Maria home from school to watch her little sister who was not yet school age. Maria’s mother had remarried within a year of arriving in the United States. Maria’s grades in math and science classes had dropped to C’s and D’s and she decided that she would never be approved for the STEM program. Near the end of the second marking period her counselor asked to meet with Maria and her mother to discuss her faltering grades and that a decision was made that she will be removed from the general math and science classes and placed in math and science classes specifically for ELs. Maria forgot about Ellen Ochoa and thought the idea of a career in STEM and going into space someday was silly.