In California almost one out of ten Spanish speaking immigrants never had the opportunity to learn to read and write in their native language. Los Angeles County hosts twelve percent (222,230) of Spanish-speaking adult immigrants (American Community Survey 2009-2011). These are people who endured severe poverty and isolation in their youth and generally have   fewer than three years of formal education. Many work hard in low-paying jobs; working as gardeners, busboys, maids, nannies, janitors and factory workers. Many cannot perform basic math skills like adding or subtracting. Santa Monica Public Library is changing lives with a new program to teach basic literacy in Spanish. Soon adults in our community will be saying what other newly literate Spanish speakers have been saying after learning to read, “Ya tengo ojos.” Now – I have eyes. Now – I can read the street signs. Now – I am independent. Now – I can move ahead.

In July of 2016, Santa Monica Public Library was selected along with ten other libraries in California to pilot Leamos (Let’s Read) @ the Library.  This literacy course teaches Spanish speakers, who never had the opportunity to attend school, to learn how to read and write. The program serves as a pre-ESL (English-as-a-Second Language) course approved by the California Department of Education, for use in California’s adult schools as a primer course to prepare students to learn English. Research shows that illiteracy in native Spanish makes it difficult for adults to learn English. As a result, many drop out of ESL classes in frustration. Leamos is a first step towards learning English.

Non-literate adults are often excluded from participating in most community activities. Illiteracy creates barriers to reading notices about events, letters, using public transportation and the ability to complete health forms. The practical implications of illiteracy, combined with shame and stigma, can result in vulnerability. Leamos programs help individuals impacted by illiteracy to overcome these obstacles, experience success and connect with their community.

The program has been active at the Pico Branch Library in Santa Monica since August 2016. As each week goes by, the students learn and discover new words. They have learned to recognize the words “milk” and “grapes.” For those of us who can read, these words might seem insignificant. To the Leamos program participants, these two simple words have a lot of meaning. Our students had tears in their eyes once they learned to read those words because as they said, “we will now know how much they cost at the store when we see the sign with the price.”

Three weeks ago, students realized that they had passed their first evaluation milestone after reading an entire story. Fast forward 20 weeks into the program – Library staff are beginning to see students’ growing confidence and excitement as learning progresses. The participants who came through our doors asking for help can now write their name or read simple words and even read their first books.

When adults learn to read they find their ‘voice’ and ability to use it. During a program evaluation, it became clear that the students’ journey to community engagement begins with what Centro Latino has labeled as “student voice and sense of self,” defined as the degree to which an individual is confident in his/her self-identity and value to others. As one student shared, “I didn’t talk before because I couldn’t read and write. Now I talk. Before I had pena (shame); now I have orgullo (pride).” Students are using their newly found ‘voices’ in their roles as family members too – through improved communication with spouses and ability to participate in household management.

Many share that they have overcome anxiety about traveling outside of their immediate neighborhoods. They can read signs, bus route information and other directions which literate adults take for granted. They can read labels and prices at the supermarket and make better choices for their families.

With assistance from staff at the Pico Branch Library, local Spanish speakers who never had opportunity to attend school, will now be able to learn, read and write in Spanish.  This will provide the foundational skills and confidence to learn English and read with their children, get better jobs and engage more fully in their communities. The program is free of charge. If you know someone who would benefit from the program, or if you would like more information, contact Silvia Cisneros, Branch Manager at (310) 458-8684. The Pico Branch Library is located at 2201 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404.