Pink refractions dance 180 degrees across the Mexico City skyline. An air of organized chaos circulates through the 11th floor of WeWork Cervantes - hackers, or mentors as they will be referred to for the next six months, dart between rows of computers, installing software and changing passwords, booting and rebooting. It’s Saturday evening, and in just 36 hours this office-space-turned-classroom will be filled with 30 students ready to radically change their lives.
Some things in life seem momentous - relationships, job opportunities, a bad haircut. When we entered the classroom, inhaled the chaos, and met Leni Alvarez, the magnitude was inescapable. Leni is short in stature - no more than 5’2” - but has the presence of a giant. It’s the kind of presence that comes with harrowing experience and a resilient spirit. And so, illuminated by the last gasps of daylight, Leni crossed her legs, leaned forward in a nondescript office chair, and told us the story of Hola Code.
Like the name, Hola Code is a simple idea with high aspirations. The social enterprise deploys a 5-month intensive coding program adapted from HackReactor, a software and coding bootcamp based out of San Francisco. The program was developed for Mexico City’s returned migrants - a growing population of Mexicans voluntarily or involuntarily deported from the United States. Hampered by a lack of social and professional networks in their native country, returned migrants often deplane at Mexico City’s Juarez International Airport without a job, domicile, or proper identification. In fact, many can’t even speak the language of their homeland.
As was the case for Leni, who returned to Mexico’s Veracruz state from Florida at the age of 16, “I thought I knew Spanish…I knew Spanglish.” Leni is Hola Code’s head of recruitment, but her impact transcends title. Like the Hola Code students, Leni is a member of Mexico’s immigrant generation 1.5, characterized by an emigration to the U.S. during adolescence. Upon returning to Mexico, returned migrant generation 1.5 find themselves in an unfamiliar environment, an identity ill-defined. In the seven years since Leni’s return to Mexico, she has grappled with her returned migrant identity and turned it into a source of empowerment.
“I never questioned where I was from, I had never seen my birth certificate, I had never even questioned whether I was born in Mexico or the U.S.”
Leni’s migration story begins on a ranch in the Mexican state of Chiapas where her parents were working as missionaries. When she was two, Leni began experiencing medical complications and was admitted to a private hospital. On missionary salaries, hospital bills and financial debt began to mount. So, as with many Mexican immigrants, Leni’s father sought financial security in the U.S.
The terminus was Arcadia, Florida, where Leni’s father reconnected with family members and took up work picking oranges. Before Leni’s third birthday, he had saved enough money to arrange for a coyote to take Leni, her mother, and newborn sister across the Rio Grande into southern Texas. Leni’s mother often jokes, “Remember your summers in Florida, and that $10 inflatable swimming pool from Walmart? Well you crossed (the Rio Grande) in one of those.” Leni’s mother didn’t know how to swim.
Leni and her family set roots in Florida. By the time she was eight, Leni’s father had launched a successful landscaping business and bought a home in Arcadia’s suburbs. “We were the only Latino family…but I never felt like I was not part of the community.”
And so, like many undocumented children emigrated to the U.S., Leni formed an American identity. She attended American schools, proudly sang the National Anthem, and planned to pursue a career in nursing. “I never questioned where I was from, I had never seen my birth certificate, I had never even questioned whether I was born in Mexico or the U.S.” For parents of generation 1.5, concealing the family’s immigration status is a way protect their children from the stress of living undocumented and aid the assimilation process.
Despite the safeguards, Leni and her family were not in hiding. Her father ran a flourishing business and her mother was a prominent member of the local church. Leni was in the midst of her high school years with sights set on college. And then came the 2008 financial crisis.
“Having to go to school the next day and realizing I’m undocumented, I’m not supposed to be here. It felt awful.”
Studies on the effects of global financial downturn (Mohapatra, 2010; Tilly, 2011) indicate a marked uptick in migrant community repatriation, especially away from developed countries. The outflow is often connected to rising unemployment in sectors with large immigrant populations and tightening immigration policies, including the criminalization of unauthorized entry (Mohapatra, 2010; Tilly, 2011). For Leni and her family, the years following 2008 serve as first hand testimony.
The recession dealt a blow to the service industry, including landscaping. Leni’s father’s business unraveled. Around the same time, he started receiving traffic violations for driving without a license, which eventually warranted a court summons. Suddenly, Leni became aware of her immigration status. “He made a deal with the judge - he would turn himself in every Friday night, and return home from jail every Sunday night. They (Leni’s parents) couldn’t hide it anymore.” Leni dropped her father at the courthouse on the first Friday of his jail sentence.
Leni's world was rocked. One day she was navigating a roadmap to medical school - the next grappling with deportation. “Having to go to school the next day and realizing I’m undocumented, I’m not supposed to be here. It felt awful.”
Leni’s father decided to move the family back to Mexico while serving the terms of his court sentence. Each Friday and Saturday night, he would see ICE agents collect undocumented immigrants for deportation, and thought, why wait? And so, when Leni arrived home from school one afternoon, her mother was waiting with empty boxes, “choose what you like best, we’re going to Mexico.” Within weeks, Leni was passing over the same river that she crossed in an inflatable pool nearly 15 years earlier. This time, however, she was facing a world of uncertainty.
Leni and her family landed in Veracruz, a state approximately 150 miles east of Mexico City. Despite leaving an unstable economic situation in the U.S., Leni’s father made enough money from selling his landscaping business to finance the construction of a ranch home. That is, until the savings he’d placed in an account under Leni’s grandmother’s name vanished. The family still doesn’t know where the money went.
With no money, construction of the family’s Veracruz home came to a halt - but her father still owned the property outright, and on the property stood a single room with cement walls. So Leni, her sister, her father, and her mother - recently removed from suburban Florida - slept together on a dirt floor in Veracruz.
“If it’s in your hands to do something, do it.”
Leni’s reintegration to Mexican life is characteristic of generation 1.5. Although Leni is ethnically Mexican, her identity was distinctly American. Her view of the world, the comforts she knew, the relationships she nurtured, were a product of formative years spent in the U.S. As Leni describes it, her community is, “bicultural, but not yet binational.” Psychological hurdles, however, are only one piece of the returned migrant reality.
“Simply, the system doesn’t know what to do with you.” Although the number of adults returned to Mexico from the U.S. has sharply declined since the 2008 financial crisis - from 601,000 in 2010 to 207,000 in 2015 (Schultheis, 2017) - mass repatriation is still uncharted waters for the Mexican government. Programs designed to receive returnees and help them assimilate are resource strapped. Necessities, such as proper identification, employment, housing, and education, are simply unavailable.
Like other young returnees, Leni was ready to complete her schooling and pursue a career in Mexico. In Veracruz, she was on track begin her senior year of high school. However, during the application process, Leni was informed that her American education would not be recognized in Mexico - she would have to start over. Fortunately for Leni, her father was working in the mayor’s office, which allowed her to bypass bureaucratic obstacles and finish out high school.
For college-aged returnees, the university admission process is similarly prohibitive. The standardized entry exam for public universities is administered exclusively in Spanish and has portions dedicated to Mexican history. For returnees lacking Spanish language skills, it is a nonstarter. For many, future aspirations evaporate.
But as it was, a silver lining appeared. Despite the family’s misfortunes upon returning to Mexico, Leni would benefit from landing in Veracruz, where the local university operates autonomously and does not apply Mexican history in its admission exam. So with solid logic, reasoning, math, and English skills, Leni gained admission to the University of Veracruz.
Leni was pursuing an international business degree when a random, perhaps divine, encounter, changed her direction. As she often does, Leni was multi-tasking - sprinting to class and catching up with her mom on the phone - when a young man working at the local car wash stopped her. “You’re speaking English,” he said in a thick Chicano accent. The young man was a 22-year old returned migrant, deported from Chicago after running a stop sign. He washed cars during the week so that he could pursue an engineering degree on the weekends. It was the first time since returning from the U.S. that Leni felt she wasn’t alone. And in that moment, Leni, “decided I should stop throwing myself a pity party and see what I could do. If it’s in your hands to do something, do it.”
Leni picked up a major in anthropology with a focus on migration studies and joined Otros Dreams En Acción (ODA), an organization dedicated to the support of returned migrants. Leni's involvement with ODA led to a relationship with prominent migration researcher, Jill Anderson. It was during her time studying anthropology and Jill’s work that Leni discovered the social enterprise business model. Fundamentally, social enterprises are revenue generating businesses with a mission to improve social, cultural, economic, and/or environmental outcomes. It differs from non-profit or non-governmental organizations in that the outcomes are directly supported by revenue generation - such as the sale of goods and services - with the intent of becoming self-sufficient. For Leni, the potential for social impact using a business model was enticing.
So when Jill mentioned that a company called Hola Code had reached out to her looking for a head of recruitment, Leni was…excited. “I went online and check out their page and was like - woah! - this is the first social enterprise in Mexico that is focused on my community. I want to be a part of this.” Leni applied for the position, and two days after her 23rd birthday, received a congratulatory call. Five days later she was living in Mexico City.
Leni’s returned migration story is filled with twists and turns; misfortunes and strokes of luck; confusion and epiphany. It is also exceptional. For every Leni, there are thousands of returned migrants and members of generation 1.5 who were unable to complete their education and pursue a career. And unlike Leni, they continue to struggle with identity.
If you’ve made an insurance claim, dealt with shoddy internet, or booked a rental car in the last year, chances are you’ve spoken with a returned Mexican migrant. The influx of U.S. deportees to Mexico is a challenge for the Mexican government, but a golden opportunity for American telecommunications, medical, and insurance companies. With impeccable English skills and knowledge of American culture - sports, music, recreation - returned migrants represent a valuable labor pool. Cheap labor.
When returned migrants arrive in Mexico, they are recruited to work in call centers. And the opportunity is attractive. They can earn a living wage and interact with other native English speakers - other members of their community. In Mexico City’s call centers, which represent 30% of the national sector, over 90% of employees are returnees and deportees. For someone recently uprooted from their home, being surrounded by familiarity - by people who can relate - can make the transition more manageable.
However, despite the cultural and economic safety net, call centers don’t represent a way out for returned migrants. In fact, it looks more like a trap. A call center salary may be enough to put a roof over your head, but the prospect of upward social mobility is bleak. Bargaining power, limited by skills and education that don’t translate to your new home, is restricted. And although being surrounded by other returnees and deportees provides comfort, it slows the assimilation process.
When she was approached about starting a coding school, Hola Code founder, Marcela Torres, needed to do some research. With a background in social science and international development, she was committed to building a social enterprise. But what was the desired outcome? How would the business model be structured? Who and where were the affected community members?
Pilot and Turbulence
This is where Leni, generation 1.5, and Marcela’s paths intersected. Marcela read Jill Anderson’s Los Otros Dreamers, a “testimonio of life in Mexico after growing up in the United States,” and was moved. She saw the returned migrant community as a population bursting with potential, but lacking resources. Her goal was to help them improve social mobility, and of equal importance, solidify a new identity.
As with starting any business, Hola Code’s ascent wasn’t without turbulence. The business’ revenue structure is a bit…radical. Hola Code offers free tuition to its students. Actually, Hola Code pays its students to attend class. The design follows a successful social welfare program implemented by the Brazilian government in the early 2000’s called La Bolsa Familía. La Bolsa Familía strives to combat endemic poverty by providing small cash transfers to families on the condition that they, for example, send their children school and ensure proper vaccination. The program has been wildly successful in reducing poverty. So, Marcela decided that the only way to recruit potential students, keep them engaged, and ensure graduation, was to provide incentivized small cash transfers - if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid. To investors, the idea sounded crazy; to potential students, a scam. But for Marcela, it was the only way to make the Hola Code program work.
Luckily, not everyone thought Marcela’s sights were set too high. After a year of pitching to investors and potential partners, she found a conspirator in HackReactor cofounder Shawn Drost. Marcela and Shawn worked to adapt HackReactor’s 3-month bootcamp to a 5-month program for Mexico City’s returned migrant generation 1.5. The program is broken into three phases: a 5-week preparatory phase introduces students to the fundamentals of coding; a 12-week immersive phase takes students through intensive coding and problem solving sessions; and a 3-week job readiness phase helps students identify potential employers and navigate the interview process.
With a backing form HackReactor, Marcela was able to secure funding for Hola Code’s first “pilot” class. Now there was just one thing left to do - recruit students. Finding young adults to participate in a free software engineering bootcamp seems like a slam dunk. Leni and Marcela quickly realized this was not the case. There are thousands of members of generation 1.5 living in the nation’s capitol, but the Greater Mexico City area is home to over 23 million people. It’s like finding a popcorn kernel on the moon.
But this duo is not easy to discourage. Hours, days, and weeks of research later, the picture became clear - Hola Code’s students were working in call centers.
“I didn’t want to be automated. I wanted to learn how to automate.”
Hola Code’s product nearly sells itself. It’s an opportunity to gain skills for a long-lasting career in a booming industry, and get paid to do it. But for potential students, this was part of the dilemma - it just sounded too good to be true. Leni recalls interactions between Hola Code students after meeting each other for the first time, “oh, so you were crazy enough to believe it wasn’t a scam?”
Leni and Marcela were able to meet their recruitment goal for Hola Code’s inaugural class - 30 students. Some of these students left their jobs in call centers to pursue a more stable future. Other students joined because they like problem solving and working with computers. But after speaking with the students, it’s clear that they were all won over by Hola Code’s implementation of the small cash transfer model.
As Leni describes it, “Hola Code is here to welcome people back into Mexico. Hola Code is here to welcome people into technology. And Hola Code is here to improve social mobility.” It has adapted specifically for generation 1.5: admission doesn’t require revalidated personal identification or certificates of education, two significant hurdles for returned migrants entering the labor force. The social enterprise employs graduates from HackReactor’s U.S. program to teach the course, and counselors to help students figure out how to open a bank account, find housing, and obtain proper identification.
“We push students to be their own agents of change. We’re not doing charity.” Despite the weekly stipend and free tuition, Hola Code is not in the business of giving handouts. Upon graduation from the program, students are required to pay back company financing. However, repayment is contingent - if a student does not gain employment in software engineering, he or she does not owe back a dime. In essence, Hola Code is betting on itself. But if you really believe in something - as Marcela does, as Leni does, as do the mentors, counselors, and investors - then why not?
Leni once heard a hacker describe his reasoning for applying to HackReactor, “I didn’t want to be automated. I wanted to learn how to automate.” In a way, this serves as a euphemism for Hola Code’s returned migrant generation 1.5. Through education, and community building, these students are taking control of a life that was taken from them. And that is the true power of Hola Code.
Mohapatra, Sanket; Ratha, Dilip. 2010. Impact of the Global Financial Crisis on Migration and Remittances. Economic Premise; No. 2. World Bank, Washington, DC. https://www.openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/10210.
Schultheis, Ryan; Ariel G. Ruiz Soto. 2017. A Revolving Door No More? A Statistical Profile of Mexican Adults Repatriated from the United States. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.
Tilly, Chris. 2011. The Impact of the Economic Crisis on International Migration: A Review. Work, Employment, and Society. British Sociological Organization. Volume 25, Issue 4. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0950017011421799.