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Overcoming The Stigma Of Illiteracy

Roxanne Ready
Creative Commons via Flickr


Imagine when you walk out of your house the road signs are blank. Billboards, too. You try to order breakfast at that new brunch place, but you have to listen to other customers to figure out what’s on the menu. This is the reality for thousands of New Mexico adults who are struggling to read. 

Peter Aragón is a radio DJ. He did not know how to read well, and he says that created everyday puzzles.

“We do get lost. It’s like where are the bathrooms? How do you get to point A to point B?" said Aragón .  "And you gotta read the prescription, what medicine are you going to be taking? Are you going to overdose on aspirin or Xanax?”

People who study literacy rates estimated that 16 percent of adult New Mexicans needed literacy services. That was in 2003. Anotheranalysisin the late 1990’s found that only a fraction of those people seek help.

“I was ashamed when I first started literacy," said Aragón. "I was like ‘nah, I can’t do this.'”

But Aragón found out he actually could do it. He went with a friend to get tutoring at Santa Fe Literacy Volunteers in the 1990's. He was reading at a third grade level and has been improving ever since. The first book he finished was Bless Me, Ultima.

 “I was like, ‘Yes!’" said Aragón. "I saw the movie and they left whole bunch of stuff in of the movie, I said, 'they left they that out, and they left that out!'”

Folks who are functionally illiterate have gotten schooling, they just can’t read well enough to get by in many everyday situations.  As a result, they have limited job opportunities, because most work places require more than basic reading skills. 

David Manzanares gets tutoring at Santa Fe Literacy Volunteers, too. 

“I was thinking about it the other night, and I said, ‘ I feel like I am losing out on a lot of things because I don’t read,'" said Manzanares. "I can’t read what’s happening, what’s going on, so I miss out.”

Manzanares has a green thumb and likes to ride his Harley. But after an accident, he had to re-learn how to walk and read.

“When I read my first my book start to finish that’s what really excited me the most,” said Manzanares. 

Susan Rathjen is a instructor with the program and says a lot of folks have initial feelings of shame and hesitation.

“Some people try to hide the fact that they can’t read and they are embarrassed about it,” she said. 

Because of the stigma associated with illiteracy, Rathjen is struggling to recruit students from the community. But people like Tina Redondo have managed to take that first step. She started about two weeks ago.

  "In my whole life I’ve struggled with ADHD and epilepsy,”said Redondo. 

Redondo says she found the courage to get tutoring because she wants to be a role model for her daughters.

“A lot of people are ashamed of [it coming out], you can change that and come over here for even one hour and make difference for your future and your children,” she said. 

Rathjen says she just wants to share that love for books with her students, even though she knows it takes awhile.

“I don’t mean to sound corny, but I really do see it when students come in and they look beaten down or just look so troubled or sad, and some little simple step they make with their tutor can make all the difference,” she said. 

And these students say their lives are improving. What would they tell folks who are afraid to get help? Manzanres says people will want to just give up, but he says to fight that. 

"You can do it, you are not alone," says Rendondo, "you just got to take that first step." And Aragón says it will take time, but it is worth every second. 

Now these students are reading maps, newspaper headlines, and websites—they’re navigating a new world.


Visit New Mexico Coalition for Literacy's program directory for a list of accessible statewide literacy programs. Or call: 505-982-3997.   

Editor's Note: In earlier version of this story, Tina Redondo was quoted saying she entered the Santa Fe Literacy Volunteers program with a 7th grade reading level. The program accepts students who have tested at a 6th grade reading level or below. 

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