Posted on August 24, 2004

Reports of Declining Reading Rates Trouble Latino Press

Peter Micek, Pacific News Service, Aug. 17

Worries over a decline in reading in the United States — a new report shows blacks and Latinos reading at a lower rate than whites — have not gone unnoticed in the ethnic media.

Despite the fact that there are more books being published in Spanish, said Antonio Mejillas of Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion, “I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that reading is down.” Readership of La Opinion, he said, which claims to reach 452,640 readers daily, has not increased recently. There is very little coverage of books and literature in the entertainment sections of the newspaper.

“After discussion groups and research,” Mejillas says, “we found that readers aren’t interested in literature.”

Nationally, reading of fiction is decreasing across the board. A recent New York Times article mentions the results of a National Endowment for the Arts survey: “Among its findings are that fewer than half of Americans over 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry; that the consumer pool for books of all kinds has diminished; and that the pace at which the nation is losing readers, especially young readers, is quickening.”

The survey found 26.5 percent of Hispanic adults read such fiction works, compared with 37.1 percent of African-Americans and just over half of whites. Of all demographic groups accounted for, Hispanics saw the largest drop in reading, nearly 10 percent over the period 1982-2002.

The only major Spanish-language daily that covers literature, Mejillas says, is El Nuevo Herald in Miami. Its readers, according to the Herald’s Gloria Leal, are upscale, non-Mexican Latinos.

But readers of La Opinion are a transitional group of immigrants. Once they learn English, many choose to read English-language newspapers and are replaced by newer immigrants. However, Mejillas says, many Latinos — himself included — still read literature in Spanish, their original language. “Cultural,” he says, or “nostalgic reasons,” are to blame.

Much of the recent concern, though, centers on young readers.

Ruben Martinez, owner of mixed Spanish and English-language bookstores in Southern California, visits schools three times each week, exhorting the necessity of reading. “We are trying to make reading contagious, like a bad cold,” he says, with a chuckle. Classes also visit his bookstore, he said, as the local library in his largely Latino city of Santa Ana is closed on weekends and has few books in Spanish.

Los Angeles authorities quoted in La Opinion say a lack of reading among children prevents development of their imaginations and their ability to learn quickly. “What’s more,” says Maria Casillas, president of Los Angeles non-profit Families in Schools, “school libraries are a myth in many schools, which simply do not have sufficient financing.”

In a series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision ending segregation in schools, La Opinion said access to quality textbooks affects minority students and those with few resources at two times the rate of students in schools where poor pupils are a minority.

In her op-ed piece, “The Power of Reading,” Maria Casillas recommends civic, business and philanthropic leaders invest in books for low-income communities, establishing for- and non-profit bookstores and improving local libraries.

Martinez’s Libreria and Families in Schools, along with a host of governmental, non-profit and for-profit groups, stages a book fair in the largely Latino East Los Angeles. Authors signed and read their works while literacy workshops and books were offered free of charge and vendors sold books in stalls. Nearly 10,000 residents attended the event at a high school, according to La Opinion.

More recently, the Sixth Annual Harlem Book Fair in New York City, reports Black newspaper Amsterdam News, brought thousands of spectators. On Saturday, July 24, authors, newspaper columnists, musicians and others debated in panel discussions on issues from the path of soul music to the state of Black politics.

For now, such book fairs, Martinez says, are, “where the action is.”