Literacy center teaches reading, writing, helps students' self-esteem too

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Tyler Orsburn

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Mario Gamboa is on the
move. There are too many words to read, and too few Latinos who can read them.

His first stop, the Guatemala consulate in
Silver Spring, Maryland. His second visit, a Spanish AM radio station across town
in Wheaton, Maryland. Last stop, another consulate, but this time in Washington
with El Salvador’s diplomat.

The conversation of the day: A Spanish
literacy center colloquially known in Spanish as CENAES, or El Centro de Alfabetizacion en Espanol.

“I first got the idea to help migrants
read and write Spanish in 2003,” the Peruvian said from his office at Our
Lady Queen of the Americas Catholic Church in Washington.

“I own a small lawn and house painting
business. One day I left written instructions in the morning for two men to
complete, and when I returned later that evening, nothing had been done. They
told me they were very sorry but that they couldn’t read or write.”

From there it was full-steam ahead — letters,
syllables, words and basic math. Gamboa offered to teach the men, and their
friends, basic Spanish literacy from his basement apartment.

“I started with eight students, but
after I made a class announcement during Mass at Our Lady Queen of the
Americas, enrollment jumped to 35 in 2004,” the self-taught language
instructor told Catholic News Service. “In 2005, I had 70 students. And in
2006, I had around 80.”

Today, the nonprofit Spanish literacy program
has 130 students, 20 volunteer teachers and instruction six days a week in
Washington, Maryland and Virginia. Instruction is free.

Since 2003, Gamboa said, more than 600 adults
have graduated from the three-year curriculum and many have moved on to learn
English and computers and even obtained their GED. “They can help their
children with homework now,” he said.

Flor Umanzor, a volunteer teacher for more
than 10 years at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, said she can see
the satisfaction on her students’ faces when they read and understand a passage
from the Bible.

“The (literacy program) helps them to
develop their self-esteem,” the Salvadoran native said. “And cultivates
their relationship with their children, and helps them with their

Gamboa reports 70 percent of his students
come from El Salvador. The 12-year civil war devoured the 1980s, and left many
children hiding from school, he said.

“We must try and forget a little bit of
the past and grab the present,” Gamboa said. “(Today) life isn’t just
about work, but education.”

For Maria Carpio, a civil war might have been

The Salvadoran native and Washington resident
told CNS that her mother died when she was a baby, and that her father
dropped her off at her godparents’ house when she was just 4 years old, never
to be seen or heard of again.

“My godmother beat me with whatever she
could find, and by the grace of God, I ran away (within the year),” she
said as a tear rolled down her left cheek.

For a year and a half, the 4-year-old orphan
lived in and off the streets, hopping buses and eating out of garbage cans,
making her way from the Honduran border to San Salvador, her country’s capital.

Four years later, Carpio said she made it to
San Bernardino, California, as an 8-year-old, by herself and with only $50 in her pocket.

By the grace of God and survival of the fittest,
the now-retired office cleaner and legal U.S. resident since 1987, lives to
see and share another day.

“When one doesn’t know how to read, one feels
scared of everything,” Carpio said from her basement apartment near Howard
University. “That (the police) might send you back to your country, or
many other things. Now I try to help people. When I meet people at the bus stop,
I ask them if they know of anyone who can’t read. It’s the least I can do to
contribute and give thanks to God.”

love the literacy program (at our church),” said Capuchin Franciscan Father
Moises Villalta, pastor of the Shrine of
the Sacred Heart in Washington. “I’m 100 percent with it. We must clothe
the naked; feed the hungry, visit the sick and welcome the stranger. Matthew
25:42 — there’s no way to get lost or confused.”

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Editor’s Note: More information about the
Washington metropolitan Spanish-learning center can be found at

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