But by any real definition of success, there were no losers at the event. All 25 contestants came to the United States with little or no education and spent years living in a double linguistic limbo. They took menial jobs with limited formal interaction or instruction. Their children filled out English-language forms for them. Their neighbors read them letters in Spanish from home.
Now they are discovering the pleasure of reading, the challenge of grammar and the thrill of academic competition. By first mastering their native language, according to the program’s premise, they are also finding it easier to learn English.
“I read everything I can get my hands on now,” said Martinez, a former dishwasher and groundskeeper, who spoke in Spanish. “I have learned about verbs and pronouns and synonyms and antonyms. What does it matter if I become rich but am still illiterate? I would much rather be poor but have knowledge. That is the best kind of wealth.”
The evening’s emcee was Mario Gamboa, a former bank employee from Peru who founded the literacy program a decade ago. After immigrating to the United States, he started a small house-painting company in Maryland. He often wrote down lists of supplies for his Central American crew to buy but noticed that they often brought the wrong size or quantity.
“I began to have suspicions, so one day I gave them a list without saying anything at all,” Gamboa recounted last week. “They finally told me none of them could read it, but they were too afraid of losing their jobs to tell me.”
The next day, Gamboa said, he started teaching the painters to read Spanish, in his apartment. Soon the program grew to a dozen men, then it moved to a church and gradually expanded to a full-fledged literacy program with 18 volunteer teachers and classes in six areas in the Washington region. By last year, more than 250 people had graduated, many of whom went on to obtain high school diplomas in English.
Last week, at a preparatory class for the spelling contest, Gamboa tested his students on common spelling mistakes in Spanish, especially the silent “H” and the difference between “s” and soft “c.” He read out a sentence: “Atrevete a hacer” (Strive to do). Shoulders hunched. Brows furrrowed. Pencils moved, some faster than others. Half the class wrote “hacer,” the other half wrote “aser.”
“Muy bien, muy bien” (very good), Gamboa said. Moral support is especially important for the students, who often must overcome shame, fear and ridicule from friends or family to return to school in their older years. The annual spelling bee, with prizes including donated cellphones and Kindles, is one way to turn such reluctance into excitement and pride.
Doris Portillo, 53, has been in Gamboa’s class for two years. Back in El Salvador, she started working in a bakery at age 11, then spent years as an office cleaner in the United States. With two daughters to raise, now both in high school, there was never any time for her own studies.
“I always loved poetry, but I didn’t know how to write,” Portillo said. “I would make up verses and have a friend write it down. I knew a lot of words, but I couldn’t spell them. I dreamed of going back to school, but I was ashamed to go at my age. This has been a giant step. It’s like starting second grade all over again.”
Portillo was well prepared. She had studied her vocabulary lists and was on the lookout for tricky words with a silent H or a double L, which sounds like Y in Spanish. When her turns came, she confidently spelled out “serpiente” (serpent) and “huevo” (egg, with a silent H), but in the last round, she made a mistake on “Americano,” turning red as she realized her fatal error.
Portillo’s classmate Jesus Moran, 61, seemed even more confident before the contest. He had earned one high school equivalency diploma in Mexico, then a second one at the Carlos Rosario International Charter School in the District while working full time as an office cleaner. To get ready for the bee, he wrote an eloquent testimonial about the importance of education in perfect, precise Spanish.
On Monday night, Moran, a small man with a well-kept mustache, strolled up to the microphone. He sailed confidently through “fiebre” (fever) and grinned when asked to spell “bigote,” which means mustache. Then, in the final round, the audience gasped when a judge, Mitzi Macias from the Washington Hispanic newspaper, read out his next challenge.
“Jesus, your word is alfabetizacion.” Its meaning is “the process of becoming literate,” and it was a polysyllabic killer. Moran got through the first six syllables, then lost his concentration and missed a letter. “Incorrecto,” the judge said. Stunned, Moran shrugged and walked back to his seat.
In the back of the room sat Maria Carpio, who was not competing in the bee but had come to cheer on her classmates. At 53, she had endured a lifetime of suffering — fleeing the war in El Salvador at age 7, losing her two children to violence and illness in Los Angeles, working as a cleaner for years in Washington. Now, despite failing eyesight and a heart condition, she was finally learning to read.
“I never went to school in my life. People told me it was useless at my age, but I don’t care what they say,” Carpio said. From her backpack, she brought out two books she had once found while cleaning offices and kept ever since. One was a vocabulary workbook, the other an illustrated world geography text.
“So many times I looked at them and told myself, someday I would know what they said,” Carpio said with a shy smile. “Now I am beginning to find out.”