Enseña por México: Combining the American Dream With the Mexican Dream
This article is the first piece in our new series, "Building Two Dreams," which tells the stories of entrepreneurs who have been touched by the American Dream and the dream of a distant home thousands of miles away. By sharing the experiences of both cultures, these founders aim to create positive social change and development.
Here's an exploration of the challenges they have faced, the goals they have achieved, and the ways they have changed their communities both near and far.
What is “the American Dream?"
Daniela Rubio: “The American Dream” is that idea of becoming the best version of yourself though hard work and individual achievements. It is a meritocracy based on the individual. It is OK to sacrifice instant gratification because there is a belief that, tomorrow, the hard work and effort will bring even more benefits.
What is “the Mexican Dream?"
Rubio: The Mexican Dream is the idea of living life in the moment to the fullest since you don't know what the future will bring. It is a society moved by the belief that God will provide, no matter what. There is little culture of planning for the future and more living for today and being grateful for what you have, without longing for much more.
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Daniela Rubio, a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, was not new to moving around, but she had decided she would settle into her job as a consultant at a market research firm in San Francisco, a career she had been building for over three years. She had also been working on a side project, the nonprofit Enseña por México, inspired by the Teach for America model, but she and her three co-founders had just run out of grant money for their seed project. They decided that this was it—the project would not be launched, and they would each steer their careers and lives back to their full-time jobs. Part disheartened, part relieved that the exhaustion from balancing a full-time job with a startup nonprofit would be over, Rubio was certain she would work and live in the U.S.
The next day, the group of four Enseña por México co-founders received a call from the State Government in Mexico: They were given funding by the state. The Enseña por México project was to be launched, and Rubio needed to move back to Mexico immediately.
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While Rubio had been involved in education progress since her teenage years, it had always been a side passion or internship, never a full-time job. But suddenly, after the unexpected phone call, she found herself planning a move that required her to uproot herself from her life in the Bay Area, from her friends and then-boyfriend, and from a career path she had just a day earlier thought she was certain of. Did she question this decision or wonder if it was the right path? “I don’t want to look back on my life and regret not doing what I really wanted,” she tells me. “My life passion was education. I always did it on the side, I never did it full-time, until now.”
A year earlier, in January 2011, after graduating from Stanford University with a master’s in international education administration and policy analysis, Rubio returned to her pre-graduate school career of market analysis in San Francisco. She decided that she wanted to stay in the Bay Area to enjoy California for a few years and that moving to Mexico immediately after earning her degree would feel empty if she didn’t have a chance to connect to her new Californian surroundings. Something nagged at her, though. While in graduate school, she had met two women, Corbin Schrader and Jennifer Shin, who had a bold idea: Why not bring Teach for America to Mexico?
When Rubio first heard of this, she thought it was crazy. “Mexico is extremely challenging,” she says. But in 2011, Schrader stopped by the 20th Anniversary Summit for Teach for America in Washington, DC on a cross-country road trip. While there, Schrader met Erik Ramirez-Ruiz, a to-be co-founder and current president of Enseña por México, who had been running the same ideas: Is a similar program feasible in Mexico? Schrader referred him to Rubio, and the two met for the first time in LA. “When I met him,” Rubio explains, “he was just asking around. He was thinking about bringing the program to Mexico with the same worries: Doing this on my own is really scary. I was in LA back then, and he was in LA, too. So we met and we had this great connection of ideas of how things should be in Mexico. So, I pushed back my start date of my job and came to Mexico, where I found myself meeting a ton of people. When I went back to California, I had already decided: I would try to help remotely as much as possible with the project.”
Of the cohort of four, none of the co-founders had any capital to invest in the program. “It’s one thing to have an idea,” Rubio explains. “Unless you have some capital, you can’t do it. It’s not like a startup, where you can just get funding from investors. In the end, there were four co-founders, not including [Schrader] and [Shin] who were involved in the initial push-part of the idea: me and Erik along with two Mexican social entrepreneurs, Mariana [Franco] and Pilar [Castellanos]. We each had jobs, and we were doing this on the side. We had to set up the infrastructure ourselves, and I was lucky that my job at the time gave me volunteer and personal days, which I spent traveling to Mexico to launch this.”
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Growing up in Mexico but frequently visiting the States, traveling between the two countries was not new to Rubio. Rubio’s father received his PhD at New York University, and she remembers spending her childhood summers in the U.S. and attended a bilingual school in Mexico during the year. After graduating from high school, her father encouraged her to take a gap year before attending university, so she found herself traveling to Ireland to work as a Spanish assistant in a private boarding school, Newtown School. It was there that she first became interested in education and inequality.
“Teaching in Ireland was the first time it actually hit me,” Rubio says. “I was able to experience firsthand a first-class education in a country that was developing quickly. I was able to see things there and wonder, ‘Why is this happening here and not in Mexico?’ In Irish primary schools, there was show-and-tell, and the students were encouraged to ask questions. That never happened in Mexico unless you were at a bilingual school.”
After her gap year, Rubio returned to Mexico to attend university, with fresh ideas about what education could be like. She joined an organization called Grassroots Empowerment and worked on a community project to organize after-school activities for young students. The program was a tremendous success, and Rubio was sent to Australia for eight months to demonstrate the results, where she was given a scholarship to study in Australia and continue with similar community projects, before graduating from the University in Mexico in 2006.
Graduation, however, presented a challenge for Rubio: She wasn’t certain where she would go and what she would do. The idea of joining the Peace Corps crossed her mind, but ultimately decided against it. “Coming back from Ireland and Australia was hard enough—you become attached to the places, and then have you to leave. I couldn’t see myself going away to a mysterious place and coming back,” she recalls thinking. “So, I didn’t apply for the Peace Corps. Instead, I found a job as a consultant at a market intelligence firm for three years… I became a semi-professional business woman traveling all around South America and the Caribbean. And then came the financial crisis. But ironically, I wanted to go back to school. It worked out. I came to Stanford, and the first person I met was [Schrader].”
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A 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Report shows that after making pre-primary education mandatory in 2009, Mexico has achieved one of the highest enrollment rates of four-year-old children among OECD countries. However, despite the early enrolment, only 47% of students are expected to graduate with the equivalent of a high school education. The 2012 OECD Report suggests that high student-teacher ratios pose enormous challenges for early childhood education. Findings also show that Mexico has one of the largest groups of 15-29 year olds who are neither in enrolled in educational programs nor employed.
Enseña por México is looking to address some of these problems. The program recently selected 100 teachers to become Enseña por México fellows who will work with at least 12,000 students in high schools across Puebla state, where the program is set to be launched. This cohort was trained for five weeks during the summer and started their first day of classes in schools August 19. To prepare for the training and cohort selection, Rubio had met with principals participating in the program earlier this summer to assess how schools and communities vary from place to place.
Of the many challenges, she’s faced so far, Rubio describes, “I think that Mexico, as many other countries, also has a structural problem in its education system and a lot of reforms are required to improve a broken system. We have many organizations recently created (in the past five years) that are actively pushing for these reforms to happen. However, I don’t see Enseña por México as a Band-Aid—it is not a solution for sure—but it has the potential to influence educational policies in the long term once schools, teachers, and education officials understand the impact of having great professionals teaching students in the most needed areas.”
So far for Rubio, the best and worst feelings working in the program have had the same cause. “The best thing is creating something from scratch. The worst thing is creating something from scratch,” she says. “I guess something so new in a country with little space for innovation in education is exciting but a bit frightening. We are no longer in Silicon Valley where failing is accepted or expected. Here, people can be very judgmental if things go wrong. As much as I try to ignore that and keep on, I guess that is part of the challenge.”
What about her feelings of leaving the United States and returning to Mexico? Just one year earlier, Rubio had been certain her life meant a path in the United States. Had one culture influenced the other, or what roles did these cultural upbringings have in her decision to launch Enseña por México? She replies, “The greatest personal challenge has been to move back to Mexico from working in the private sector with ‘pragmatic, corporate America’ to work in a small city of Puebla.” Of course, these shifts in understanding how location, culture, and identity shape the way education is understood and the way teachers approach students were not entirely foreign to Rubio’s experience as a consultant in market research. The questions of self-identity were common questions she approached during her working career. So, with her own experiences in Mexico to draw upon, along with her professional experiences, Rubio faced the challenges of launching a startup program in Puebla, Mexico with determination.
When asked about her own cultural identity during all the various traveling and work experiences she’s accumulated, including a return to Mexico after time abroad, Rubio replies, “I cannot say I am fully bilingual or Hispanic. I grew up in Mexico and have a Mexican family. I went to a bilingual school throughout my life. That gave me enough tools to navigate the American culture. A lot of my daily life has tons of American values, but I am still not all the way there. For example, in Mexico, I am considered very individualistic and pragmatic, direct, and aggressive, and I long for my alone times where I reflect and relax. In the United States, I am definitely not the most pragmatic person…so a bit of both, but Mexican values are still super important for me.”
In other words, Rubio was identifying with both the Mexican and American dreams, a cultural identity forged through growing up in Mexico and working as a professional in America. This identity is central to what she has brought and can continue to bring to Enseña por México. Though, when asked where she would see herself in 10 years, Rubio replied, “Probably raising my children (note that I am single with no kids today). Maybe back in the U.S., maybe not. Definitely not in Mexico City. It’s too crowded and stressful.”
With that, it became clear that, no matter where her life and career take her, the story of Rubio’s Mexican and American dreams do not end here.