Learning to Read as An Adult: A Success Story

ESPANOLA – At age 36, José Martinez is learning to read. For years, Martinez hid the fact that he was functionally illiterate.  “I managed my whole life to accomplish a lot, without knowing how to read and write,” he reflects. “I bought a home. I bought cars. I was a carpenter in local union 1353.” Trusted friends helped him with paperwork, helped him fill out job applications.  “I did it all by seeing, with pictures. But in the long run, I noticed it really hurt me.”

With the encouragement of his wife, Vanessa, in 2013 Martinez joined the Rio Arriba Adult Literacy Program (RAALP), located in the Española Public Library at the Lucero Center. RAALP matched Martinez with a volunteer literacy tutor, retired machinist Ernest Cata. Two or three times a week, Cata and Martinez can be found at the library, painstakingly working through reading material. Lately, they’ve been working on syllables, on how to break up long words into more manageable parts.  They work hard, but frequent smiles punctuate the tutoring sessions.

Cata admires his student’s dedication. “Shortly after we got started, I asked José how long he thought it would take him to learn to read. ‘Don’t get discouraged, this will take a few years, keep that in mind,’ I said. ‘Think of school kids, how many days, how many years they spend learning how to read.’”  As for his part, Martinez appreciates that Cata works with him on reading material in his interest areas; since becoming more involved in his church, the Española Christian Center, Martinez has wanted to read the Bible.

According to the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, 46% of adult New Mexicans read below the 6th grade level. The Santa Fe-based Coalition is an umbrella organization that partners with RAALP and other local literacy groups around the state. In Rio Arriba County an estimated one in three residents has limited literacy skills, which means it’s a struggle to read the newspaper or fill out paperwork. In 2014, the Coalition named Martinez the state-wide literacy “Student of the Year,” and during this past legislative session, he was invited to share his story at a literacy press conference at the Roundhouse. His wife Vanessa and their infant daughter were there to cheer him on.  “I know I have a challenge in front of me, but I have a goal. One day, I’m going to read all of God’s book,” Martinez said.