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Literacy effort to aid Hispanic immigrants

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The Hispanic immigrants pouring into Utah have high hopes of becoming part of mainstream life here, said Martin Torres, the state's Mexican consul. But many are missing the most basic tool for progress: literacy. Next week the Utah Mexican Consulate, a team of volunteers and a Salt Lake vocational school will open a door to a more integrated future.

Beginning in Salt Lake City with hopes of expanding to Ogden and Provo, the USA Computer Center, 1739 S. Redwood Road, will offer a nighttime adult-education program. The USA Computer Center — not to be confused with CompUSA — has recruited a team of volunteers to teach Spanish reading, writing and math skills to Latino residents of the Salt Lake Valley. Program director Joe Menna said Friday that more Spanish-speaking volunteers are needed and that the USA Computer Center will provide them with the training they will need to teach the basic courses.

On Wednesday prospective students can visit the center for an evaluation of their education levels. They will then be placed in a "circle of study," a group of no more than 10 students. Instructors will guide them through courses using videos, online lessons and textbooks provided by the Mexican Consulate.

"The (Mexican people) who have the most drive, the most initiative: They're the ones who come here," said Torres. The Spanish literacy courses will prepare students for a basic-skills certificate that is similar to a high school diploma. Perhaps more important, the classes will give immigrants the knowledge they need to move beyond menial labor. After completing the first course of reading, writing and math, students can go on to computer and Internet training, which will enable them to find employment in offices, hotel management and other jobs involving computers.

"Some might ask, 'Why teach the program in Spanish?' " Torres said. "We want to provide the tools for them to progress; and we can't expect them to learn English if they don't know how to read and write in their own language."

Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson heaped praise on Torres and the nascent courses. He cited the Universal Declaration on Human Rights' Article 26: "Everyone has the right to education . . . It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

These are just once-a-week classes, Anderson acknowledged, but they enable immigrants to develop fuller lives in their new homeland. "We urge everyone to truly welcome those who don't speak English," the mayor said. "At the end of the day," the literacy classes are "about helping people help themselves."

"The average student will take a year to a year and a half to finish the (basic skills) course," said Menna, himself a Mexican immigrant who came to Utah at 17. Now 32 and part owner of the USA Computer Center, he expressed hope for expansion of the adult-education program.

Immigrants want to make a contribution in the community, Menna said, but they first need opportunities to obtain a basic education. "We care. We want to be productive citizens."

The classes are open to everybody, including undocumented immigrants from any Latin American country, Menna added. All instruction is in Spanish, and the cost is $20 per month. Registration and evaluations will go from 5-9 p.m. this Wednesday and on Jan. 15. For information about the classes or about volunteering as an instructor, call the USA Computer Center at 972-2018.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com