Ramon Gomez sits down in the restaurant with his lady friend. He picks up the menu and reads it. When the waitress comes over to take his order, he greets her with a big smile.
She thinks, “What a friendly fellow.”
But this smile is for the menu itself — because he can read it!
For almost a half-century, Gomez, 50, lived in the half-lighted cage of illiteracy, and he is happy because he’s slowly crawling out.
Illiteracy is not a closure you’re born into. You have to be pushed in. And with Gomez, the push happened when he was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco into a family smothered by poverty and broken by death.
“We didn’t have much. We have no indoor plumbing. We didn’t have no electricity; we had kerosene lamps.”
Today, he lives in Vista and has a job he likes in maintenance at an Escondido car dealership. He is divorced with three grown children and four grandchildren.
His sentence structure and tenses are of a man who has learned pick-up English as an adult, but it becomes apparent that this is an intelligent, sensitive man who has benefited from the tutorial help he has received.
Gomez is a student in the free literacy program of the Carlsbad Library Learning Center, which serves slightly more than 100 learners on average each year. Gomez says he has been a student on and off, as his work permitted, for about 10 years. Gomez thinks his reading has risen to the second-grade level; his tutor believes his level is higher.
But back in the 1970s, that was all ahead of him. First he had to live through years of obstacles and embarrassment.
His father was a dirt farmer who fed his family at the whim of the watchful man in the hacienda, and his mother was … he can’t remember clearly, except that she loved him and he loved her. She died when he was 5. In his dreams and in his memory, he strains to see her face, but it’s hidden from him.
Talking about his mother, his voice catches and I hand him a napkin to wipe his eyes.
Gomez lived with his grandparents for a year until his father took a new wife and sent for him and his year-older brother. If his stepmother, who was a stranger to him, greeted the little boy with a hug, it was a half-hearted one. As often happens in cobbled-together families, her reaction was: Do I really need this?
She obviously thought she didn’t, but little Ramon needed someone. If he were looking for a surrogate mother, it wasn’t this woman. He felt unwelcome in the house his father told him was his home.
Today, he speaks of the hurt of those early days that caused him to turn away from the books and knowledge that would ease him into the adult world.
“We worked helping my father on the farm. We plant corn and beans, and so when we go to school, my brother and I, we didn’t feel like we fit with the other kids. They had all these nice clothes, you know. One day, a kid starts picking on me, you know, and I look around and everybody is, like, hair combed, nice clothes, so when we take our break, these guys give us a hard time because we had old clothes and were different. That was really hard. ... I thought if my mom was here, maybe it would be different.
“I went home and told my dad I don’t want to go to school. And he says, ‘No, you got to go to school.’ So in the morning my stepmom, she was not so interested to give us anything to eat in the morning, so we were hungry. I tell my brother, when we were walking to school, I tell him I’m not going back. I remember, he said, ‘You’re right, we don’t belong in that school.’”
Because of a father who was himself illiterate and undervalued education, and a stepmother who flat didn’t care, Ramon and his brother stepped into a life of farm labor using methods common to American farmers of a century earlier.
“We started working in the farm, and that was it. My brother was rented out to a neighbor to work. The man was going to buy my brother new huaraches (common sandals), a sombrero and clothes. I was working with my dad, doing the same work; the only difference, I wasn’t getting any of those things.
“We worked with two ox. My dad plowed, and I was right behind him putting in corn and beans. I was his laborer. And that’s what we did, for a long time. And we don’t go to school.
“My brother came to Anaheim in ’73 or ’74 to be with my cousin, then a year or two later he send a letter and asking me if I want to come. My grandpa was coming, too. I rode a train from Guadalajara to Mexicali with him. Then we go to Tijuana, and there we get a coyote and go up to Anaheim.”
For the next several years, Gomez worked in Orange County and went back and forth to Mexico until he was granted a green card under the 1986 amnesty law.
Still, the impedimenta of illiteracy stalked him every day. The biggest one was his inability to acquire a driver’s license because he couldn’t read the test. But he drove — and drove very carefully.
Illiteracy is not confined to words alone, but also to numbers. The lack of arithmetic skills posed a sizable barrier to Gomez. “Back then, small numbers up to 100, I was OK. But with the big numbers and small change, I used to have a problem. But no more. It used to be, with change, I’d give a bill I knew was big enough, then just wait for the change they gave me. If they cheated me, I never knew the difference.”
Lisa Franovich of Encinitas has tutored Gomez under the Carlsbad program three hours a week for two years. She says, “He’s a hard-working student. He is positive and full of hope for what his learning can mean. He never misses a session without a good excuse.” She says he is committed to his family and is grateful for the opportunities this country has given him.
His progress has shown in his life and self-regard. “Now I can go into a restaurant and read a menu. I don’t know how to describe the feeling. Now I feel like normal. Before I feel like a child in first grade. Now I feel I can fit everywhere.”
But the wounds of illiteracy have turned into scars that remind him of the hurts and shame he endured.
“Before I would be sweating; I thought people were laughing at me.”
Were they laughing at you?
“You don’t know, but it’s the way you feel because you feel you’re not equal to everybody. (On one job) I could not find my time card because I could not read my name, and when you ask, they think you are messing around with them. One day I had to get the guy aside and tell him, ‘Hey, don’t think I’m joking around.’ I tell him, ‘I don’t know how to read and write.’”
He used his thumbprint to cash his paycheck.
“I missed a lot of my life, a lot. I look back and I think that was sad. I missed promotions in my work. One of my dreams was to be a cross-country truck driver, but I couldn’t read the test to get the license.”
He says the most embarrassing thing that happened to him was, “I walked into a ladies’ restroom. Not always do they have a picture of women and men. That was really bad. But the worst was when my daughter was born. I don’t know how to spell her name, so my friend had to fill out the (birth certificate) and that really break my heart.”
Finally, after years of struggling and with the help of tutors, he has reached the level of confidence in which he can feel like a man who can conduct his business, just like the man who owned that hacienda long ago.
He counts off his new powers:
“I didn’t have a chance to help my kids with their homework, but now I have a chance to help my little grandkids.
“I can’t read like a college degree or even a high school diploma, but you never know, one day perhaps a GED diploma.
“I won’t go in any more ladies’ restrooms.
“On my job, I know how to read emails and papers that are a part of my job.”
He finishes with the small things and turns to what’s really important to him:
“My daughter has finished community college and has been accepted to the university. She wants to be a teacher. That is what makes me feel good because she knows how I’ve tried really hard to reach my goals, and she told me, she said, ‘If my dad tries that hard, why can’t I do that?’”
And then something even more important:
“The first book I ever read was ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ A tutor ask me what our family tradition was for Christmas. I said we don’t have any. So we went and got that book, and on Christmas Eve, I read it to my kids and grandkids, and ...”
His voice catches again and he can’t complete the thought. For a second time, I hand him a napkin, but the tears he now wipes away are different. They are of joy flowing into pride.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at email@example.com