Literacy is more than reading

Almost half of the adults in New Mexico can’t read.

According to the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, 46 percent of New Mexico adults are functionally illiterate. Of those, 20 percent have literacy skills at the lowest level, meaning — for example — they would have difficulty extracting simple information from a news article. Another 26 percent are at the second level, where their skills are higher but not much – not enough to get a job that requires reading.

That’s simply awful.

It may be some consolation that New Mexico is not alone in having a massive illiteracy problem. According to PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies,, the entire U.S. is falling behind the rest of the industrialized world, and now ranks about 17th in literacy. But none of this is good news, and, as usual, New Mexico is a little worse than most other states.

A unique perspective on the issue comes from New Mexico’s most famous literacy activist, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, who spoke recently to the literacy coalition’s annual meeting. Literacy isn’t just about reading, he said. “Literacy is about human beings being able to express their emotions to the people they love.” It goes beyond the ability to absorb information. It’s about the ability to express one’s own thoughts – to have the language and vocabulary to put one’s feelings into words. It’s what makes us human, he said.

Baca’s celebrated life story illustrates the point. He taught himself to read and write poetry while in a maximum security prison and figured out that self-expression is the preferred alternative to violence. Illiterate men drink, use drugs, beat their wives and don’t talk to their children because they have no language to express their feelings, he said. Could we solve a host of social problems by making sure young men can read?

People who don’t know how to read may not know the value of what they’re missing. Unless they are given a nudge, most of them will not be motivated to take advantage of the programs that are available.

We should bear in mind that illiteracy by itself is not the root of all New Mexico’s social problems. It’s one element of a vicious multigenerational cycle that involves students dropping out of school, teens having babies they can’t afford to support, and other dysfunctional behaviors that we’re all too familiar with.

We’ve been talking about these issues for decades, and we’ve been arguing about the solutions.

Whatever you think might be the answer, most likely it has already been proposed and debated. Governor Martinez wants to leave back third graders who can’t read. A large group of organizations advocates tapping the state permanent fund to pay for a massive outreach program for new parents. And so on.

It sure would be helpful if our policy makers could agree on something and just do it.

Meanwhile, a handful of heroic and unsung volunteers are teaching illiterate adults to read in programs all over the state. The estimate is that 3,500-4,000 adults are served in these programs every year.

Baca says there’s no experience to compare with the satisfaction of seeing the light in the adult student’s eyes when he suddenly makes the connection and finds his voice.

There are literacy programs all over New Mexico, in communities of all sizes including pueblos. The programs are listed with contact information at

If you have a little extra time on your hands and you aren’t already engaged in volunteer work, you might consider offering a couple of hours a week to change someone’s life by tutoring. Since you’ve read to the end of this column, you qualify.

This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *