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Are Half of the Hispanics in the United States Really Illiterate?

Susana C. Schultz
Strictly Spanish LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio

That is what the news media and government organizations have been telling us. They want us to believe that there is a literacy crisis in this country and that Hispanics are a big part of it. Why? I don’t know. When employers read about these figures, they get concerned and think twice before hiring Hispanics, and some of those who already have Hispanic employees think twice about having Spanish translations of their employee and training materials.

Being tagged "illiterate" carries the stigma of being perceived as dumb, non-intelligent, unable to make good decisions and, as I have also read, some people consider that illiterate people can’t be good parents. Come on, people! You got to be kidding me! Being born and raised in Uruguay I take offense of statements like the title of this article (which, by the way I wrote to stir up some controversy). And yet, that is what I have been reading while doing research for this piece. Everything I read talks about how the rate of illiteracy among the Hispanic population of the U.S. keeps growing every year. A lot of articles say that half of the Hispanic population in the U.S. is illiterate. That they can't read, understand nor fill out simple forms, employment applications, and so forth. I have even read a comment that I personally consider preposterous so I am going to quote this person right here and now: "It's really hard to have a well educated and highly intellectual population of children if they go home to parents who do not have adequate reading skills," said Dale Lipschultz, president of the National Coalition for Literacy.

If Abraham Lincoln were alive today and read this he would object, as I do. Abraham Lincoln was one of the greats in U.S. history, and yet his parents were illiterate. He overcame illiterate parents (if that is really something to overcome), poverty, adversity and many other things. At the age of seven, he had to work to help support his family. His parents didn't read to him at night, they couldn't read, but yet he became a great person, one of the greatest in our nation. So, I disagree with Mr. Lipschultz that it's really hard to have a well-educated and highly-intellectual population of children when their parents don't have adequate reading skills. Ancient and contemporary history tell us differently. We can't predict what is inside of every person and how everyone is going to turn out. What we can do is stop all this labeling that this country likes to put on everyone and be positive. And Lincoln is just only one of many other similar stories. Let’s give our children the hope that they can become anything and everything they want and not tell them that because their parents can't read they will not be well-educated and highly intellectual.

All this data is hurting lower-income Hispanics who are trying to find jobs. Statistics tell us that these “illiterate” Hispanics are not making much money because they can’t find jobs, and the jobs they find are very low-paying at best, so to me this whole thing is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell people long enough that they are worthless, they might start believing it. Plus, all this data and labeling is based on WRONG information. I had to dig deep to find out something that my mind was not buying—that half of the Hispanics in this country are illiterate. I couldn't buy that because I have read many articles and data that say —although the numbers might be slightly different from one article to the next— that the literacy rate in Mexico is somewhere between 91 and 96%. Now, if we consider that 67% of the Hispanics in this country come from Mexico, then, isn't it fair to assume that the literacy level of that population is between 91 and 96%? One would think so.

But the literacy and illiteracy studies are not labeling only Hispanics as illiterate, they also include other immigrants and other language minorities. The U.S. is facing one of the largest periods of immigration in years and many of the people coming to the U.S. are not proficient in English, even more, the vast majority doesn’t know English at all. These people are literate in their countries of origin—they have never been labeled "illiterate". If we look at the literacy rates of the countries providing the majority of the immigrants, we can see a medium literacy rate of 91%. That means that 91% are literate in their countries. One would assume that literacy is not something one leaves at the border, nor that only the illiterate 9% is the one coming to the U.S., so why are the U.S. studies and reports giving us data that doesn’t agree with these figures? There is a very good reason for that, one that many of these reports fail to tell us.

How are literacy and illiteracy defined and measured in the U.S.? The measure of literacy is important to many sectors of society. Various reports and studies provide conflicting data but they all agree that the most alarming rates were among immigrants and language minorities. The English Language Proficiency Survey (ELPS) estimated that 17 to 21 million people in the U.S were illiterate. Notice that the study is called “English Proficiency Survey” and that the group of illiterate people included 7 million individuals living in homes where a non-English language was spoken. So, let's look at a very real example of what this means. My brother-in-law is a Doctor in Veterinary Medicine, a well-known scholar and a high-ranking officer of the Department of Agriculture in Uruguay. He is an expert in eradication of hoof and mouth disease; he is always invited by foreign governments to give conferences on the subject, and the U.S.D.A. distinguished him with an invitation to participate in a seminar at their exotic-disease center in Plum Island, NY. He does not speak English. If he would've taken the ELPS, he would’ve been labeled “illiterate”. See my point? Literacy is being measured in knowledge of English and it does not take into consideration the literacy in other languages, so because someone is illiterate in English it doesn't mean he is illiterate in Spanish. This is what’s happening in this country. Immigrants who don’t speak English are being labeled incorrectly. Non-English literacy is being confused with illiteracy and that is not right!

Why aren’t these literacy surveys conducted in Spanish as well as in English? After all, Spanish has only been spoken in the southwest and California since 1598. That includes the current states of California, Nevada and Utah, and parts of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. Since 1598!! And it has been spoken in what today is Florida since Ponce de León visited that land in 1513. Long, long before English was spoken in North America... And, last but not least, let's not forget that the U.S. has not declared an official language.

Companies who take the interest, time and money to provide Spanish translations of their employee manuals, their training materials and employee communications to their employees who are members of the Hispanic community of the U.S. are doing something admirable and I applaud them. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are recognizing that the data is flawed and that their employees are literate in Spanish. These companies should be commended for treating their employees with the respect they deserve. These companies are reaping the benefits of a happy Hispanic work force.

For those companies out there who are still hung up on the "illiteracy" of the Hispanic population, I urge you to get informed, research, talk to people and see that Hispanics are not illiterate. Give them an opportunity to show you what they can do. Hire Hispanics and treat them with respect. Train them in their native language. Offer a Spanish translation of the materials you publish for your English-speaking employees. You will be surprised by their loyalty, hard work and professionalism. Self-fulfilling prophecies do come true, let’s change the pattern and make it a very positive prophecy for all parties involved.

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Immigrants who don’t speak English are being labeled incorrectly. Non-English literacy is being confused with illiteracy and that is not right!