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Community News: Southeast

CUDAHY : Literacy in Spanish Language Taught

November 27, 1994|SIMON ROMERO

In the modest back room of the Cudahy Roman Catholic Church, Salvadoran immigrant Emma Amaya has held sway over the minds of 22 adults two nights a week for the past year: She is teaching them how to read.

Under flickering fluorescent lights, amid walls adorned with portraits of a suffering Christ and sermons copied in a child's cursive script, Amaya conducts her Spanish-language literacy class.

"I missed out on so much before I started this class a year ago," Helda Romero, 42, said in the gentle Spanish of her homeland of El Salvador, swallowing all her S's and slowly rolling her R's.

"All of my information came from television. Now I'm able to read newspapers like La Opinion, and learn more about what happens here and in El Salvador."

Romero came to Los Angeles 21 years ago as an illegal immigrant, fleeing civil strife that only recently ended. Six years ago she was granted amnesty when U.S. law allowed her to apply. Now she has become literate in her native language, Spanish, and soon hopes to learn English well enough to apply for citizenship.

"It's necessary (for the students) to learn how to read in Spanish first," said Amaya, adding that all the students plan to learn English because they want to become citizens. "First, for reasons of pride; second, because it makes learning English much easier."

Learning to read in their native language boosts self-confidence and gives them learning skills that will help with English, Amaya said.

"It's a beautiful gift to receive, learning how to read. Now there are so many more opportunities," said Romero, the mother of two sons, 16 and 8, both born in the United States.

This month the students completed their first year of lessons in the barren back room of the church they all attend. Some have been to more classes than others whose schedules conflict with the Monday and Thursday night meetings.

The students contribute what they can for the class by holding tamale sales or selling raffle tickets after church services.

Together, they have managed to save enough to purchase a few notebooks and pencils. Their texts are donated by student groups from universities in Mexico City and El Salvador.

The program they participate in is called El Proyecto de Educacion Popular del Sureste de Los Angeles (PESE), the Popular Education Project of Southeast Los Angeles. It is affiliated with California Literacy and the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California, two established literacy services that have generated community-based programs such as the one run by Amaya.

Using the same successful literacy methods that were used after the revolution in Cuba--and later throughout Latin America by liberation theologians--Amaya and her husband have breathed new life into the eyes and minds of immigrants who came to Los Angeles without knowing how to read the Bible or newspaper want ads.

"We don't teach people how to read using books or ideas that are foreign to them; that's too alienating much of the time," said Emma Amaya, who was a medical student in San Salvador before coming to Los Angeles six years ago. "We teach them in simple language with words and images and ideas that are relevant to their daily lives."

Amaya, along with five volunteers, compiled a list of "generating words." These nine words-- latino , indigena (indigenous), SIDA (AIDS), mojado (wet), derecho (right, as in the right of free speech), trabajo (work), pandilla (gang), familia (family) and comportamiento (behavior)--were chosen a year ago according to the relevance they held in the daily lives of the class members.

After learning the alphabet, students take each letter from one of their generating words, and use them to form other words. For example, with the word latino, they can use the letters to form luz (light), accion ( action ), tio (uncle), etc.

"It's a very effective system that's been used throughout the world to teach adults to read," Amaya said. "The words are intended to invoke thought and emotion in their lives," she said.

Once the students are able to recognize enough vocabulary words, they move on to use textbooks.

Using such a system also inspires discussion during the class, student Maria Aguilera, 64, said. "Now that we say the word latino so much and use it in our lessons, it's caused us to think about what it means; we've learned to leave our differences behind and realize what brings us together."

For a class with students from several regions of Mexico and El Salvador, that holds special significance, Amaya said.

"Latinos in California will never have power if we only talk about what makes us different," said Amaya, after the lesson had ended. "By learning how to read, a person begins to feel free; it's really the first step of liberation."

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