Adults overcome life without words at Centro Latino for Literacy

image In a bright blue classroom on MacArthur Park’s busy 8th street, Maria Hernandez is ready to learn. She has found a seat in the front row. Her books are neatly gathered on her desk, and she listens intently to her teacher’s instructions. Her teacher, Mr. Jorge, writes a sentence on the board.

With her red pen in hand, Hernandez copies the sentence down in her workbook. She is a model student and a grandmother — who came to the United States from El Salvador. Her whole life, Hernandez never knew how to read a word or even write her address.

“In my country, I couldn’t study. We lived in the countryside and the schools were very far. And because we needed to work, there wasn’t time for us to be sent so far to school,” says Hernandez in Spanish.

She was resourceful, like many newcomers to the U.S., and found a job at a restaurant where she worked for five years. But when new owners wanted her to take food orders, she couldn’t and the owners fired her.

Everyday hundreds of thousands of immigrants, most from Latin America, go to work in the gardens, restaurants and homes of Los Angeles. But an estimated 200,000 of them navigate the sprawling metropolis unable to read. Approaching its 20th year anniversary, Centro Latino for Literacy has been trying to change the reality illiterate immigrants face.

“We see ourselves as bridging that gap between the preliterate and English,” says Veronica Flores-Malagon, the programs manager at the nonprofit where Hernandez is studying.

When students first come to Centro Latino for Literacy they don’t learn English. They learn to read and write in Spanish. Illiterate Spanish-speakers often want to dive into English courses, but if they are unable to read in their own language they get left behind, says Flores Malagon.

“To advance in English, you have to have a strong foundation in your own language,” she says.

More than 3,000 students have gone through Centro Latino for Literacy courses. Most of those students are women.

“The root cause is poverty,” says Flores-Malagon. Illiteracy is more prevalent among women because large families often will only send the men to school, she adds.

The center offers two basic literacy classes. The first is a 100 hour computer-based program called Leamos, translated “We Read,” which can be completed from anywhere with internet access.

Once students pass that class they move onto Listos Functional, a lecture style course, which prepares students with skills like spelling, reading directions and buying groceries.

“They learn all these functional things you and I do everyday and we don’t even think about, like how does math and literacy factor into these everyday duties,” says Flores-Malagon.

Those everyday duties are challenging, even in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Many illiterate Latinos are ashamed to even tell relatives they can’t read or write.

“We want to help them develop self-esteem so they can help themselves, because we are just the vehicle and all the talents and motivations lie in the students,” says Flores-Malagon.

Most students are motivated to finish the courses because they want to learn English. It’s the number one reasons students come to the center. Hernandez says that’s her goal.

“Now when I finish this class, when I know all the letters in the alphabet, I’m going to study English, because I love English,” says Hernandez.

She’s taking her desire to learn to the streets. Hernandez is part of a group of students at the center called, promotores, who go out into the community and share information about the center.

“Sometimes I see people who are like how I was before. And so, I invite them and tell them, ‘let’s go,’ ” says Hernandez. “It’s beautiful because when you know a little bit, it gives you the will to keep studying.”

Here’s how you can get involved at Centro Latino for Literacy. Visit the website at or on Facebook or call their main line at 213-483-7753.

Historian reflects on a changed Compton

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News:


image When Stanford Professor Al Camarillo asks people if they know about Compton, he usually gets a response filled with stereotypes.

“Everybody knows about Compton,” Camarillo said. “I say, ‘What do you know about Compton?’ It’s a black ghetto. Gangsta Rap. The Crips and the Bloods. Alright, those are realities, but they are not the reality.”

For the past few years, Camarillo has been writing a book about the city to reveal a more nuanced picture — one that shows the city grapples with racial divides but also has very real hopes.

He’s starting his journey by taking a look at his own family’s experience in the city. His father moved to Compton in 1914, and Camarillo grew up in a Mexican-American barrio in the city in the 50s and 60s. He says his life growing up was intertwined with Compton becoming black.

“By the time I’m in middle school…realtors are trying to make their last stand, saying African Americans are not going to be allowed to cross the Alameda corridor, and of course that didn’t work after 1965 when the Watts riots blew the lid off,” Camarillo said.

When integration hit his high school, he found himself in a unique position. He went to school and was friends with the black student being bused to his white high school. Because he knew both the black and white students, administrators asked Camarillo to help mediate racial tensions. But, he says, the meetings over cookies didn’t help ease the divide.

“There was enormous reaction to the black kids coming to campus,” Camarillo said. “There were fights and graffiti, saying go back to the west. I mean, it was really bad,” he said.

In today’s Compton, the white community virtually doesn’t exist. While blacks are still heavily influential in the community, the majority ethnic group is now Latino. In 2000, Latinos outnumbered blacks in the community, and the 2011 census shows an even greater number of Latinos.

For his book, Camarillo gathered about 100 oral histories from residents in different ethnic groups and generations. He said the interviews with older black residents show that their perception of the community doesn’t mirror the stereotype embedded in popular culture.

“[For blacks] to break into a white community was an enormous achievement,” Camarillo said. “They speak of it like Nirvana. Compton is nirvana. You have to appreciate the nature of the oppression that blacks suffered to understand those comments.”

When he interviewed immigrant Latinos, Camarillo found they also moved to the city for a chance to buy an affordable home and build a family. Those are goals that transcend race or generation, says Camarillo.

“The reality of Compton is it’s populated by African American and Latino families that are trying to make the best of what they have…they are trying to make life livable amid a poor population…so that’s a fundamental human experience for people in Compton, whether it’s 60 years ago, 100 years ago or today,” Camarillo said.

Camarillo’s book is tentatively titled, “Going Back to Compton: Reflections of a native son on an infamous American city.” He says it should be done in about two years.

Black church studies a changed South LA

Second Baptist in South Los Angeles, one of the oldest black churches in Southern California, commissioned a neighborhood report to figure out how it can expand its mission of social justice to a community that looks very different than its congregation.

“This church [has] become a transitional Hispanic community,” said Pastor William Epps.

In the last few decades, South Los Angeles has shifted from a predominately black community to a majority Latino community. Latinos make up 88 percent of a community where streets are named after civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Most people in the area are immigrant Latino, with African-Americans making up only 11 percent of the neighborhood.


The stories of black and brown conflict, surfacing over cultural differences or perceived job competition, have often defined what this community has become.

Even the church has felt the challenges. It was once home to the civil rights movement on the West Coast. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the pulpit and the church helped fund legal briefs for the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of education, which paved the way for desegregation in schools.

“People used to walk to church,” said Epps. Now, most congregants commute to the church, often keeping it out-of-touch with the needs of the neighborhood.

Pastor Epps realized the difficulty continuing a social justice mission in a changed community when he took his job in 1987.

“I dubbed my years the ‘challenging years’ because it would be hard to maintain a viable congregation in a changing neighborhood,” said Epps, “and at the same time keep congregants excited about doing ministry that may not always benefit them personally.”

But as Second Baptist marks its 125th year in the community, the church is wondering how a congregation of commuters can spread its social justice ministry to a transformed neighborhood.

The church received a grant and commissioned USC’s Center for Immigrant Integration and Esperanza Community Housing to study the neighborhood, its needs and figure out ways the church might help.

“This is one of those neighborhoods where immigration is an issue, the environment is an issue and it all comes together, and it’s right there,” said Vanessa Carter, a researcher on the project.

The researchers looked at census data, environmental data, and surveyed more than 500 residents about living conditions in the area. The report, which was published earlier this fall, shows grim conditions in South Los Angeles.

The community is very poor, with families often living in overcrowded homes. The median household income in the Second Baptist neighborhood is $29,164, compared to the LA Metro figure at $54,993.

Heavy traffic from nearby freeways makes the area environmentally toxic. Residents are also mostly newcomers, often isolated from the rest of Los Angeles.

On average, residents are younger in this community compared to the rest of LA. They are also more mobile, only 7 percent of the people surveyed had lived in the community for more than 20 years. Most lived there ten years or less.

There are challenges to creating relationships with this community. Many don’t speak English and families often leave before reaching five years in the neighborhood. But the researchers on the project note similar experiences between the Black and Latino communities, where the church could build common ground.

“The way that incarceration affects the Black community and makes it hard to have a good paying job and pulls apart families, is the same way that deportation can affect a Latino family,” sais Carter. “They are different issues, but they have similar effects.”

While Pastor Epps finds the detailed statistics about the community revealing, the battles the neighborhood faces now, with poverty, poor housing and education, are not new to the church.

“The plight of Hispanics seeking full citizenship is similar to the plight of African Americans in the 60s. You can see a lot of the parallels,” said Epps.


The report recommended ways the church could serve the community. The church owns property in the area and the report suggested the church could work with other community groups and find ways to utilize the property for childcare or affordable housing.

“Anybody who cares about making the society right, making the society a place where everyone can progress, regardless of their ethnicity or immigration status, has to worry about the unity of Blacks and Latinos as we move forward,” said Manuel Pastor, director of Center for Immigrant Integration.

Second Baptist hasn’t made any concrete plans on how they will use the data to expand their mission of social justice. But, those on the project say, understanding the new neighborhood is good place to start.

“I think that the church has the political will and the moral will to work with other groups of like mind and like mission so that we can we advance the cause and make this community better than what it is,” said Pastor Epps.

Timeline of the Second Baptist Church:

Graphs courtesy of University of Southern California’s Center for Immigrant Integration

Former Obama supporters might vote Republican in next week’s elections

Listen to highlights from Obama’s speech Friday:


Groups that supported President Barack Obama in his bid for presidency two years ago are now swaying to vote for Republicans, according to a new CBS/New York Times poll released today.

Women, Independents and even low-income citizens are now more likely to vote for Republicans this mid-term election. But in the last weeks, Obama has traveled the states campaigning for Democratic candidates, attempting to convince voters to stay the course and repeat that the change he campaigned for in 2008 does not happen overnight.

Obama landed in Los Angeles last Friday to rally voters to head to the polls for Senator Barbara Boxer and the Democratic slate, drumming the same message. Boxer and an array of Democrats including candidate for governor Jerry Brown, candidate for state attorney general Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined Obama at the University of Southern California.

With the backdrop of sunny skies, and an audience of 30,000 people, Obama addressed the crowd with the charisma and message of hope and change that launched him into the White House two years prior.

“You think, boy, we are not moving as quick as we want,” said the president amid cheers. “I understand that, but don’t let anybody tell you that our fight hasn’t been working. Don’t let them tell you that we are not making a difference. I need you to keep on believing. I need you to keep hoping. And if you knock on some doors and make phone calls and keep marching and keep organizing, we won’t just win this election. We are going to restore the American dream, for not just some, but for every, every, everybody in this great land.”

Proposition 19 lacks funds, not buzz


Listen to the audio story:


A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California shows that 51 percent of California voters oppose legalizing marijuana.

With just a week away from voting time, the Yes on 19 campaign says it is stepping up its efforts.

But both campaign sides have had little capital compared to other campaigns this election cycle. With less money, the campaign is focusing on reaching voters online instead of on televesion.

Recently, the campaign for legalizing marijuana just got a monetary push from investor George Soros. He donated $1 million to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Stephen Gutwillig is one of the alliance’s spokespersons. He declined to give details about Soros and the donation. He did say, however, that the alliance plans on using the money for voter mobilization and public education.

It is a little late in the game to film and televise advertisements. So far, there is only one pro-legalization marijuana advertisement done by the Yes on 19 campaign.

Tom Angell is the spokesperson for Yes on 19. He says the advertisement originally played in Los Angeles, but it recently expanded to Bakersfield, Fresno and Chico. The campaign also purchased a “predicted dialer.” That is a gadget that calls about five people at once, and when someone picks up the phone, it connects to a volunteer.

Their so-called “grassroots campaign” will be focusing more on communication though Facebook and blogs. They also signed up hundreds of volunteers to man the phones. Expect a phone call this week.