Latinos and Licenses: Encouraging Latino Literacy

Snowden, Lynne L

I first became aware of the darkness of illiteracy when I started teaching English as a second Language (ESL) in the mushroom labor camps of Eastern Pennsylvania. I worked in a government-sponsored ESL program, teaching evening classes to thousands of migrants during a period of five to six years. Most of those students were either Mexican or Central American immigrants, and most of them were functionally illiterate, meaning that they could read, write, and count in Spanish (and sometimes English, as well), but not at a functional level. They could not write a check, read a book, write in cursive, or calculate how much money they were owed for the ten-pound baskets of mushrooms that they had picked during the last week. This functional illiteracy made it almost impossible for them to integrate into everyday American life. Mostly they stayed quietly in the shadows, content to be Mexican heroes to the ten to fourteen family members whom they typically supported back in Mexico.

But the most interesting men were those who could not recognize even a single letter of the alphabet. These men were not easy to identify because they carefully hid their illiteracy. Unless they came to you and declared their illiteracy, you would never get to know the darkness that they endured. A story that a Mexican friend of mine told me once helped me to understand how desperately these people wanted to learn to read. My friend and his uncle were walking through a parking lot one day. The uncle saw a truck with some letters on it, and he said to Rodolfo, “Look, I am learning to read,” and carefully spelled out the letters that he saw on the truck: F-O-R-D. Rodolfo complimented him on his newly acquired skill, but he was trying not to laugh because the letters on the truck actually read C-H-E-V-R-O-L-E-T.

Rodolfo did not laugh at the man because he, too, understood the darkness in which the man suffered. Once you see illiteracy, you cannot forget it. The worst part is knowing that if you both had just a little time, in a few weeks you could begin to take the darkness away. But these adults in need see their lack of knowledge as a weakness, so they hide it and fear exposure.


When our Phi Kappa Phi chapter was notified about the literacy grants, I approached the director of a Latino agency to ask for help in getting clients for a literacy program. Because so many functionally illiterate individuals exist in the immigrant community, it seemed unlikely that we would have any problems getting clients. My only worry was finding tutors among the busy staff and faculty at my university.

The grant initiated a new community program for residents of Wilmington, North Carolina, and its surrounding rural counties. It matched Phi Kappa Phi student members and University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) chapter professors as tutors with young Latino adults. North Carolina has a large and growing Latino population with a severe need for one-on-one literacy tutoring. The local Latino organization did not have the funds to run such a literacy program, so many students who wanted to take ESL classes were not capable of keeping up with other students. To encourage the Latino students to continue the literacy classes for an extended period, the lessons were structured around learning to read well enough to pass a North Carolina driver’s license test. Dr. Martin Kozloff, an expert on literacy issues from the UNCW School of Education, set up an easy-to-teach lesson plan that was effective and up to the standards of the “No Child Left Behind” program. I purchased the needed books over the Internet. The literacy training was designed to prepare these students to continue to improve through ESL classes offered at the Centro Latino. Our tutors were trained to encourage the students to continue their general education as well.

Our program was designed to have at least two beneficial outcomes: learning to read and encouraging driver safety. One professor even volunteered to guide the students through the licensing process, helping them to pass the written and driving exams, when they got to that point. Young Latino immigrants often feel that they are forced to drive without driver’s licenses when they cannot read well enough to pass the state tests.


Classes began in late summer of 2003 at the Centro Latino building in the late afternoons and evenings, Monday through Thursday; they were supposed to run for twelve months. The first step was to recruit the tutors. I advertised in our weekly campus newsletter, The Campus Communique, and via the Internet for tutors. Amazingly, within three weeks, I had all the names that I needed. We wanted to begin with ten students and tutors to see how the program went. When I had enough volunteer tutors, I told the agency to start collecting names of people who were interested in the classes. In early October, we ran a workshop to train the tutors in using the literacy materials and then had a class with the students. During the class, I determined that all of the students were good candidates for literacy training. Then I matched the students with the tutors. Unfortunately, only five out of the original list of twelve students showed up for the first meeting, but I felt that we could easily recruit others.

The program ran well for a few weeks, but then problems began to surface. It turned out that because Centro Latino is a very busy place in the evenings, the tutors had problems finding places that were quiet enough to do the literacy lessons; therefore, three of the students were moved to the university for their literacy classes. These students came the second week after they were moved and then did not return. Student attendance was also spotty for some of the other tutors who remained at Centro Latino, so some nights the tutors were there but had no students. At the end of November, I learned that the center was going to shut down for the month of December because many of the migrants go home to Mexico for the holidays. This shut our program down as well until the center reopened in January.


During this period I tried to think of ways that I could revamp the program. In my original grant proposal, I had asked for student-transportation money; none of the students had their own transportation because the program was designed to teach them how to get their driver’s licenses. I cut this idea from the budget when I received less funding than I had proposed, but cutting it proved to be the program’s undoing. Ey moving the classes away from the only place to which students could easily come, Centro Latino, we had a more difficult time recruiting beginning students.

With the help of the Amigos International director, we have now altered the structure of the program. Some tutors now go to the nightly ESL classes, where they are assigned students who are considered to be behind by the ESL teacher. Even if tutors do not have the same students each week, they will always have at least one student to tutor. The director also approached a nearby high school and found that many Latino and African American students there need literacy training and are available for classes during the day. We will begin literacy classes at another area high school as well, so tutors who can manage day classes will run these sessions.

The changes have just been implemented this month, so it will take a while to see whether they are successful. We will use the remainder of our money to purchase materials for the instructors and supplies such as paper and pencils for the students, who often do not have the money to purchase even these simple aids. After the program was up and running, we had planned to seek additional community/university funds to continue the program after the Phi Kappa Phi grant money runs out, but now we will wait to see whether we can continue to get enough students to volunteer. Another problem is that many of the immigrants have not volunteered because they do not have the documentation to obtain a North Carolina driver’s license. Therefore, we are now downplaying the focus on helping them obtain a driver’s license because finding students has been more of a problem than finding volunteer tutors.

It has been a labor of love for me to develop this program, and I am very grateful to everyone who has rendered assistance; of course, it all started with Phi Kappa Phi.

Dr. Lynne Snowdcn is an associate professor of criminal justice at UNC-Wilmington. She has published three books, Collective Violence (2000) and Preventing Terrorism (2002 and 2003), as well as numerous journal articles on violence, terrorism, policing, and other related topics. Recently her interest has broadened to the area of homeland security because it combines her research in illegal immigration, risk assessment of violence, and policing issues. She is currently working on an edited set of readings by some of the most outstanding criminal justice researchers and academics in the United States. In her service activities, Professor Snowden has worked with Latino social service agencies for almost twenty years teaching ESL, developing education and health care programs, and serving on their Boards of Directors.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Spring 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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