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Back in Mexico City, migrants seek a better life through coding

Ninna Gaensler-Debs
Hola Code students lived in many different parts of the U.S., but most spent time in California, Florida, and Texas


When migrants are deported, or return to Mexico City by choice, their job opportunities can be limited, and social stigma can make them feel isolated. Hola Code aims to change all that — through coding.

Miriam Alvarez is standing at a long table, examining a pile of boxed sandwiches with about 20 other hungry classmates. While they bicker good-naturedly, the sun sets over an incredible view of Mexico City.

We’re on the 14th floor of a skyscraper, all gleaming surfaces and modern furniture. Miriam and the others move fluidly between English, Spanglish, and Spanish, offering each other tuna sandwiches or tortas de setas.

Miriam and the others are here to become software engineers at a coding boot camp called Hola Code. They’ve only known each other for a little over two months — but you can feel the camaraderie, Miriam says.

“Everyone has so many stories,” she tells me, shaking her head in wonderment.

That sense of community comes from what they have in common: Miriam and her classmates all left Mexico for the United States as children, and have returned years later.

Socially conscious tech

“Technology is underrepresented, and this is something that we're all familiar with,” founder and CEO of Hola Code Marcella Torres tells me. “There's not enough diverse voices creating technology.”

Torres was approached by Connovo, a social-venture “builder” that seeks out socially conscious projects around the world and tries to replicate them in Mexico. They wanted her help to launch a coding bootcamp — so she designed a five-month intensive that starts with the very basics.


Credit Ninna Gaensler-Debs
Javier and Hebor work together on a 24-hour ‘sprint’, just one of the many intensive assignments at Hola Code

“We literally teach them, ‘this is a computer’ on the first day,” Torres says. “And after five weeks they can handle HTML, CSS, and the fundamentals of JavaScript.”

By the end, students are fully trained software engineers, with portfolios and interview training to boot.

In the Bay Area, a boot camp like this could cost more than $20,000.

But here? These students are paid to learn — they get a cash transfer of the equivalent of $270 every week, so that they can focus on studying and not have to pursue other work.

Then, once they find a job and are earning a salary, they start paying back their tuition.

“So it becomes sort of like a pay-it-forward system,” Torres explains.

For now, before Hola Code is financially sustainable, the money has been fronted by angel investors and an impact-investment firm.

“I think when I say we are eliminating barriers — I think we're destroying them,” Torres tells me proudly. “All of the leaderships positions of this company are taken by women,” and, she adds, “none of the developers ... are white heterosexual males.”


The struggle of returning

When Torres was developing the program and researching issues facing young people in Mexico, she was surprised to learn that returned migrants can often face intense social and economic challenges.

“These young people are bilingual, bicultural,” she tells me. “So I didn't understand, it made no sense.”

Torres learned that often the issues for returnees begin the moment they step off the plane.

Abi Hernandez is one of the students at Hola Code bootcamp. He says when he got off the plane two years ago, he had no way to contact people, so waited for his cousin in the terminal for six hours.

“When you come back, you really feel like you're by yourself,” Hernandez tells me. “Sometimes, even if you had a cellphone, it probably wouldn't work here. You can't communicate. You can't tell your family. Hey, I’m OK.”

Hernandez says it was difficult to feel at home in Mexico; he faced stigma for speaking differently, for having tattoos. He worked for a year in construction and then got hired at a call center.

Many returnees end up at call centers, who need bilingual speakers to speak to customers. But, this job didn’t pay Hernandez very much — only a little more than the Mexican minimum wage.

He was thinking of his wife and three kids back in Florida when he signed on to join Hola Code.

“Once I graduate, I'll be able to work remotely,” he says, looking hopeful. “Software engineering, it's everywhere. You can go anywhere and do it, right. I can be close to my kids and do it.”

Hernandez is hoping this career will not only open doors to a better life for him and his family, but also for a way back to living in the U.S.

Some of the people in this program left voluntarily, and others were deported.

Many left behind family in the States, such as Miriam Alvarez. One of her brothers is still living in Florida with their grandparents.

“My two little brothers, they were born in the U.S.,” Miriam tells me. “And I always thought like okay, I was like them, I guess. Mexican-American.”

Alvarez was brought to the United States when she was a baby. She had a happy childhood in Florida, and always felt like she belonged. So when she found out she was undocumented at age 14, her identity was shattered.

She and her family moved back to Mexico less than a year later.

“It was kind of like, hard, or like, a little bit of identity crisis,” she says. “I guess you could say, it's like, if I'm not this — then what am I?”

That’s a sentiment that a number of the students at Hola Code share. Several tell me that in the U.S., they were told they were Mexican, not American.

But in Mexico? They feel like they’re not Mexican enough.

They don’t quite talk the right way, or dress the right way, or know the same references. So having a community of people who get that feeling here at Hola Code means a lot to Alvarez.

And to Hernandez, too.

“We have the same experience,” he tells me, “so having to to be with these people all the time, it doesn't make you feel so much homesick as you did before.”

International partnerships

That connection between the students is partly what makes Tony Phillips think that Hola Code will be successful.

Phillips the co-founder of Hack Reactor, a popular, Bay Area-based coding school, that shared their curriculum with Hola Code.

“The pay-forward model is very cool,” Phillips says, “and what that relies on is the goodwill of the students once they get jobs, and they feel a sort of responsibility to pay that back.”

He tells me that he’s optimistic about the likelihood of people paying their tuition back.

Phillips is generally wary of partnerships with other organizations, because of issues in the past. One Korean school, for example, had difficulties because the students didn’t speak English.

“When you try to fix your code that's broken, the first thing you do is you go on the internet, and you search,” Phillips explains. “There tons of resources in English for JavaScript related things, not so much in Korean, and so if you don't speak English, your ability to fix your code yourself becomes really limited.”

Hola Code is taught in English, which he thinks is important, and he’s proud of this partnership. Phillips thinks the industry and the technology are eager to employ these bilingual students.

He tells me that people are more willing to hire remote teams — because tools such as video conferencing are so much better now than even five years ago.

The fact that Mexico’s time zones are more aligned with the U.S. is also a big help, because people can work on a similar schedule.

And ultimately, it’s those considerations that make Tony believe this socially minded business will actually work.

“I do have to deal with the constraints of running a business, and so if I can tie things that I believe about on a personal level, if I can turn them into assets as a business, then that will really drive the social change,” Phillips says.

A bright future

Credit Ninna Gaensler-Debs
Hola Code is located in a WeWork co-working space in Mexico City on the 14th floor

  Marcela Torres says there’s lots of interest in hiring Hola Code graduates, both from international companies, and within the growing Mexico-based tech scene as well. She says that Mexico City has a booming startup scene, particularly in the financial technology sector.

Tonight, after everyone finishes their sandwiches for dinner, it’s back to work. The students are currently working in “sprints,” which means they have 48 hours to solve a specific information-storage problem.

The first Hola Code cohort is almost finished with their program, and Torres and her team are already recruiting for the next one, which will start in June.

It’s a little dizzying to consider the world that allows this program to exist.

“We train people that grew up in the U.S. but are back in Mexico, and then they get employed by companies that are based in the U.S. working offshore in Mexico. Isn't that crazy?” she asks. “It's kind of like taking advantage of the scenario ... and making something optimistic and powerful that can change lives.”

Torres says, these return migrants are vulnerable, but are also resilient people with valuable skills.

With a little investment of time and money, the tech world is starting to see that.


Crosscurrents Mexico Citytechnology
Ninna Gaensler-Debs is a reporter and editor for Crosscurrents. Since 2012, Ninna has worn a variety of hats at KALW - she was both a producer and event planner for Localore project Hear Here. Ninna also programmed and organized the Sights and Sounds live events - two in Bayview, and most recently, one in East Oakland.