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Valley Perspective

A Notion of Latinos as Nonreaders Is Put to Rest

A book fair and a festival give lie to a damaging cultural stereotype.

September 13, 1998|MARY HELEN PONCE | Mary Helen Ponce is a Sunland writer who teaches literature and creative writing at Cal State Los Angeles

The debate about literacy among Latinos has, in recent times, reached a new intensity. Educational groups that once decried the Latino population's lack of initiative in learning to read and write are today witnessing a resurgence of interest in literacy.

At last month's meeting at the Pacoima branch library to discuss its expansion, more than 100 people attended; some Latinos--speaking through an interpreter provided by Councilman Richard Alarcon--gave input.

Last year, I attended the yearly book fair held at Telfair Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima, where the vast majority of students are Latino. I volunteered to help in return for first crack at new children's books. A San Francisco publisher was urging me to write for young audiences; I needed to see what kids were reading.

*

I arrived at the appointed hour; once I hiked to the site (bungalow 64, which seemed miles away), I was assigned as cashier.

As we--parents and volunteers--waited for the lunch recess and the onslaught of eager kids, I wandered the room, accessing the many objects--posters, book covers, erasers--that filled one side. But what most held my interest was the bookcases brimming over with libros, books of different colors, sizes and topics: adventure, mystery, science fiction and outer space (a favorite, I'm told, of young readers).

Many were written in both Spanish and English; some reflected Latino culture with colorful illustrations of life in Mexico. All were reasonably priced.

Within minutes a faint buzz caught my ear. The students were on their way! Shelves were quickly checked; helpers appointed to strategic spots near the entrance, others to check the accuracy of the posted prices. I was impressed by how everyone worked together.

Folks had these book fairs down to a science!

The sounds of children awoke me from a book-reverie; electricity filled the air. In came the first batch of kids. The boys went straight for the posters (a favorite was of a Dallas Cowboy), while the girls took stock of the offerings.

From my vantage spot at the front, I watched as kids counted pennies; crumpled dollars were clutched tight as they lined up to pay.

*

While the kids shoved and pushed, I could not help but think back to when I was a kid and being literate was perceived by educators as alien to Latino culture. In fact, I once heard a librarian say--in a voice that reeked of ethnocentrism--that books were not part of Mexican culture! And yet, here were kids with little money, spending their pennies on books!

It is said Latinos don't buy books. We are not literate; few of us read. Rather, we spend our money on trivia.

So, how to explain the second Los Angeles Latino Book and Family Festival, held just recently, which (as did the first) drew a huge crowd? What to make of the happiness in the brown faces as they latched onto a coveted book?

My own children trudged to the Sunland-Tujunga library (followed by our dogs, Brutus and Pony) on a weekly basis. We were on friendly terms with Mrs. Shonberger, the children's librarian who knew well that my sons--Mark and Ralph--doted on dinosaur books; their sister, Ana, read and reread Leo Politi's "Rosa," about a Mexican girl living in Echo Park. Were they an exception? Hardly.

*

Around me the line formed. Pedro, a friendly boy, asked that I watch his poster and three erasers while he pondered how to spend his last 50 cents, money earned by helping out at home. Vanessa, a girl with curly black hair, told of her favorite book, "Julie of the Wolves," by Jean Craighead George, of a girl almost her age, which she's read three times.

The spirit of adventure found in this book opened up a different world for Vanessa.

I left when the book fair was in full swing. I turned over the cash box to my replacement.

As I walked across the cracked asphalt to my truck, I thought of los ninos, the children, and the notion of Latinos as nonreaders that was being put to rest.

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