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COVER STORY : The Light of Day : A Spanish Literacy Programs are Brightening the Lives of Latino Immigrants, Teaching them to be Moe Politically Aware as they Learn to Read and Write

March 20, 1994|ROBERT J. LOPEZ

AT A KITCHEN TABLE IN HER SMALL WESTLAKE APARTMENT, Natividad Barrera pens the day's lesson: "Housing and health are a right," she writes in Spanish, moving slowly from one letter to the next, as sunlight filters through a window of the run-down flat.

Just as the sun brightens the dank room, so too has learning to read and write illuminated Barrera's life. Until a year ago, the 40-year-old Guatemalan immigrant was illiterate in her native Spanish.

Unable to write her name or read street signs, Barrera says she lived in virtual darkness. But her life changed after she enrolled in one of a handful of Spanish literacy programs for Latino immigrants in Central Los Angeles. She now reads and writes in Spanish at about the second-grade level and is enrolled in English as a Second Language classes.

For the most part, the literacy programs are run by immigrants themselves. Many of them were activists in Central America or Mexico who use techniques popularized in Latin American literacy campaigns. Stressing themes such as gangs, poverty and housing, the classes not only teach students to read and write, but also to become politically aware of issues facing their communities.

"We try to get them to realize that certain things are not acceptable," said Marcos Cajina, executive director of the Centro Latino de Educacion Popular, a Temple-Beaudry nonprofit organization that has been teaching Spanish literacy classes since 1991. "Changes do not happen overnight, but students begin to question issues and think critically."

Instructors say the literacy classes are the first step in providing immigrants with basic grammar skills needed to eventually read and write in English. They say the programs offer a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dismal situation.

A major federal study released in September concluded that nearly half of American adults are "at risk" of being left behind in the information age because they possess the barest reading and mathematics skills. The study's authors said one reason for the bleak findings is the large number of Latino immigrants who are not proficient in English.

Some educators criticize the Spanish literacy programs for setting students back in their efforts to learn English. Regardless of their age, the critics say, students should be immediately immersed in English language classes.

"There is no rhyme or reason why we can't teach in English," said Gloria Matta Tuchman, an outspoken proponent of English-immersion education and president of the Tustin Unified school board in Orange County.

But Spanish literacy advocates disagree.

"You just can't throw adults who have been illiterate for 20 or 30 years into a classroom and expect them to learn English," said Raul Anorve, a linguist with California Literacy Inc., a statewide nonprofit organization that has funded and set up reading programs for more than 50 years. "If you learn to read in your native language first, you then transfer the skills you acquire into a second language."

Though no hard numbers exist, literacy experts estimate that thousands of Latino immigrants in Central Los Angeles are unable to read or write not only in English, but also in Spanish. Statewide, a 1989 survey of 5,000 Latino immigrants found that they had completed an average of 6.5 years of school in their native countries. The survey was conducted for the California Department of Education to assess skill levels of Latinos who qualified for citizenship under the 1986 federal amnesty program.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, experts say, more than two-thirds of the residents are illiterate, having grown up in the countryside where work is valued over schooling or where few opportunities exist for those who want to learn. Many of those campesinos , or countryside workers, moved to Los Angeles during the immigration wave of the late 1970s and '80s.

Among them was Barrera.

One of eight children--four of whom died of childhood diseases--Barrera was relegated to domestic work as a child and teen-ager. Beginning at age 6, she awoke daily at 3 a.m. to grind cornmeal and make tortillas for her dad and two older brothers, who worked the cotton and coffee fields. Other chores, such as cleaning the family's dilapidated shack, cooking dinner and hauling water from a nearby well, would last into the evening, she said.

"My life has always been one of work," Barrera said, pointing to a thick scar across her neck from the yoke she wore to carry the buckets of water.

Barrera, who came to Los Angeles in 1976 and now makes ends meet by cleaning homes, said she wanted to go to school as a child, but her father refused to send her. "He said, 'You just want to learn to write letters to your boyfriends,' " Barrera recalled.

A member of a storefront evangelical church in Echo Park, Barrera is now able to read her Bible during services. Before, she said, she just stared blankly at the pages.

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