Book club helps immigrant mothers find joy in reading and support their kids' education

Maria Onate had not read a book until her son started high school.

Her illiterate parents ended her schooling when she was 15, informing her that she had to get ready for marriage and work to help support the family in their rancho in Puebla, Mexico.

More than two decades later, she was shocked when the parent center coordinators at her son's new high school, Bravo Medical Magnet, suggested she join a book club. She was there for her child's education. She thought it was too late for her own.

"I hated to read," Onate, 44, said in Spanish. "I read in elementary school, but I never read on my own."

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On a recent morning, however, the mother of two was among the most outspoken of 15 Latina women energetically discussing a 600-page novel in a basement classroom at Bravo.

Twice a month the school's club de literatura meets as a way to encourage immigrant parents to become more involved in their children's education.

"I've seen it change parents," said Bravo Principal Maria Torres-Flores, who founded the club. "They now enjoy reading, and see it is something important for the kids — it's not just, 'You're wasting time because you don't want to do chores.' "

The women gathered to discuss the Mexican American saga "Rain of Gold," by Victor Villaseñor.

Torres-Flores was barely able to get a word in as the women's ideas flowed.

The bell rang, with announcements for students about opportunities at the USC biomedical lab and a request to be nice to counselors. The club members kept talking over the voice on the loudspeaker — dissecting how the author depicted mothers, comparing memories of courting rituals in their hometowns to those in the book and sharing the lessons they learned on how to talk with their children about sex.

"Rain of Gold" will soon be added to a list on the wall of more than a dozen completed books. Each holds a different lesson, notes club member Nereyda Arenas:

"Don Quixote" showed them "wisdom through his words, his advice, his poems."

"Steve Jobs" "was a little difficult but also a fascinating glimpse into the life of this man that had changed the lives of so many people with his technology."

And Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" offered an example of the "strength of the spirit" — and for some women a symbol that even though many could not travel freely back to Mexico they were relatively free in the United States.

Many of the club members said it is a highlight of the week. Most are homemakers, but those who work outside the home have rearranged their schedules. One, a cook, told her boss she could not miss a meeting.

Onate is among those who travel by bus for more than an hour to attend.

"This is an opportunity for those of us who never had an opportunity to learn," said Elizabeth Villegas, who was wearing a black poncho against the cool weather. "Not every principal would spend time with us."

Torres-Flores started the club six years ago when she was attempting to increase literacy across the curriculum. She realized that key barriers to students' reading were often in the home.

So Torres-Flores began to focus on parents. "If I can get parents to want to read," she said, "those parents would see the value of reading and want the kids to read more."

Yet when Torres-Flores started the group, parents told her they did not think they would be able to read books, which were available in Spanish, at the grade level of their children. Only a handful showed up for the first meeting.

"Then I'd get another parent, and then another parent," she recalled.

The literature club soon grew to a core group of 15, sometimes up to 25. A few men attended for a while, but generally it has been mothers. When their children graduate, the mothers do also.

At the beginning, only a few of the women spoke. Torres-Flores encouraged them to take notes at the end of each section and bring something to share.

Beyond expanding their ability to read, mothers tend to take a leading role in organizing activities for other parents, she said.

Bravo has among the highest levels of graduation requirement completion.

The achievement probably has more to do with what goes on in the classrooms and the self-selective nature of the students who enroll, Torres-Flores acknowledges. Yet, she also has seen how efforts to integrate parents are critical.

Parental involvement is known to improve educational outcomes, said Carola Suárez-Orozco, the co-director of UCLA's Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education. But often immigrant parents do not feel welcome at schools, or are ashamed that they didn't progress in their education, she said.

One concern is that efforts like this should start even earlier. "It's really late for the kids," said educational psychologist Carrie Rothstein-Fisch, a professor at Cal State Northridge. Before third grade, she said, would be a better time for such a program to have a strong influence on the children's education.

Torres-Flores, however, said she sees a positive effect on both the students and their mothers.

For one thing, the women take home the completed book, which is added to what they proudly call their libraries. A 20-year study from the University of Nevada, Reno found that the presence of books in a home was even more important than the educational level of parents as an indicator that a child will succeed in school.

"How many people can say 'I have a library at home,' especially in the Latino community?" Torres-Flores said.

She said families who used to watch television on Sundays are now reading. "You know that literature is important to them. That's going to make a difference if the kids succeed or not."

Onate's son Gabriel has noticed a shift in their relationship. "I feel like we can interact on a more intellectual level now," he said. "She has more of an understanding of why I read so much in middle school, because now she loves to read."

Cleotilde Flores, another immigrant from Puebla with a black braid stretching down her back, shows off her signed copy of "Rain of Gold."

Recently the author held a reading at a library in East Los Angeles, and Flores accompanied her son, who was assigned the book in his Latin American studies class.

For Flores, reading had been a solitary activity. The opportunity to discuss books and share this interest with others has changed that. "I feel like we're all in a big family," she said. "We can say what we want. I couldn't do this in another school."

At the end of the club meeting — and after sharing a celebratory potluck meal — it's time for the women to choose the next book. They reject various options: "Emotional Intelligence," "The Voice of Knowledge," "Across a Hundred Mountains."

After some discussion the mothers choose "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua — "Madre Tigre, Hijos Leones," in Spanish. The winning argument: "It's going to help us get our children ahead."

daniela.gerson@latimes.com

Twitter: @dhgerson

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