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For 6 weeks I lived in a house where our cleaning lady couldn’t read or do basic arithmetic. One morning I was sitting at the table, with my nice, big, academic book on Guatemalan culture and history spread out before me, and she was going about her work around me. As I picked up my book for her to wipe the tables, I realized that she could never read it. At that moment, I realized how truly privileged I am in a very profound way. And, to be honest, I felt a little spoiled and a little shameful to be sitting there reading with her cleaning my house around me.

Once, I was sitting in my office working. One of the students came in and started chatting with me. He had a bandage on his wrist. I asked him why, and he responded that he had an “hoyo” or “hole” on his wrist (meaning he had a wound). I didn’t know the word, and so I asked him to spell it. “O-l-l-o” was the response. (Kids misspell words all the time. But, I’m not sure I can discern which mistakes are just the result of the learning process and which are because of the poor educational system here.)

These two stories point out a sadly stark fact. The truth is, there really isn’t a culture of reading in Guatemala. The reasons are many and varied, but the manifestations are quite surprising. The starkest for me is the fact that there are very few libraries here. My host family tells me that there were many more 20 or 30 years ago. But, especially after the civil war, libraries started closing down. It started because people stopped turning in the books. The number of books steadily dwindled, and the size of libraries went right along with it. Before too long, there just weren’t enough books left to keep most libraries open. Most of those that have remained open are small or private. A coworker of mine said that people simply thought, “Well, if I don’t keep [the book], somebody else will.”

People don’t buy books here because they are so expensive. I went to a book fair held in Parque Central in Antigua a month or two ago. Most of the books were used. I did not find a single book under Q100, which is about $12.50. This is an egregious sum to your average Guatemalan. This was an egregious sum to me, a foreigner who is book-obsessed. There are a few bookstores in Antigua where one can exchange books for free. The problem, of course, is that you need a book to exchange. These stores are marketed primarily at Antigua’s constant flood of foreign travelers who pass through on their way up or down the Pan-American Highway. They’re not very accessible or practical for most Guatemalans. And, of course, Antigua is not home to your typical Guatemalan. Most here can afford books if they want them. In the vast majority of the country, books are out of reach.

For the majority of Guatemalans, TV and radio are the form of cheap entertainment. This one thing can entertain 10 people (or, as in the case of my World Cup finals party, 20). Books can only entertain one person at a time, and when they’re done, they’re done. You can go back and re-read the same book a number of times, but eventually you would tire of it. But, a TV or radio can provide endless entertainment. However, having a TV shouldn’t be confused with not being in poverty, the priorities are just different. Having a TV doesn’t necessarily mean one is from a higher socioeconomic status. Electronic media is considered more of a necessity, and a study out of MIT published in 2007 ( showed that 60% of rural households in Guatemala earning less than $1 per day had a radio. The same study found that about a quarter of Guatemalan households had a TV, and the estimate is that more would if the signal reached their homes.

People need to meet their basic needs, but they strive to meet their non-essential needs. Entertainment is one of those non-essential needs. However, in developing areas as people’s time has started to free up but disposable income has not, this has presented a bit of a problem. Therefore, the impetus has been on generating low-cost forms of entertainment that can satisfy a large number of people (given that poorer countries tend to have larger households due to both higher fertility rates and extended families living together).

So, the culture here doesn’t really support literacy. Our youth don’t have books in the home because they are cost prohibitive. Their parents don’t read to them like my parents did, in large part due to the fact that their parents are illiterate. They aren’t surrounded by a culture of reading, and so this cycle will continue unless we take steps to break it. Safe Passage is attempting to change all this through our own library program.

The library is one of many Camino Seguro programs that were started by volunteers. It was started in 2005 by a volunteer named Jacob. Safe Passage was just moving from one very small building with only a few rooms to our current Educational Reinforcement Center (or CRE, to use the Spanish acronym). The CRE included a large room on the bottom floor that was perfectly suited to house a book collection. So, with the help of an American NGO that donated a collection of 200 books, the Safe Passage library was born.

In the library, students learn basic research skills. The younger students have a “reading passport” where they answer reading comprehension questions about books they’ve read. They also learn how books are categorized and numbered in a library system (the library this year established a card catalogue). The older students complete a research project on the topic of their choice.

I spent some time talking with Malte, a German volunteer who runs the library. He shared with me some thoughts that I found incredibly impactful:

When we were growing up, our parents read to us. I grew up imagining the words on the page before I could read them. Books were a part of life. These kids don’t have that. They’re not used to books, so for them it’s hard. All they see is words on a page.

Malte’s sentiment was that books aren’t a magical experience for these youth like they are for many others. Books present a very real challenge. Malte is addressing this by working to incorporate other media to help the youth better understand and relate to books. By putting the content in a language that is more familiar to them, it makes the reading experience more relatable and less intimidating.

The English department has also taken steps to address this issue. English teachers in our older classes have taught the students how to use the dictionary. In the quinto primaria class (about 12 years old), many of the students had never used a dictionary before. The teacher used a bilingual Spanish/English dictionary, and the students practiced looking up words in both languages.

The English team also focuses on reinforcing existing literacy skills. The wonderful thing about literacy is that it is a transferable skill, meaning that if you learn the skill in one language, it is applied automatically in the other language without having to re-learn the skill. This not only deepens their English language acquisition, but strengthens their overall learning.  English teachers go to their classes with an armful of English language books, which students now automatically ask for when they have finished their work.

There are a lot of factors that keep literacy a low priority in Guatemala. Books are expensive. Electronic media can entertain a much greater number of people. Illiterate parents can’t read to or with their children. There is a perfect storm for keeping literacy rates low within the country. That’s why the work that is being done at Camino Seguro to reinforce literacy skills is so important.

This week I saw peace in books.

More about Shannon Malone…