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.”