In Santa Ana, Literacy May Begin in
October 20, 2003
As the sun sets, students at desks perch over photocopies of a story about a
curious elephant, focused more on a drawing of a playful animal than the words
A volunteer teacher, Aurelio Sanchez, slowly reads to them in Spanish the
300-word children's tale and asks them questions to gauge their comprehension.
Then he summons the immigrant students to write sentences about the tale.
It's no easy task for the two homemakers, three factory workers and a gardener.
After a day of work, they are trying to catch up to their U.S.-born elementary
These native Spanish speakers, after decades of cloaking the embarrassment of
illiteracy, are now learning to read and write — in Spanish.
They've been given the chance through a free class offered by the Santa Ana
Unified School District at Spurgeon Middle School and supported by the Mexican
consulate and the goodwill of a local resident volunteer.
The class is intended to prepare them for later classes in English. Upon
completion, they receive a primary-school education certificate from the Mexican
government, and confidence to seek better jobs.
The students repeat their mantra that all they want is to get ahead, salir
Trying to write the sentences Sanchez has asked for, student Margarita Mujardin
struggles with each word, often erasing her pencil marks. She comes up with four
lines of text, but some are not full sentences. She doesn't realize that
sentences need verbs.
"I am trying because I feel like it's never too late," she said. "For years,
I've done little more than get by."
The school district doesn't fund the instruction but for the last three years
has provided a classroom and says it will do the same at 11 other campuses if
more volunteer teachers come forward. The curriculum is provided by the Mexican
consulate, through the Mexican Institute of Adult Education.
"This is a program that draws parents into the circle of the [school] district.
It makes them see the importance of education," said Catalina Cruz, the
district's bilingual curriculum specialist.
Illiteracy among Spanish-speaking adults affects their relationship with their
children on two levels, officials note.
"Our parents miss a connection with their children," said Cruz, because they are
unable to help with homework.
And because children have better command of written language than their parents,
they are often thrust into the role of handling family finances or resolving
problems with utilities and other daily issues, she said.
But the district has struggled to enlist more adults in its Spanish literacy
"There is a lot of shame and the students are also very tired from their work,"
said Sanchez, the teacher.
And disseminating information about the program has to be done by word of mouth,
Sanchez said, because fliers are ineffective.
Illiteracy plagues more than the immigrant population, said Marcia Tongate,
program administrator for literacy services for the Orange County Public Library
Nationally, 27% of adults are functionally illiterate, meaning their inability
to read or write inhibits their daily lives. The figure is probably higher in
Southern California because of the region's large immigrant population, said
Tongate, who administers literacy classes in English only.
Tongate said that 59% of the library's adult students are English learners who
graduated from high school in California but still cannot read or write English
She said she was unaware of the school district's class, and disapproved of its
"Learning in Spanish does not help a student learn English," she said. "It just
slows learning. To spell in Spanish does not teach English."
But Sanchez said his class invites unschooled adults into a world of learning
that they might avoid if instruction were in English. The program leads students
to obtain a certificate from the Mexican National Institute for Adult Education,
indicating they have finished elementary school.
Sanchez hopes his students will continue learning through night classes offered
by Santa Ana College Continuing Education. The college and its sister campus,
Santiago Canyon College, offer English as a second language to about 21,000
continuing education students each semester at various locations, including
Spurgeon Middle School.
"We are opening the door and we are doing it in a language they can speak but
cannot read or write," Sanchez said. "We hope they will continue on, for better
jobs, for more opportunity."
Sanchez encourages his students to spread the word about overcoming illiteracy.
Three of his six current students knew one another before taking the class.
Marino Nava, a factory worker, said he recruited his brother, Floriberto, and a
neighbor. "I told them we were living like blind people because we could not see
so many things," Nava said. "But at first they would not listen."
The brother agreed only after his boss at a door factory realized he couldn't
read directions and suggested the class. Homemaker Petra Hernandez, 47, said she
also is tired of not being able to read or write. She spent her childhood
cooking for her father's farm workers in her native El Salvador, then raised her
children in Santa Ana while working several jobs.
"I would never say what I did not know," she said. "I would fake it and pray. It
left me with a great resentment for my parents because my brothers and sisters
did go to school."
At a previous factory job, she struggled to organize parts because she had
trouble reading their identification numbers.
Now on the path of education, Hernandez said she wants to become a dental
"This is a first step. I'm so glad I took it. I know it's embarrassing to many
people to start," Hernandez said. "But we have to. It's the only way to get