Between 1976 and 1982 Kathleen Rockhill participated in interviewing over 100 Latino immigrant women and some Spanish-speaking natives in Southern California. Most had come to the U.S. from Mexico; some came from Guatemala, Colombia, Equador and San Salvador. Anyone who had entered the U.S. after 1975 was living without documents. The majority were in their twenties to forties and married. Some were interviewed in couples and the study included three extended family histories. These particular women were interviewed because in the urban northeast and southwest where Rockhill worked, most of those identified as illiterate were not native speakers of English.

What the women and men said about their lives in these interviews challenged the prevailing assumptions in literacy theory and practice; it casts a shadow of power relationships inside the family on the bright ideals of advocates of the universal right to literacy. What has been ignored, says Rockhill, is the experience of married, immigrant women with very little education in their own language, who see themselves primarily as responsible for the care of their children, husbands and homes and whose husbands, in one way or another, refuse them permission to seek literacy and education.

In this excerpt the gendered nature of literacy is explored, first by considering how the professional discourse is framed to mask women's experience and then by investigating how literacy is experienced in everyday life by working class Latin women.

For women, literacy, in itself does not necessarily mean power; but when it is acquired through education, literacy poses the potential for change. The anomaly is that literacy is women's work, but not women's right. Caught up in a sexist world in which male relationships are primary and all-powerful, literacy is experienced as threat and desire.

These conclusions are based upon a study of limited English-speaking Hispanics who immigrated to Los Angeles. The purpose of the study was to understand how knowing or not knowing English was constructed by and constructed their everyday lives. In a recent reinterpretation of this work, I have been struck by the centrality of gendered practices and ideologies to these processes.

It is difficult to get people to talk about literacy. Most talk about language and the problems of learning English. They conceptualize their situation as one of not knowing English, not of being illiterate. While all stress the importance of learning English, they also say that they get by OK without it. As they see it, English is essential to advance economically, and yet they experience themselves, day by day, progressing despite their lack of English. Their sense of progress is explained in economic or political contrast to the lives they knew prior to immigrating, and in the hope they feel for their children. In the words of one woman, "I would rather walk in the United States than crawl in Mexico." Most take an English class, typically soon after their arrival -- and virtually all stop going before long, and then some try again, and stop again. Some acquire basic English literacy, typically those who already are literate in Spanish.

Language and literacy work differently for men and women. In the case of married couples, the wives often have more schooling in their country of origin than their husbands. This is particularly true for those couples with little schooling, where the woman may have had four years and the man none. The men tend to speak more English, and to be credited by both with knowing more English. Yet, when presented with situations involving the written word, the wives appear to understand more. The women prefer to learn English through classroom instruction, and the men to pick it up informally. Most of the women express a great desire to attend English classes, whereas the men, while stressing the importance of learning, are less enthusiastic about classes. It is very common for the wife to go to classes with her husband and to stop going when he does. She may go again, but then with a friend, almost never alone, unless there is a radical change in her work or marital status.

The most striking pattern is one where the women learn and depend upon the written word, whereas the men acquire and use more spoken English. This has to do with the confinement of women to the domestic sphere and with the structure of work available to limited English-speaking immigrants. Women talk of being afraid to speak in public, ashamed of not knowing English. Men stress the importance of talking, of making themselves understood by whatever means necessary. Men feel at ease in public in a way that women do not. For immigrants, the public takes on a special meaning -- it is a world where English is spoken, a world that women venture into only if they must in order to work or to take care of the family's needs. They rarely go out alone; whenever possible they go with a child, relative or friend. The situation is somewhat different for women who are not living in married relationships. They go out more and overcome some of their fear learning how to get around the city.

In talking about their fear, the women speak of their vulnerability to assault. They live in ghettos, in the heart of high-crime districts which stretch from one end of the city to the other. As women everywhere, they feel themselves sexually preyed upon. They will not go out alone, especially at night, not even attend classes. Because they do not drive, they are dependent on their husbands or upon public transit each, in its way, tedious and treacherous to "master" in Los Angeles, even if you're fluent in English.



Back Contents Next