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.

Local groups call for immigration reform

Listen to the audio story from Annenberg Radio News:


Immigration reformers and community members gathered outside Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church Tuesday morning at a news conference held by the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition.

“We are not animals,” said Helen DeLeon, one of the women speaking at the event. “We are humans, who have rights. And our children have rights. They have the right to be in Congress someday, to run for President someday.”

Many other local groups came to show their support. Peta Lindsay is with the ANSWER Coalition.

“I’m here as an organizer, as a woman, and more specifically as a black woman to urge Obama to keep his promise and implement comprehensive immigration reform now,” Lindsay said. “Black and Latina Women share a common cause. When it comes to poverty statistics, infant mortality and joblessness, women from both communities are racing to the bottom particularly during this economic crisis.”

The group’s main goals are comprehensive immigration reform and an end to immigration raids. Rosa Posades of the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition called for overall immigration change but with special attention to women’s needs.

“The government should have a conscience,” said Posades. “They were born from women, too, so don’t be unfair to us.”

A specific problem raised was the breakup of families, of mothers and their children, when undocumented immigrants are deported. The Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition calls for less harsh punishment for people in the country illegally and more lenient requirements for legal immigration.

On the other side is Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. He believes the United States should limit the rights of immigrants.

“Overall what we would want is to try and have an immigration policy that doesn’t flood the unskilled labor market, that doesn’t create so many strains for our schools and health care system, and one of the main ways to do that is to bring the numbers down on both the legal and illegal side,” Camarota said.

Camarota does not believe there will be any big changes made on the immigration front at the congressional level, but he is not averse to trying to reach a compromise with the community that demands reform.

“Maybe one this is we want to have an amnesty for some fraction of the illegal immigrants who are here, maybe Dream Act recipients, and in return we reduce the number of legal immigrants coming in, accordingly,” Camarota said.

In the meantime, the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition continues to garner support for its April 16 march in downtown Los Angeles.

Becoming an American Citizen

When Carmit Katey is sworn in as an American citizen, she thinks she will look and feel like a new person, despite having lived in the United States already for eight years.

“I have to take pictures because my family is waiting to see me before and after,” Katey said. “For me, inside it is [different] and I think it will show outside.”

And Katey will not be alone in her excitement. The 36-year-old Venice woman from Israel will be one of 5,862 taking the Oath of Allegiance at the citizenship ceremony.

For most, it is the end of a year’s long process from arrival to permanent resident status to citizenship.

Watch the stories of some of America’s newest citizens:

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Local immigration attorney Eric Azarian explained that the application for citizenship usually only takes six months, but just the path to become a permanent resident, either through employment or marriage, can take decades.

He believes current citizens should witness the citizenship ceremony to see how happy the newest Americans are when they finally become naturalized and to understand what we take for granted.

“You see people from all over the world,” said Azarian. “It’s a moving experience for most of them.”

The naturalization process was originally set down in the Immigration and Nationality acts of 1952 and 1965.

It typically takes about six months and $675 in government fees for people with green cards, meaning immigrants with permanent residence status, to go from submitting the application to taking the oath.

To qualify, most applicants must have been a permanent resident for five years and meet other eligibility requirements. Residents married to citizens can qualify after three years.

imageCarlos Garcia of West Covina became a citizen in 2008 right before the presidential elections. He believes voting is the most important privilege new citizens receive.

“Now I’m working for this country,” said Garcia. “I pay my taxes. I’m doing my best to better myself and better the country because I’m part of this country now,” Garcia said. “[Without citizenship] you don’t get to complain. You don’t get to vote is the main thing.”

Other citizen benefits include being able to help bring family members into the country, traveling with a U.S. passport, and becoming eligible for federal jobs or elected offices, most of which require citizenship.

Garcia says he knows too many residents who haven’t become citizens and should be taking advantage of the benefits.

“Anybody can take their residence away, but citizenship is hard to take away from you,” added Garcia.

Those who are applying must take a civics test covering the history and government of the U.S. and also an English language exam. (Try out a short self-test here).

Applicants are also required to show they have “good moral character.” They must demonstrate this by proving they have not committed the following examples of crimes: crime against a person with intent to harm, habitual drunkenness, illegal gambling, polygamy, terrorist acts or persecution because of race, religion or national origin.

After submitting the required documents and passing their exams and interviews, candidates must be willing to state they will “support and defend the United States and our Constitution” by taking the Oath of Allegiance. The moment the Oath is taken marks the time when a person becomes a citizen.

An interesting factoid about the Oath is that candidates can take a modified oath, if they can prove in writing that their objections to the current oath are valid. Also, if applicants hold any hereditary titles or positions of nobility, they must renounce them at the oath ceremony.

Azarian has been working in immigration for 37 years and has never heard of someone requesting a modified oath. He jokingly added most people will say anything because they are just happy to get their citizenship finally.

The attorney said that it’s been satisfying helping people through the long process to gain permanent residence and ultimately through the final step of gaining citizenship.

“It’s very gratifying,” said Azarian. “Every day you meet new people from all over the world. You’re helping them out and advancing their lives.”

For Katey, the ceremony will be about finding a sense of belonging in a place where she has already lived for years.

“It’s almost like a new page in my life even though I’ve lived here for all this time,” said Katey. “This is going to be a new life — a new me — because I am new. I’m American.”

No home to call my own

The author of this piece has requested to remain anonymous.

By a student at Crenshaw High School

Do you know how it feels to lose a parent not to death but the government taking them away? Or to have to grow up with people you know but really don’t like? Well, I don’t live with either of my parents or my family members; instead I had to join someone else’s. None of us are really related but somehow we call each other family. The government or foster care want us to call each other family, but the people I live with are not.

I had a family but the police took my mother away, and they have had her for two years now. They just keep changing her court date and blowing her off because she was not born here. And my father lives in another state, calls every now and then but I don’t feel like he’s doing all he can. They want me to call the house we live in my home but yet I was not born into it, I did not buy or choose it.

I live with a lady, her spoiled daughter who is 11 years old (but thinks she’s 30.), and her husband who has a problem with yelling. There are also two foster boys who are 13 and 7 years old. The 7-year-old is what society calls mentally challenged and the 13 years old is clinically depressed and has to take pills. Then you have my sister still in state of shock by the death of her father and for some reason, hates everyone in the house. I think she is like this because she lost her dad at an early age. She’s depressed and should probably take pills for help.

Then you have me. Born in Kingston, just turned 17 years old and I feel like I’m grown because as long as I have lived, I have been taking care of everyone else. I’m always cooking, cleaning, yelling or mad, because I have a life but can’t live it. I have to watch the kids and the truth is I don’t really like little kids.

When I grow up I want to be an attorney for children or a social worker because I don’t want other kids to have to go through things like this. Don’t get me wrong, I love helping people solve problems and doing important things for others, but chores aren’t the same as my work at home. All those kids and it’s only me doing house work. I have to get rid of my anger and problems by listening to music because I can’t do anything else.

I have to fake like I belong here but the government doesn’t want me because I wasn’t born here. I know the truth and all the answers to everyone’s questions about my mother’s situation but I’ve been told that if the truth is told, it might kill her.

I’m the girl who wants to show my emotions but I’m told not to and that I have to be strong. The girl who had it all until the justice system came and made it into their own story, something they would like to read. That story was once someone’s life, my life, and now it’s a memory, a dream I’m waiting on to see come through.

My life now is just waking up to yelling and arguing, going to school and getting in trouble for something stupid. Coming home and forgetting to do something and getting in trouble for it. My social worker says I have to go to school and get good grades but how am I to do that when I always have to go to court for paper work? She also gave me anger management classes but I don’t think I have any problems –it’s just I don’t like when people say they are going to do something and then don’t.

On Sundays I wait by the phone to get a chance to speak to my mother. I’m waiting on the call and to hear my mom say the judge has released her, but each time it’s her saying they pushed her date back.

I’m doing all I can so that I can join the justice system and try and change some things about the way it works because these people in charge have power and don’t know how to use it. They stay they are helping me by doing all this but when I ask to get a job, ask for help or ask for anything, nothing ever gets done. I just want everything to go back to the way it was, the way things are supposed to be.