Center Stage: Benemerito! Church's vanguard school in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The Church's Centro Escolar Benemerito de las Americas (Meritorious Center School of the Americas, known as CEBA), which might be described as the "BYU of Mexico," has a growing influence that has spread across the length and breadth of this land during the past three and a half decades.

Founded in 1964, the preparatory school celebrated its 35th anniversary this year with a large reunion of students and teachers. It is through the thousands of former students such as these that Benemerito's influence continues to grow. Much of this influence is within the Church, with 55 percent of the students having filled missions and 75 percent having remained active in the Church. But the influence also goes beyond Church circles. Some 80 percent have attended university-level education, and Benemerito is believed to be the preparatory school with the most students enrolled at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma of Mexico (UNAM), the largest university in Mexico.

Students far and wide have expressed appreciation for their education at Benemerito. "CEBA is my second home," said Carlos Zepeda Reynaga, general director of Otis Elevators in Mexico, a former student who also has an MBA from BYU.

"All of my development has been based on the teachings and help that I received there from excellent teachers and leaders. These dedicated people helped me to realize my dreams. My appreciation is extensive to all who made possible my experience at Benemerito and later BYU."

Another graduate of Benemerito, Patricia Juarez R., manager of business integration software in Mexico for IBM, said, "The Book of Mormon says 'Learn wisdom in thy youth.' (Alma 37:35.) That which we received in CEBA — the education that complemented the teachings of our parents — was basic to helping me get where I am now. Each step in life is a product of these two parts: my family and my foundation in the Church. . . . Benemerito, my teachers and my companions, will remain in my memory forever."

The school, with a motto of "Intelligence, Power, Light and Truth," was named after a revered patriot, don Benito Juarez Garcia, president of Mexico from 1861-65. The campus was erected on Rancho Arbolillo, an old ranch of some 90 acres then on the northern outskirts of Mexico City. Classes began Feb. 17, 1964, with 125 students and 15 teachers. An elementary school was also started.

Today, more than 2,100 students from throughout Mexico, with 120 teachers, are receiving an education based on gospel principles.

Felix Martinez Decuir, general director of the school since 1994, said, "I am one of the many witnesses of the beneficial influence this school has had for thousands and thousands of students and employees of Benemerito.

"Evidently, Benemerito is a great seedbed for missionaries and for leaders in the Church, the community and the business world. The school strengthens students in three areas: first, in religious teachings that are gained in daily seminary classes and through frequent addresses of Church leaders; second, in academic instruction that helps each student to be self-sufficient, and to achieve excellence in their university-level studies; and in their professional lives.

"The youth we serve are excellent; we love them and feel a great respect for each one of them."

Work and service are taught as twin principles at the school, he said. Employment is provided for about 450 students who need financial assistance. They help maintain the offices, library, buildings and gardens. Some 600 scholarships of various types, mostly of service, are also given by the school, along with those given by the state university and government through the government's newly formed Secretary of Education.

"The youth understand the importance of work in their lives, and they learn responsibility because they are required to obtain and keep their scholarships through service," said Francisco Santiago, director of the Department of Financial Aid. "After a year or two, many are permitted to have a job outside the school, becoming self-supporting. This allows them to save for a mission and later enables them to study in a university."

About one-fourth of the students are involved in sports or artistic pursuits, said Abraham Martinez, director of the Department of Culture and Sports.

This department sponsors activities after school for students to join teams and performing groups. Benemerito's sports teams have won championships in local, regional and even a few national competitions in soccer, football, baseball, basketball and volleyball. Other students join artistic performing groups, such as the Banda de Guerra, Porristas, the Rondalla, the Symphony Orchestra, the Choir and Ballet Folklorico. These groups have had presentations in distinguished settings in Mexico City and nearby states. While also performing frequently on campus, each group has toured various parts of the republic and some have been to the United Sates and Guatemala.

"To have as much support for students who are developing their artistic talents and appreciation for the culture, as for those in sports, strengthens the student community," said Brother Martinez.

Academics are also emphasized, and one indication of that is the 90,000-volume library. Currently being remodeled, the facility has 175 tables and 800 seats in multiple rooms. In the same building are two chapels and offices of the general administrators.

Because most of the students are from distant areas, housing is provided for 1,065 students. The students live in small buildings that each accommodate 18 young men or young women. A resident family lives in each building and supervises and helps each student in each activity, and in school work, Church work and personal life. These students clean and maintain their own rooms. They are also members of a student stake, made up of eight wards, one of which is English-speaking. Church services are held on campus.

All enrolled students take seminary daily, and institute classes are provided for older students living nearby.

Francisco J. Barron, director of the seminary and institute at Benemerito, said, "Without a doubt, seminary and institute teaching has matured and is becoming more effective as time passes. Challenges continue to exist but the students continually receive better classes, and we as teachers are always looking for ways to enhance spirituality."

An additional discipline was started in 1994. The Agricultural Institute, housed in what was the principal building of the old Rancho Arbolillo, has a yearlong technical, professional and business course in horticulture. Miguel Santos, director, said the institute has already achieved many of its original objectives. The center is a vanguard in development of agriculture, and 90 percent of the graduates are currently employed, working either for themselves or for agricultural companies. "Others have wanted to specialize and continue studying," he said. "Now we have the third class, of which 21 are returned missionaries. Among our students are two from as far away as Tierra del Fuego, Argentina."

Also, older students and returned missionaries can receive training in English and in some of the trades such as mechanical work, welding or with computers.

Elder Lino Alvarez, a former General Authority who served in the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 1992-1997, is the Church Educational System director for Mexico.

"The school of the Church, Benemerito de las Americas, has for many years been a great instrument in the hands of the Lord to do His work in Mexico, in His way and by His power," said Elder Alvarez. "This school has accomplished a work of first importance by providing missionaries and leaders for nearly 200 stakes and 18 missions in the nation. An enormous number of young men and women and, obviously, their families, have been blessed spiritually, intellectually, socially and physically."

Efrain Villalobos Vazquez, a teacher administrator from 1964-1990, said, "I am a witness to the birth of CEBA, and have participated intensely in its growth, which was a unique experience.

"Now, as recorder of the Mexico City Mexico Temple, I have the opportunity to greet many of my former students. Many have filled missions and some are leaders of stakes, and are professionals. Others have entered with great excellence into the business world, or into politics."

He noted that recently, he met in the temple a former student who had been less-active for many years, but who had returned to Benemerito for the school's 35th anniversary last February. "While there, I decided to return to the Church," she told Brother Villalobos. "Today, I am being sealed to my husband. I am very happy!"

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