The faith of a sea turtle

The Gulf of Mexico is the only nesting ground for the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle. Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the world, is a favorite nesting ground of these magnificent sea creatures. Kemps-Ridley sea turtles, the smallest of the eight species of sea turtles, can weigh up to 100 pounds. They are endangered because of the over-harvesting in both the United States and Mexico, but animal rights activists and environmentalists have worked diligently to bring their numbers up substantially in the last years. (

When I came down to Texas, I was interested in working with one of the most endangered populations in the United States – ESL students. Typically, for Hispanic students born outside of the United States, the dropout rate is 44%, and Latino students in general suffer a startling national drop-out rate of 28%. (

At Rivera High School, I stepped foot into a Creative Writing class my first year of teaching. Little did I know that this creative writing was code for remedial writing – these were the students assigned to further English classes because of past failures on the all-important state test.

Last year, my results were not amazing. I learned far more than my students did. Their scores were average at best, and I felt a tinge of guilt with having learned the profession of teaching through this first-year “experimentation.”

However, with that first year behind me, I compiled what I had learned and sought the advice of others, determined not to fail my students again. The failure rate and dropout statistics for these students in this immigrant community compelled me to work harder and better.

From April to July, female Kemps-Ridley turtles migrate to the shores of South Padres Island and Rancho Nuevo. Unlike the other species of sea turtles, Kemps-Ridley sea turtles lay their eggs in groups and during the day. A 1947 film shows 40,000 Kemps-Ridleys nesting simultaneously, but now these “arribadas” are only in the hundreds. The sole protection for their pinball-sized eggs buried in the sand is their sheer number. (

For freshman entering high school in the Rio Grande Valley, their main security is in their sheer numbers. From best estimates, only about 2/3 of them will graduate. From my own experience, though, nearly 2/3 of them will go back to Mexico, will seek employment without a GED, will opt for alternative certification, will become parents, will disappear. My job as a teacher often feels like Holden Caufield’s dream career of catching bodies coming through the rye, trying desperately to catch them before they run headlong over a cliff.

Green sea turtles nest every three or four years. South of the mouth of the Rio Grande, these green sea turtles nest from June to October. Though they migrate as much as 1400 miles, they return to their favorite beaches and continue nesting at the same site, barring any drastic changes. Those changes occurred in the early 20th century, with heavy canning taking place in Florida and here at Boca Chica Beach on the international border. These endangered turtles today are fighting to return to their numbers before the devastating 1900s. (

I am leaving Brownsville today, after two years where this land, this language, and this way of life have taught me so much. My car is packed with the memories of my immigrant students, many of whom passed the state test for the first time, proving to themselves and the nation that immigrants are more than capable if given an opportunity. I am full of stories of these children and their parents, of the immigrant janitor who gave me my first taste of ceviche and fixes my old ’94 Spirit and of Tony who proudly hangs my photograph of the GW Bridge in his barber shop.

I am driving north today, perhaps not to return until after my graduation from law school in three years. I promised my freshman students that I would be there for their graduation, and I pray that I am able to greet them all not as students but as adults at the end of high school. I leave the Valley, with the border wall construction slated for July; I also leave this place knowing the grassroots resistance to the Secure Fence Act. It is my prayer that these brave men and women who have opposed this unjust legislation for two years will continue to do so, while I carry on the resistance from Minnesota.

Like a green sea turtle, I have no idea what I will find when I return. That is always the hope and the fear of leaving a place. My prayers are with this city, this Valley, and this frontera. You have taught me so much – it is now my turn to teach the nation.

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