In the weeks that led up to the 2016 general elections, Californians were weighing the benefits and the disadvantages of a number of propositions and measures. Among them was Prop 58, the proposition that basically repealed restrictions set forth by Prop 227 which prohibited the use of non-English languages in California public schools. Prop 58 was designed to establish dual language immersion programs to both native English speakers and non-native English speakers in public schools. For over 20 years the topic of bilingualism and bi-literacy had been a sensitive issue in the state spurring debate and outcry from parties on both sides bringing into question the role of education and national identity along with issues on immigration and normative, social acclamation. During the 90s, voter sentiment against bilingualism saw it as an affront to the nation’s essential identity given that English was seen as the nation’s unspoken, official language in a country of numerous ethnicities and countries of origin. Part of the sentiment grew from the fact that non-English-speaking students had to compete with their English-speaking counterparts in the classroom while public schools were pressured to help students meet state and federal educational standards. This required the implementation of English as a Second Language (ESL) and language acquisition programs to speed the students’ acclamation into the “societal fold”. Back then, speaking any language other than English in school was looked down upon adding to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment at the time. However, as time progressed and a changing global economy began to grow, such sentiment began to wane. Realizing the benefits of multi-lingual/bilingual aptitudes presenting a greater advantage to job seekers and workers looking for professional advancement, parents and students alike began welcoming the idea of programs that could promote bilingual/multilingual education. Much so that the current proposition (Prop 58) won by a 72% margin reflecting a paradigm shift on the topic of bilingualism.
Chief among the proponents of Prop 58 is Read Conmigo, a “parent-focused bilingual literacy program that encourages Hispanic parents to read to their children at home through the distribution of free English-Spanish children’s books.” Founded in 2011 and sponsored by Infinity Auto Insurance, Read Conmigo has been actively promoting bilingual literacy passing out over a million books and working with a number of school districts and teachers in the Hispanic community. They’ve raised awareness on the benefits of bilingualism holding events and speaking publically to parents and school administrators. Recently, they held an event at the La Merced Elementary School in Montebello where they debuted their first documentary, “Read Conmigo: A Journey to Bilingual America,” and they held a public forum to answer parents’ questions about their program and clarify any previously held misconceptions or concerns on it.
The event itself was organized in conjunction with the Montebello Unified School District who invited over 250 parents, students, and teachers to attend. Montebello USD Interim Superintendent, Anthony Martinez, PhD, attended and spoke on the event and emphasized the benefits of the literacy program. Other speakers were present to answer questions after the presentation of the short film. Among them was the MUSD Dual Language Immersion Program faculty, Lil’ Libros founders, Patty Rodriguez and Ariana Stien, Bilingual Educators of the Year, Mayra Salguero and Alicia Ramos, and the Read Conmigo Multicultural Manager, Fabi Harb. Tables were setup for Read Conmigo and Lil’Libros where books were being distributed before and after the event and representatives were available to answer any follow-up questions that weren’t covered during the public forum. Lines of parents and students were eagerly waiting to get their free copy while school administrators were making the last minute preparations for the event.
The documentary itself is a short film about Read Conmigo’s role promoting bilingual literacy and how it has impacted the lives of many students and their families. Teachers, school administrators, and parents from all over the country were interviewed on topics related to the importance of being bilingual in today’s America. Several themes arose that struck a nerve in the collective consciousness ranging from preserving one’s cultural identity versus social integration, academic competency and success, professional benefits, and (more importantly) parental inclusion. It’s interesting to see the parental perspective on this side of the discussion. Much of the debate covered the usual administrative bullet-points such as school test scores and politics, but not so much on the discussion on what the parents felt and what they go through raising their children in a country where they do not speak or understand the language. The documentary emphasized that the parents really want to help their children become proficient in English because they realized the potential benefits from the ability to speak more than one language especially English which is the dominant language spoken in the US and used across the globe. Moreover, to succeed academically, the film stressed that students need to become fluent in English, and bilingual/bi-literacy programs like Read Conmigo are important in achieving that goal. It is a film that promoted societal inclusion and acclamation in a society that is no longer primarily monolingual but multi-lingual, and it served to address the growing demographic change of the country. The film itself can be viewed by clicking on the link below.
The panel discussion that followed allowed guests to ask questions regarding the importance of bilingualism and the dual immersion language programs that are available to families in the area. Parents asked on the need for the programs and why their children should enroll in them along with addressing concerns on academic achievement as well as the process involved to help students meet expected program outcomes. A couple of parents praised the programs especially during a time when a ballot proposition specifically addressing bilingual education was receiving attention. Another was unsure why her English-speaking child should participate in it. The main points taken from the discourse were ultimately about the benefits of being bilingual and bi-literate in today’s world, cultural awareness, and family involvement. Interestingly, speakers pointed out that a bi-literacy program was also a good way to help communities enrich their own cultures by retaining their native language and maintaining an active line of communication among their families. Some parents had expressed concern that when their children fully adopt English while in school, they’ll stop practicing their primary language resulting in a cultural, linguistic gap among their families. The benefit inherent from participation in bi-literacy programs however as the speakers had pointed out is that they will help bring families together because parents are encouraged to participate in their children’s learning. Families that were in attendance listened intently on the reassurances offered by the panel guests as speakers emphasized the vital role parents have in guiding their children through this language transitional period.
When asked what this kind of an event hopes to accomplish by the end of the evening, speakers expressed hope that their community will be much more informed on these issues and become active participants in their children’s education. Read Conmigo’s Senior Multicultural Marketing Representative, Francis Zazueta, pointed out that “the event is really to give information to the community about being bilingual and the benefits of being bilingual…We hope to help families make an educated decision to help embrace bilingual kids which is…We know it is a great advantage, and we want to give them the tools that they will need to be able to do this at home.” La Merced Elementary Program Specialist, Adeline Canedo also hoped the event will give parents information on the importance of bilingual/bi-literate education and share it with their families. “Having a dual language program here at our school is very beneficial for our community. We have classrooms that are to capacity, and we would like to have more. So, this is just one way of getting the word out and promote the importance this is to our children and community along with our global society-the need to learn other languages. More than 2 would be very beneficial for our students here in Montebello, “expressed Canedo. Commenting on the advances in accepting bilingual education, fifth grade teacher, Alicia Ramos, added that “…building language is really building capacity for all of our students for the 21st century. It should be something that should be accessible to all students.” Principal Rebecca Castro recalled the moment Read Conmigo approached her about holding the event at her school. She thought it was a wonderful idea because it “will promote the idea of being…not only bilingual, but just reading as a state of any language…It just reaffirms the decision [parents] make especially when it comes to Kinder and 1st grade…We have [students who are either English or Spanish speakers working] together in a classroom and they practice with each other and learn together. They grow up through the grade levels and they become almost like a family throughout the years. It’s just something that reminds the families that, ‘yes.’ This is the right decision.” Lil’ Libros founders, Patty Rodriguez and Ariana Stein, expressed the desire for their communities to take an active role in their children’s bilingual education and follow their lead by getting involved and speak up for themselves concerning their community’s educational needs. When they first started out in December of 2014, they noticed that many of the bilingual children’s books at the time didn’t really speak to Latino children specifically prompting them to publish their own series of books where children can appreciate their language as well as learn it. They reinforced Read Conmigo’s premise that parents need “to read to their children at the earliest age. It starts at the foundation. The foundation is at the home. The seed is at the home.”
Patty Rodriguez, Ariana Stein, and Francis Zazueta were further asked to elaborate on their perspectives dealing with the issue of bilingualism and bi-literacy in America.
Could you give me a little bit of history about Read Conmigo? How did it get started?
Francis Zazueta: We were founded in 2011. Before the program was sponsored by Infinity Insurance, we used to work very closely with the Hispanic Foundation. So, we’ve had this special relationship meeting the needs of the Hispanic community. That’s how Read Conmigo was born. Basically, what we do is provide free bilingual books for kids. They’re not hard-cover. They’re soft-cover books, but we mail them to the families so they get a book in the mail for free. They’re also online, because we know that digital is a big push now for families. So, the books are also online. And they go from pre-school to 5th grade. Since 2011, we’ve given out over a million books and have been recognized by Whitehouse Publishing for our work in the Hispanic community. We have over 100,000 families in just LA. We have about 50,000 families that get the books in the mail, and more than 20,000 teachers that support the program. It’s been really well-received because we know that there is this need for bilingual material. So, we’re really excited to have this event. It’s a support for our partners like Lil Libros and other people that are here tonight.
What motivated starting Lil’ Libros Publishing?
Ariana Stein: Patty and I both have children and the goal is to insure that our children were bilingual. When Patty was pregnant, she had this incredible idea to create bilingual children’s books. But not just your regular bilingual children’s books, but something that spoke to her Latina children and in addition to that, she also wanted to do something as far as create the first concepts like colors, numbers, first words in both English and Spanish. This is just what inspired the idea of Lil Libros. Then I had my first child, and I was experiencing the same issues as Patty, which is not finding the bilingual children’s books that I wanted to introduce to my child and Patty came up with the idea. We then both decided to do it together and start writing bilingual children’s books.
Patty Rodriguez: It wasn’t easy when we first had the idea. We originally pitched it to the publishers here then all over the country. The biggest ones were like Chronicle Books. Many of them came back to us and said , “No.” Actually, one in particular after hearing from so many said that “Latinos don’t read to their kids.” Instead of being discouraged by those words, we decided to come together and use our own funding which was very limited and also having zero knowledge of the publishing world, but what we had was definitely the heart and the passion about this project. We feel that is evident with the quality of books that we have created. We just hope that our community is very proud about what we are creating, because we’re doing it for our community. We’re doing it for our children. 1 in 4 children in this country is Latino, and we hope that they grow up…. Not only appreciating and not only knowing the language, but also being proud of it. That’s our goal. In addition, to also encourage parents to read to their children at the earliest age. It starts at the foundation, and the foundation is at home. That’s the seed at home. That they continue growing and foster and create capable adults that can contribute to society.
How were you able to connect with Lil Libros?
FZ: We’re sort of in the bilingual sphere together. That’s how we came about to work together. We’re really excited because we think that for being bilingual, it really matters starting early. The research shows that you need to start when their babies and a lot of times parents hesitate because they don’t want to hinder them to learn English. Research shows that the brain is capable of learning multiple languages since you’re early. So, it’s really another resource for the families that want to have bilingual kids that can start reading libros and of course they can have our books with Read Conmigo to have bilingual resources at home.
And your books are targeting mostly pre-kindergarten to elementary age?
AS: Our books target ages 0- 5. That’s what we have right now, but we are actually in the process of creating, targeting the older age groups. Right now, we have first words. So, we have a word in English and Spanish. But eventually, in the next couple of years, we’re thinking of expanding to reach the older age groups to do stories.
What books have you published so far?
AS: We have 8 titles. They all have different concepts. So, one will teach them the first part. Colors. Numbers. Anatomy. Shapes. The 8 titles are: Loteria, Frida, Zapata, Guadalupe, Lucha Libre, La Llorona, Guatemo, and Una Elefante.
Since we touched briefly on the subject of digital books and so forth, how has that impacted your efforts in terms of publishing?
AS: This is just me thinking out loud. I don’t think parents want to introduce their children to digital books. The whole purpose of our books is to introduce them to an actual book, and let them feel it and let them touch it. We feel that is as important as having them read the books. So, it hasn’t impacted it. People just want to buy books. If anything, it has actually helped us because we’re in the age group where people want the books. They want to touch them. They want to feel them. They want to smell them. I think that’s just as important.
How has the topic of bilingual education, bi-literacy, etc. grown in terms of impact? What have you seen?
PR: I think there’s always been a need for it. It just wasn’t as in our face because we didn’t have the resources, but now as a community, our voice is louder. We are very vocal about our needs and about what we want. For that reason, Read Conmigo has been so successful. Lil Libros has been able to publish 8 books because our communities are asking for it. We’re at a point in our country where we’re no longer just sitting back and waiting to be catered to. We’re very vocal and we’re going to ask for what we want.
How has the response been so far?
AS: We have been very blessed with the response. Like I said, it’s something that we needed. There have always been bilingual books, but I believe or there had not been really bilingual books that were created with the authenticity that we have. We’re looking out for our children and we want to preserve our culture and insure that our children know where they’re coming from.
How about you? What has been your perspective in terms of the issue of bilingual education, bi-literacy, etc.?
FZ: I think at first a lot of parents were hesitant because they were afraid. There was a time here that people thought if you spoke Spanish, it was looked down upon. Maybe it would hurt you in some way. I think now with all the research that has come through in the past years, there’s really been a shift and not just here in Southern California, but in our country. We live in a globalized society, and being bilingual is everything more important. Not just for communicating with your family, but also with work opportunities. To be bilingual, you have more opportunities. So, I think there’s definitely a shift and not just in our Hispanic community, but just around the country. Different groups are realizing that it’s important to be bilingual.
If anyone wanted to contact Lil’ Libros, how can they do so?
PR: They can go to Lil Libros.com and also on Instagram, Facebook. Lil_Libros. You can find us there. We’re in Target and Barnes & Noble. Amazon.com. Museums across the country. We’re not far.
AS: Libraries. For those who are not able to afford the books can also go to the libraries. A couple libraries nationally just don’t have them.
Basically, you two are aspiring authors. Are there other topics you want to touch on that you are interested in pursuing?
PR: There’s so many ideas that we are working on. So many amazing and magical things that are going to happen in the next few months, next few years. Our goal and mission is to make our community proud. Create products that is not just for our community but anyone that can pick them up and know it’s high quality, and it’s created by two Latinas.
AS: I’m very happy and proud to be doing what I’m doing for the community. We really appreciate everyone that purchases our books. It’s been really cool and we’re really appreciative of all the support we’ve been receiving.
Would you like to add anything?
FZ: I guess to the families. Reading is the most central of skills you’re going to have that you can give to your child whether it is in English or in Spanish. Our whole mission has been to encourage families to read. That’s a gift you can give to your child for their education. We are just very happy to be here tonight and have these resources to deliver to the community and we’re excited.
What other events do you have planned?
FZ: We participate in a lot of community events. So, in our website, readconmigo.org, we have a calendar of events where we’re at every weekend.
As the topic of bilingual education and bi-literacy continues to receive attention, the hopes for many involved include a better understanding of the cultures that inhabit the US and a closer tie binding all who reside in this country. The nation has grown to symbolize a cultural melting pot for the world to admire and emulate. Through knowledge and empathy, organizations like Read Conmigo hope to educate the public on the benefits of bilingualism as the global economy grows exponentially straight through the 21st century. The starting point begins here at home, in a bilingual America.