NCLR Affiliate Spotlight: Centro Latino is Leading the Way toward Literacy for All

A Centro Latino student receives one-on-one instruction.

For 23 years, NCLR Affiliate Centro Latino for Literacy (Centro Latino) has been on the front lines of the fight against illiteracy in the Latino community. What started as a small effort by founder Marcos Cajina to help create opportunities for workers in the garment industry of downtown Los Angeles has evolved into an organization with influence well beyond Southern California.

Centro Latino is located in what President and CEO Mari Riddle calls a “receiving community,” as it is a largely Mexican immigrant neighborhood, where many Central Americans settled. The majority fled violence in their home countries and many still continue to do so. While the neighborhood serves as a sort of sanctuary, the reality for many is that their experience is made more difficult because of a lack of formal schooling in their home countries.

Recognizing that the area was sorely in need of educational services, Cajina took his experience participating in the national literacy campaign of his native Nicaragua and developed a curriculum tailored to the needs of non-literate immigrants. The curriculum, called Leamos, is based on popular education methodology and is informed by more than 12 years in the classroom. Popular education acknowledges the life experience of an adult learner and builds from that.

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“The idea is to meet students where they’re at and then to take them through a course of reading and writing that celebrates their background and their culture,” said Riddle.

Centro Latino’s approach is a simple one: teach non-literate or illiterate adult Spanish-speakers how to read and write in Spanish first so it will serve as a foundation for life-long learning in English. For one-third of Centro Latino’s students, Spanish is their second language, as they speak the indigenous languages found in southern Mexico and Central America.

“The issue with battling illiteracy is that it is widespread and found in isolated pockets. People are ashamed to admit they are nonliterate” said Riddle. “The challenge is how to reach as many people as possible.”

A Leamos computer lab.

In 2004, under the leadership of then-executive director, Melanie Stevens, Centro tackled that problem head-on and developed Leamos for the Internet. The online Leamos course is interactive and its virtual instructor, narrated by Cajina, provides the adult learners an almost personal connection to the lesson.

“The beauty of this is that we’ve taken the painstaking hours of one-on-one tutoring in teaching literacy, and devised a 21st century solution, the Internet,” said Riddle. “I tell people we’re in the business of teaching the ABCs by D, digitally. People who never knew how to read or write are now comfortable with technology.”

That innovative approach has paid off, too. Through the online Leamos, Centro Latino Literacy has been able to expand beyond their Eighth Street facility in L.A. by licensing to organizations, called Literacy Partners, all across the country.

For the students who go through Leamos, the program has been a lifesaver. One student, 40-year-old Antonio Bonilla, came to the United States from Guatemala having never attended school. For most of his life, Bonilla could only sign his name with his fingerprint. Motivated by the prospect of better pay and working indoors at his job, Bonilla decided to enroll in Leamos.

Adult learners at Centro Latino learn literacy through an innovative approach that uses “popular education” methodology.

“Now that I can read and write, I read everything I see: street names, ads in magazines like El Clasificado. I sign my name; I write down the names of my children, and I can jot down the measurements of the pieces of wood I cut at work. I want to learn more and improve my writing skills so I can write letters.”

Bonilla’s experience is one of many success stories and these successes multiply every year. It’s something Riddle intends to continue and she credits part of that success to Centro’s membership in the NCLR Affiliate Network.

“Literacy affects the work of every Affiliate. I welcome the opportunity to work with fellow Affiliates who recognize that nonliteracy is limiting their community members’ access to education, health care, civic engagement, financial empowerment, and more,” said Riddle. “The way the Affiliates work together also shows the power of the network, and the power to bring about change. We’re all extremely busy and NCLR Affiliates based in the grassroots illustrate the breadth of the work that is being done and still needs to happen.”