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A Native-Born and an Immigrant: A Stark Contrast : English Is a Survival Tool for Newcomers

Times Staff Writer

Though perhaps literate in their own language, recent immigrants who have not yet mastered the language of their new homeland swell the ranks of the state’s illiterate population.

Unlike their native-born counterparts, however, these new Americans feel no shame in going to school to gain the skills needed to compete in the job market and to take advantage of the opportunities that brought many of them here in the first place.

They are easily drawn to literacy classes offered through the state’s adult basic education program, by far the largest provider of literacy classes in California.

At the Mid-City Adult Basic Education Center near downtown Los Angeles, for instance, the schoolyard is abuzz with the mixed cadences of languages from around the world.

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Here, recent immigrants from China, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, Central and South America outnumber the native-born. According to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, enrollment in the state’s adult basic education program for the 1983-84 school year included about 350,000 adults in English as a second language classes and about 230,000 in classes that offer elementary subjects in English.

For many immigrants, learning English is a matter of survival. For some, especially women, the motivation is rooted in the desire to learn the language that their children have taken as their own.

For others, like Francisca Martinez, 19, a student at the Mid-City center, it is sheer determination.

Martinez dropped out of school in the second grade in her native Mexico. She stayed home to help her eldest sister, then 15, care for their four younger siblings after their mother’s death.

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“We couldn’t all go to school,” she explained. “Someone had to stay home and be responsible for the household.”

Martinez speaks with admiration of her mother’s “strength and energy.” Her mother, who was a schoolteacher, taught her own children to “fight for life from the time we were little.”

Martinez’s father, a military man who remains only a vague memory, had died several years earlier. To support the family, her mother often worked night and day and sent the children to sell homemade goods on the streets.

Martinez said she has seen “how people who can’t read and write suffer.” She decided she would not be one of them. She kept up her reading by helping her younger brothers and sisters with their homework, and at 17, when the children were better able to care for themselves, she returned to school in her hometown of Hermosillo, Mexico.

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It took some convincing, but school officials finally allowed her to return to the sixth grade. Martinez’s determination weakened, however, when she found herself towering a foot above her classmates, who were seven years younger.

She quit after a few months. “It was too embarrassing standing in line with the children and being confused for their teacher,” she said.

Martinez came to the United States about two years ago and quickly enrolled at the Mid-City center. She attends classes about 10 hours a day and lives alone in a room she rents nearby. She supports herself by cleaning office buildings on weekends.

Despite the “sacrifice” of being away from her family, Martinez said she feels fortunate for the opportunity to finally fulfill her dream. “Here, nobody tells you you’re too big to go to school,” she said.

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“It’s more important to me to study than to make money,” she said. “Money is spent easily, but education is something that can never be taken away.”

Looking a bit embarrassed, Martinez said that her secret ambition is to go to college.

Martinez’s teachers praise her dedication and say she is advancing quickly in her studies. She is nearly fluent in English now.

Officials at the school, however, say it is difficult to draw and keep recent immigrants who, unlike Martinez, are illiterate in their native language. Like U.S.-born illiterates, they lack even the most rudimentary academic foundation on which to build.

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Recognizing this, the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles has established a modest literacy program that teaches Spanish-speaking adults to read and write in Spanish. The premise, a consulate spokeswoman said, is that unless immigrants are literate in their own language, they cannot profit from literacy instruction in English.


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