Literacy as Life and the Basis for Real Personal Power and Freedom

Every year for five years I've taken part in the Feria del Libro--Los Angeles' largest children's book festival. The Feria began in Roosevelt High School, one of East LA's most famous schools (and the most populated high school in the United States). Tia Chucha's, the bookstore/cultural center I helped create, has also had tables there with books, including bilingual books, for children and the community.

This year, just like last year, the Feria del Libro was held at LA's City Hall downtown. More than 30,000 people attended. Several streets were blocked off and many more booths now graced the book fair. In addition there were two stages for performers, authors, speakers, and music. I was able to read poetry and talk in one of the stages--and I was given the privilege of introducing one of my favorite bands (and one of LA's best exponents of the "LA Sound"), Quetzal.

Also this year, Guatemalan Human Rights Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, was the featured author. I had the privilege of being on a panel with Rigoberto Menchu to discuss literacy in both local and global terms.

Right away Ms. Menchu brought in the indigenous cosmology of her Mayan heritage. When I spoke, I connected with this, using greetings from the Raramuri people of Southern Chihuahua, one of my heritages, and then proceeding to talk about literacy as the confidence and competence people need to be truly active in any area or field they want to be.

To me literacy is real freedom. If one can't read (or can't read beyond the much lower standards of a 7th grade education that "No Child Behind" is pushing), one is imprisoned to be a consumer/worker with little mobility beyond the daily survival grind at the peripherery of a global capitalist economy.

We need more than this. We being the poorest, most neglected, and often repressed working class of this country. At the heart of this working class are African Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, Native Americans, and poor Asian Americans. But the majority of this class is made up of Whites (including those who have been in this country for several generations). Literacy is a key out of this box, this so-called station of life that many of us have been forced into from birth, through schools, and a myriad of economic, social, and cultural pressures.

As a young person, I wanted to go beyond that place I was supposed to stay at--mostly unenlightened, confused, and stressed just to make ends meet (like my parents, other family members, and the majority of people I deal with every day). After an intense gang and drug life, then working for several years in industry (construction, factories, foundries, mills, refineries), I eventually became a writer in my mid-twenties. It was a difficult road to take--nobody in my family or immediate community were able to support or help me (although I did have some encouragement, mostly I got funny looks or outright admonishments about getting "real jobs").

During my panel talk, I mentioned one man who sacrificed his time to help me become a journalist/writer. His name was Mr. Takagi, a Japanese American night school teacher at East LA College. I attended classes there in journalism, creative writing, and speech. Since night classes were primarily made up of working people, many students dropped out before they could finish. Unfortunately, the second session of Mr. Takagi's class had only one student show up--me.

Mr. Takagi told me he had to drop the whole class since there weren't enough students to keep it going. He must have seen the disappointment in my eyes, because soon after he turned to me and said he'd come back every week if I would also come back every week. I accepted his challenge. So every week that semester, I showed up, and Mr. Takagi was there. He gave me assignments, I wrote various pieces, and I knew he was even tired and would prefer being home. But he stayed true to this word.

I recall once Mr. Takagi falling asleep as I read one of my pieces. My heart went out to him--as his must have gone out to me. I finished the class and passed. Mr. Takagi even recommended me for the Summer Program for Minority Journalist at UC Berkeley, which I eventually took part in becoming an alumni in 1980 (I received a journalist certificate and became valedictorian). It changed my life--I've been a professional writer (and speaker) ever since.

I'm honored to have met and talked with Rigoberta Menchu. She understood and appreciated this story about Mr. Takagi (as did the audience). It's important to recognize and even name our mentors, those willing to step out of their own lives for a short time to help someone else.

The Feria del Libro ia a great accomplishment. I honor all the founders (particularly my friend Maria Casillas), board members, staff, volunteers, and funders for helping keep literacy alive in LA. And I also want to say a word of thanks to Mr. Takagi, wherever he may be. Your trust in me helped me trust myself. Gracias my friend.

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