As a Latino student, Edgar Cruz said he didn’t feel confident or smart enough to pursue a doctorate.
“It can be intimidating,” Cruz said. “I feel like not a lot of Latinos are in graduate programs or Ivy Leagues. Another barrier is affording school when your parents are earning minimum wage.”
But after picking up a book and diving into a story of a man who lived a life similar to his, Cruz has made it his goal to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology.
He was enticed into picking up the book, the nonfiction “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and Ph.D.” by Victor Rios, for a contest put on by Black and Latino Men Read, a program that Laguna Niguel resident and retired teacher Beverly Tate has been developing since June to encourage young male students in Orange County and Los Angeles County to read.
“We tend to push sports and other activities among young boys, but we don’t push reading,” and so they tend not to get in the reading habit, said the retired teacher, for whom the program is a volunteer effort.
In her 16 years of teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Tate found that the young men in her English class seemed to dislike reading until she did one simple thing — she let them choose the books.
Having given them this new freedom, she found that the male students in her high school classes — many of whom were black and Latino — had a fascination with mystery, Greek mythology, science fiction and poetry.
“I wanted to encourage and promote reading and thought this would be great way to figure out what young men were reading instead of surveying them,” said Tate, who also taught for 19 years at Pasadena City College.
The object was simple — contestants pick a book of their liking, write an essay about how the book made an impression on them and submit a photo of themselves reading the selection.
Tate has held two such contests so far. The first was for college students and the second, more recent, involved high schoolers. Both were open to students attending schools in Los Angeles and Orange County.
Black and Latino Men Read is sponsored mainly by Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar and Tate’s network of educators at the high school and college levels. She also holds fundraisers to cover the monetary awards for the first-, second- and third-place winners.
Cruz, a fourth-year student at Cal State Northridge, took the third-place award of $175 in the college contest, which he heard about through a friend on campus.
The book that Cruz chose, by Rios, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, details the author’s life in Oakland, where he grew up in a single-parent household, on welfare and surrounded by gangs.
While many say one can’t judge a book by its cover, it was the cover of Rios’ book that stood out to Cruz.
“It’s him wearing a flannel and a cap and gown,” Cruz said. “He went from the hood to being a sociologist. Knowing the obstacles he overcame, I’m inspired that I can do the same.”
To get young men to hit the books was particularly important to Tate because they seem to fall behind disproportionately.
According to a report by professor Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania, only 47% of black male students graduated on time from U.S. high schools in 2008 and only 4.3% of students enrolled in institutions of higher education were black men, the same percentage as in 1976.
“A program like [Tate’s] has incredible value,” said Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, director of UC Irvine’s Center for Educational Partnerships and an acquaintance of Tate’s. “Black and Latinos, in general, proportionally graduate from high school at a lower rate than their counterparts, but when we look at gender [males], it’s much worse.”
Like many of Tate’s supporters, Reyes-Tuccio helped spread the word about Black and Latino Men Read’s contests to school districts in Los Angeles and Orange County.
The recent high school contest began in March and followed the outline of the first one.
By April 2, winners were announced.
Jesus Santiago, a senior at Century High School in Santa Ana, took second place. He said he’ll use his $300 award toward the books he’ll need for school next year. Santiago was recently accepted at UC Davis, where he’ll study plant biology.
His chosen book, “The Martian” by Andy Weir, reflects his interest in plant life.
“The protagonist is a botanist and mechanical engineer,” Jesus said. “With just his knowledge, he had accomplished something no one had done before. He survived on Mars and grew his own food.”
San Juan Hill High School freshman Uriel Macias took the third-place award of $175 with his choice of “Legend” by Marie Lu. The science fiction novel was a recommendation from a male classmate.
“He said he didn’t like reading but he liked this one,” the third-place winner said, referring to the friend. Uriel was then intrigued.
He said the novel’s futuristic setting made him feel like he was watching a movie or playing a video game.
“Those are things I like to do,” Uriel said. “It was a good book that made me want to read for fun.”
Tate hopes to expand her program eventually into elementary and middle schools, where older students could hold book talks with young learners on the campuses.
Though it’s one book and the program is over for the particular participants, Tate hopes the short-lived experience provides the spark that the students need.
“I hope that the young men will continue to read because it will enhance both their academic and personal lives,” Tate said. “Books are powerful and they can expose the young men to so many new ideas and worlds.”
For more information about Black and Latino Men Read, visit mytcs.net/black-and-latino-men-read/.