In 1980, I arrived with my family to the U.S.-Mexico border from Michoacán with what little we could bring with us on the three-day journey by bus. Not long after, once more members of our extended family joined the migration, 19 of us moved into a tiny apartment in Thermal, Calif., where we didn’t have much privacy or personal space for the next few years. My brother and cousins took to the streets to claim that independence, but as the introvert among the group of 11 kids, I reached for the books.
I reached for the books because I had learned very quickly that they were special and that access to them made me unique. Not only did very few people around me gravitate to reading, most of the adults in our household did not know how to read in any language. I recall the frustrations at the dinner table, the grown-ups pouring over a piece of paper, trying to decipher instructions and mandates they were certain would cost them our residency if they were ignored. Once we received a letter with an eagle pictured on the stamp, and my grandmother was certain it was from the government — they were throwing us out! The word URGENT in red across the envelope was ominous. Nay, threatening. As the nerdy grandson, spelling bee champ and honor student, I was called in to relieve them of their anxiety: The document was a mailer announcing a clearance sale at the furniture store. All would be calm again, until the next letter.
I can’t help but become emotional when I revisit these memories — how something as basic as literacy made the difference between feeling at home and feeling like an unwanted foreigner. My grandfather built gorgeous birdhouses from scraps of wood he patiently gathered from the neighborhood dumpster, but he became flustered on the road when I couldn’t read the street signs quick enough and preferred to speed back home than confront getting lost. I always wondered how his self-taught engineering skills might have been put to other uses, perhaps even taken him out of a lifetime of working in the fields as a grape picker. Knowing how to read offered more than convenience; it also offered opportunity.
My love of books guided me on a path to education, opening doors that led to others: Attending college as an English major allowed me to find my first work-study job on campus as an English tutor; being an English tutor gave me the confidence to dream of becoming a teacher. But my most impressionable encounter came when I stumbled upon Tomás Rivera’s “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” and Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima.” These and other books by Chicano authors gave me permission to dream of becoming a writer, one who could be inspired by his family stories, his cultural heritage and his questions about the journey from one community to another. And another important learning experience happened when I encountered the writings by Chicana authors like Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chávez. And yet another when I read books by gay Chicano authors like Michael Nava, John Rechy and Francisco X. Alarcón.
There was no turning back once I felt empowered with each new corridor into my identity as an immigrant, a Chicano, a gay man. Those layers of self were complicated, bittersweet but also visible and significant because they appeared in books. They were worth writing — and reading — about. I began to experience such feelings as pride, relevance and even bliss — sentiments that seemed so distant from those days when a piece of writing flustered the household and when I reached for books to escape my environment and drift away from the people who surrounded me. Now I understood the value of that childhood space and those who also inhabited it.
I feel obligated to shout out the librarians who directed me to the bookshelves, particularly to the librarian from the bookmobile who drove that bus full of books to Thermal in the summers because our town didn’t have a public library. He saw the books I was checking out — murder mysteries and sci-fi thrillers —and kindly said, “That’s great that you love to read. But try this.” And he handed me a copy of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. It planted the seeds of my consciousness about class disparities and the injustices committed against laborers.
I also want to shout out the stranger I met at the dusty bookshelf in the corner of the Goodwill Thrift Shop, where my family went on Sundays to buy clothes. The used paperbacks cost only a dime. He saw me browsing the cracked spines, thumbing the dog-eared pages, and asked, “You like to read?” When I said yes he said, “Good. Read everything. Read anything. It doesn’t matter what you get your hands on, it will improve your vocabulary. Here’s a dollar, kid, buy 10 books.” My personal library grew exponentially that afternoon.
It seems odd to be writing a piece about the value of reading for an audience in a country where compulsory education guarantees some degree of literacy to all. My parents and grandparents did not have that luxury and struggled their entire lives. For many years, when I spoke at countless American public schools, I expressed disbelief at the fact that this was a country in which a person who knew how to read could choose not to. Choice is the ultimate expression of freedom, I suppose, but choices can be made out of laziness, spite and passive aggression. Just like a person can choose not to learn about people who are different. This is another observation I had to reconcile with: A person can keep their mind shut as easily as they leave a book closed.
For the longest time, I always said, “I can identify a person who doesn’t read because they lack empathy.” But my parents didn’t lack empathy even though they didn’t read — not because they didn’t want to but because they were illiterate. So I adjusted my statement: “I can identify a person who chooses not to read because they want to remain willfully unsympathetic.” There are consequences too in insisting on moving through this world without looking at mirrors such as books that invite readers to see themselves in the hearts and hurts of others. I do believe we are witnessing such a moment unfold in our current political and social climates.
Learning about the power of reading, about the benefits of nurturing curiosity and providing access to knowledge, I chose to be like that mobile librarian, that kind stranger at the secondhand store, and adopt their missions to encourage reading, reflection and critical thinking. I’m an unapologetic book person who has experienced the world of those who can’t read and of those who won’t read. And the saving grace is that, as a writer and book critic, I can do something about it: I can direct those who are hungry, as I once was, and am once again, toward those who imagine, interrogate and humanize those fears and fractures that separate communities. I have faith that those readers will eventually work to become leaders and that their momentum will save us all.