A Life Sentence
Illiteracy traps New Mexicans in low-paying jobs, according to one coalition working to free them
Gilbert Zamora was a top janitor at a school in Alamogordo. He was in charge of placing the school's orders, sometimes for textbooks. He was an older man, in his 50s or 60s. And because he couldn't read, he devised a color-coded system for doing his job. "If someone messed with his system, he was vulnerable," says Heather Heunermund, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy (NMCL).
It's the one story that always gets to Heunermund, and one she'll never forget.
Zamora used to "read" to his daughter when she was a child, but when she learned to read, he had to stop. "He knew that she would be on to him," Heunermund says, and from then on, he stayed out of his child's education. When Zamora's daughter grew up, she wanted to drop out of high school. But he objected and told her she needed to focus on her education. Why should I? she asked. You don't care. And it was then that Zamora confessed his lifelong secret.
About 46 percent of adults in New Mexico are illiterate or operate with a low level of literacy.
That's according to federal estimates, says Heunermund, and is only for native English speakers. She points out the statistic doesn't include people who are learning English as a second language. If it did, that number would be significantly higher. "When you look around in the general community, you can imagine that almost half of the people you encounter could benefit from literacy services," she says.
Most everyone can at the very least write their own name, Heunermund continues. "But the problem with that is that they can't write anything more than their own name, and that's just enough to get you into a world of hurt when you think of contracts."
Nationally, the stats are not much better; 43 percent of adults nationwide are in the same boat.
But the effects in the state are far-reaching, Heunermund says. People with a low level of literacy have a hard time increasing their income. As New Mexico moves toward tech jobs that require trade school, associate's degrees or bachelor's degrees, low-level readers will miss out. The state will have to import its big earners. "Unfortunately," says Heunermund, "what we see in Los Alamos is what we're going to see statewide. We're not going to give jobs to our own residents, because our own residents don't necessarily have the literacy skills to qualify for those jobs."
“But the problem with that is that they can't write anything more than their own name, and that's just enough to get you into a world of hurt when you think of contracts.”
Heather Heunermund, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy
Gilbert Zamora learned to read as an adult. His tutor started with the alphabet then moved on to two-letter words. Zamora eventually became a spokesperson and now travels nationally to speak about literacy. Before, without reading skills, even flying on an airplane had been out of the question. "He was a prisoner in his own community because he couldn't read road signs," says Heunermund. "He couldn't read at the airport which flight to get on."
Adult illiteracy is a cause that's hard to keep in the spotlight, she adds. "We're not cute children or fluffy pets." There's a stigma attached to it. "When a literacy issue comes up in the press, I like to read the comments about it," Heunermund says. "They think you're stupid. They think you're a failure. None of those things are true. In fact, adult literacy students are highly brilliant and adaptable. Imagine going your whole life not having this skill of reading and writing in a reading-and-writing society." Warning signs, prescription medication information, bills, voting—much of a modern American's life requires a certain reading level, she says.
That's why the NMCL focuses on everyday, not academic, applications for reading. If a student wants to learn enough to read a novella, the subtitles on movies or a magazine, that's fine with the coalition's tutors.
The biggest challenge for the NMCL is awareness. People don't know that literacy programs exist all over the state. The northern part of New Mexico has the greatest need, Heunermund estimates. "A lot of language barriers present themselves," she says. "It's very rural." And if students have to do seasonal farmwork, they can't be expected to stick it out in school every day or follow a regimented literacy program.
That's why the coalition fights to keep its focus on serving those that are often the hardest to serve. "A lot of funders want to tie numbers to the dollars they give you," Heunermund says. "But students drop in and out often. They come for three or four sessions, and you might not see them again for five years." But the seed was planted, and they often come back, she finishes.
It would be easy to throw everyone in a classroom with closed enrollment—the coalition could get higher improvement numbers to show to potential funding sources. But the NMCL prides itself on one-on-one, flexible service for a marginalized population. "We've done that very vigilantly," Heunermund says. "That is our greatest accomplishment."
It's also tempting for the NMCL to branch out in its mission and pull in other sources of cash flow. "The pie is getting smaller, and we're fighting for more of it," she says. Nationally, the trend is to talk about financial literacy or health literacy or literacy for children. But the coalition's mission from the beginning was to help adult New Mexicans who can't read well. And over the course of its 21-year history, the organization estimates it's helped 69,450 students and trained more than 22,680 volunteers.
“Our goals are to eradicate the stigma, to raise awareness, to let people know this is still a concern,” Heunermund says, “but there is something you can do about it.”