Leaving behind the comforting chaos of Mexico City and the rich diversity of Chiapas, Sofia López Fuertes chased her next adventure a little farther north. Now living in Victoria B.C. with her husband Raul and their two daughters, Sofia continues her lifelong passion as a literacy advocate and educator.
Mexico to Canada—that’s a big change for a young family. Why Canada?
It was like: let’s go on an adventure! We had never been in Canada. When we decided to come to Victoria, I didn’t even know where or what was Victoria. We had saved some money and thought we should take a break and move to somewhere else. Raul wanted to go to Sweden. He loved Sweden. Or Denmark. We had gone to Denmark a few months before. But it was so far away, and I thought that if we were going to move to some place, it should be where language is not a big barrier for us and the kids. Plus, one year was the initial plan and I wasn’t going to spend eight months trying to understand the language and then leave. So I said we should go to an English-speaking place, but not to our neighbouring country. So, what’s next? Canada. Everyone says Canada is beautiful.
Why not the United States? Because of Donald Trump?
Yes. I was really surprised that people voted for Trump. That was so disappointing. And very significant. Millions of Americans voted for what he represents. There are beautiful people in the States and beautiful places. But we in Mexico always feel they are looking down on us, and some Americans have treated Mexicans very badly. I know it’s a complex problem, and I can’t really say it’s their fault what is happening to immigrants [in the U.S.]. I mean why do people in Mexico feel like they have to move away? I feel like it’s a shared responsibility for both governments.
Canada is happy to have you! And there are many Canadians in Mexico too. It seems like Canada and Mexico have a special relationship.
Yes, I think so. It was beautiful to see how Canadians value Mexico. It was a big surprise for me, Actually, everything here was a big surprise for me! I didn’t know what to expect. I was expecting you, Canadians, to be more like Americans, but you are not—you are so different, so different.
Is there one thing you would say is really different about the two countries?
I feel like people from the United States know they are living in the most powerful country in the world and they express themselves in that way. Canadians are more humble.
When did you arrive in Victoria?
August 2017. After we arrived, I questioned what we were doing here—why I was doing this to my kids. They would call me from school. They didn’t speak English, and everything was new to them. I would say things like: “it will be amazing; it’s like a great adventure.” But by the middle of the first year, we felt like it was getting better and agreed to stay longer. A few months ago, my youngest said: “Okay, when you go back to Mexico, I will stay with my friend.” The girls are happy. Of course, they also say they miss their grandparents, their dogs, and their home.
By “home,” do you mean your actual house?
The place, the space. I never thought that moving to another country was going to be so intense. The house, the stuff, the things—you think about them as a part of you and you are leaving them behind. In the beginning, I cried a lot. I would say to Raul, “I don’t believe, I can’t believe we just left behind our whole life together.” For fifteen years, we were building our lives. One day, we just left it all behind.
You felt like you had discarded your lives?
It was a loss; I was grieving. Now I don’t feel like that. I feel like I am adding new layers. And now I think about all these people that really have to move and have to leave everything behind. My parents can travel and visit, and we are looking forward to going to Mexico to spend Christmas. Everything is okay and we can go back and forth if anything happens. But these people that have to move, leave everything behind, with maybe no chance of return. That must be…I can’t imagine.
Your experience has given you empathy towards refugees. Are there many refugees in Mexico?
What we see in Chiapas is many people trying to immigrate to the United States and they get stuck in the worst conditions. What happens on the border between Mexico and Guatemala is much the same thing that happens in the north. They cross the border with no legal documents and it is very risky travel. They have to take the train, “The Beast.” You’ll see people on the street in Chiapas without a leg because they tried to hop on the train. They have nothing to support them. There are a few organizations and the church that help, but we don’t provide accommodation for these people. It’s a very sad thing. I’ve always been a member of a class of society that is able to travel and go somewhere else. You don’t realize the freedom that you have.
What is your hometown?
I was born and raised in Mexico City, which is a huge and crazy city. Then, I moved to Chiapas in the south of Mexico. Chiapas is one of the most socially, politically, and culturally complex environments. It is one of the most poor provinces in Mexico, with a huge Indigenous population.
What took you to Chiapas?
My father used to travel to his main office between Chiapas and Guatemala when I was growing up, so Chiapas was always close to us. In 1984, there was a kind of revolution in Chiapas, an Indigenous revolution. These groups came together to say: Hey, here we are. We need to be recognized—our culture, our history. So Chiapas became a cultural centre. I went on vacation there one summer and fell in love with it. It was so beautiful. Two or three months later I met my husband, Raul. The first day we met, he called his mom and told her that he had just met the woman he was going to marry. On that date, he said, “I want to go to live in Chiapas. Do you want to come with me?” I said okay! Six months later, we were living in Chiapas.
What kept you in Chiapas?
Raul and I were both working in a high school. It was a new model for education—an Indigenous high school led by Indigenous educators. We were trying to link the high school with government institutions to get their model and curriculum recognized. We worked there for three or four years. Some of the young people that graduated from the high school moved to San Cristóbal to start university for the first time. They were the first generation of women that came from these communities to go to university. It was amazing. So we also moved to San Cristóbal to start our master’s degrees and we kept working with these students. They had moved from this very small community to San Cristóbal, which is not a big city, but for them it was a big change. And being in the university was a different world for them, so we kept working with them, mainly in orientation work.
Was it this work that led you to form your own not-for-profit?
When we started working with these students, we acknowledged that reading was the best way to open doors in life. Most of their parents didn’t even speak Spanish. They didn’t read or write; they only spoke their Indigenous language. The youngest generations were introduced to Spanish language education, but it was not a good quality education. They had no family supports for the education they were getting in school, and they wanted to go to university and they got accepted because of government policies for Indigenous or ‘mestizos’ inclusion. They graduate even if they don’t meet the expectations, the requirements.
We started working with the students, trying to develop formal skills for reading and literacy, but realized that when you don’t enjoy what you are doing, then there is no meaning. They were overwhelmed. And there was no context for them. They had to read about Marx and these big social science concepts, and they didn’t have a connection to the content. So, after a few years working with these students using a tutoring model for reading comprehension to try to bring meaning to what they were studying, we realized we were missing something. When we tried to put aside the formal skills, and we talked to them about their experiences, and we read different things like short stories that they connected with, that were relevant to them, something changed. It became possible for them to give meaning to that thing they were reading. When you are stressed because you have to just understand what you’re reading, you give up. You don’t make all the connections. It’s just words.
Do you feel like the word “literacy” is inadequate to describe what transpired in your program?
Yes! These people had a lot of creativity to develop other skill sets. We put aside the traditional approaches and focused on creativity and life skills with kids, realizing you have to start with learners as young as possible. The word “literacy” is weird for me because it doesn’t express the whole meaning. When we talk about literacy, we are always talking about being able to read, and being able to understand what something means, literally. When you experience these life-changing moments, when you reach the point of freedom, when you get to really be involved in this world of words, it’s like another world.
What is the name of your not-for-profit organization?
Germinalia. Germinar means “to grow something.”