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Anna Trelles

The best walking book I possessed as a child was called Papi. He was an endearing book that I was able to hold and touch and keep real close to my heart. I never tired from his long work shifts, for I knew Papi’s arrival would bring an amazing story. Around ten a clock his grumbling tummy would not prevent him from yelling, “Ya llego su Padre.” I always enjoyed watching his facial expressions as he tried to cleverly answer some of my never ending questions. I can still smell his tiredness in his white dirty collared shirt. I can also see his wrinkly eyes that were red from the outside dirt. I can yet still feel his yawning hugs. Most importantly, I can still hear his breathtaking stories:

“Papi, today on Cristina they talked about immigration. I don’t get it, why do we have to have papers to live here?” “Well mi’ja, it is very complicated to say. But YOU don’t have to have papers, because you were born in Montclair.” “Papi, why would immigration want to deport you and the people that I love so much? You are such a hard worker; mami is always cleaning and taking care of us. And Maricela and Jose behave well- they really do?” “Did you know that the world is divided by continents?” “Oh yes I do, the word is divided into two continents, Mexico and the United States.” “Ay Dios mio, what are they teaching you at school?” “To read daddy, I read at school.”

I can still feel my dad’s arms as they wrapped my little body and I can still hear his sweet voice as he asked Mami to serve him his eleven p.m. dinner.

I remember my mortified feeling the next day when I read about continents. I was going to clarify everything to Papi when he came home that night. Yet, instead of verbally discussing geography, Papi took me on a trip. He and I went to Tijuana to buy Maricela’s seizure medicine.

“Papi, tell me, why do we have to have paper to live here?” “You know, mi’ja, it is like entering someone’s home. To enter you have to have a key to open the door. Well, papers are the key people who were not born here need.” It made sense, yet the Tijuana streets made the eyes of my heart wonder. My heart saw gloomy- hungry children with dirty pale faces. It also saw shoeless mothers begging for money or food, and it smelled like shirtless filthy fathers as they worked by selling what I considered worthless garbage. I couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t a key available for everyone.

I still remember the day when my family and I were eating a watermelon. It seemed like our whole body was sticky from the sweet juice of that mouth-watering watermelon. As we ate a dressy salesman walked by trying to sell Papi a one thousand dollar encyclopedia set. Remembering our continent conversation he really wanted to buy one, but all he had was twenty dollars that were needed for milk and tortillas. Hours passed and the dressy gentlemen not only ate watermelon with us, but also joined us for dinner. The salesman was very convincing and even though my father really wanted to buy those encyclopedias framed in gold, he knew it was impossible. The salesman finally convinced Papi to give him his twenty dollars and pay the rest in monthly payments. Leaving behind no address to send the money to, the salesman gave us a warm look and vanished. Mother was enraged. She exclaimed to Papi, ”Ok Viejo, for the next four days if your children get hungry or thirsty, have them take a bite and a drink out of those books!”

On the first day of school Mrs. Pixton said, “Anyone read something interesting this summer?” I wanted to raise my hand but I could not think of a single book that I read. I had no books at home and thumbing through the encyclopedia or reading from our bible was not exactly what she meant. I remember that I also read the apartment contract and explained it thoroughly to Papi so he understood our living conditions. I also took five ladies, including my mother, job hunting. I read and filled out work applications. I also read at the grocery stores the daily specials to Mami and helped her shop. And I was sure that studying maps was not considered book reading either. But no, I did not read a book.

However, I wanted to raise my hand and tell Mrs. Pixton about the conversations I had had with Papi-but I didn’t!

Communicating with teachers was difficult for me. Teachers were pleasant but their literacy world was different from my own. During conferences they would inform Papi of the importance of reading. My father always felt proud because he knew that reading was an important key to our success. I always felt, however, as if my Papi and my teacher were reflexively agreeing on two different subjects.

I was so excited when our school librarian was having a used book sale. Papi gave me a whole dollar to buy any book that I wanted. I bought, Double Trouble on Vacation, by Michael J. Pellowski. My usual thirty minute walk from school to my house turned into a one hour walk as I slowly read on my way home that day. I had finally read my very own chapter book about a story that did not pertain to my world. However, I owned a book-just what my teachers wanted.

It took me many years to understand that I did come from a rich literature culture. My literacy came from different sources and many times it was not book bounded, yet literacy was in my childhood. I regret feeling embarrassed as a twelve year old when teachers asked about literature. I was too young to explain to adults my literacy world. As an adult I now feel blessed for those memorable moments that I shared with my family where books were spoken through the experiences of the adults that surrounded me.

Growing up Chicana in Southern California had many challenges. Papi was a hard worker who illegally immigrated to work the fields of California. His education ended in third grade after his dad was assassinated. Mami, an illiterate woman, also came as a child illegally to also work the fields of California. My parents’ marriage began with lessons from Papi to Mami on life surviving skills, like reading a clock. I remember Papi’s pride every time he heard me read. He also enjoyed watching me solve difficult division problems. Most importantly, he was proud of my skills to translate documents at such a young age-twelve! He always talked about the importance of school. His most repetitive phrase was, “Study, because when you grow- up, you want to work in a nice in-door, air-conditioned place like McDonalds. I don’t want mi’ja to dehydrate in the fields.” Yet, I would go to school and listen to teachers associate McDonald’s employees as underachievers.

At a young age I learned to listen between the lines of spoken words. I grew up indulging two worlds. One world was occupied by teachers who used brain-powering words. I knew they were mentoring me with notable advice. They wanted my reading skills to continually advance so that I could become a successful adult. However, I was a sound thinking Chicana who questioned the world. I wanted to live in a fair world! I was aware of the power of books; they were like keys that would open many doors. Unfortunately, I realized that many individuals would never be given keys because books were not a possibility in their page- less lives. Papi’s verbal stories that were told with heart taught me to question life. His stories developed my literacy skills toward a humanistic pedagogical path. At a very young age I understood that reading would transport me to unimaginable places. The majority of my learning, however, I could have accomplished with my eyes closed by keeping the window of my heart open.

The literacy that I learned from Papi enlightened my world. Papi’s schooling was tied with the worthiness of learning to read life. Therefore, I learned to take hold of the opportunities that life offered. Most importantly, the face of poverty and injustice was revealed through the discussions I had with Papi. As a child walking the Tijuana streets I grew to recognize that skin dressed in filth was the least of the worries of those who breathed poverty. Their suffrage lies in starving bellies that sleep in sickness and live in daily panic. Their fears are in believing that the pages of books are unreachable. Consequently, I learned to take advantage of the pages of books that were in my grasp. Furthermore, through Papi’s stories, I learned that the face of literate is also spoken.

“Mi’ja, no trates de tapar el sol con un dedo. Learn to live life and never let life live you.” These illustrious words were spoken constantly by Papi throughout my upbringing. I always strive to understand the profound message of these words that echo in into my essence. I recognize the worth of my complex Chicana world. I’ve learned that books offer adventures, guidance, and understanding. To live life plentifully, I also continue to listen with my heart, for in every spoken story there lies and imperative message.

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