"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Our People are Not Reading Our Literature, Part II


Our People Are Not Reading Our Literature
Hope Remains in Creative Writing
by Raymundo Eli Rojas

For previous entries in this series:

Our people are not reading our literature, much less anything else.

As much as Chicano(a) Literature went through a renaissance, the research shows Chicano(a)s are not reading short stories, novels, and much less poetry and plays. At least that is what the National Endowment for the Arts Reading At Risk Survey points out.

Who is reading us? Who are we Writing for?

Furthermore, if we are not reading our own literature, who is? And if it does not bother you that our people are not reading our own literature, who are you writing for?

In our last segment, we look at the statistics of who was reading and what people were reading. We looked at several factors, like education level, race, and more.

We continue are look at the Reading at Risk report. To see Part I of Our People Are Not Reading Our Literature, CLICK HERE.

Family Income

When looking at family income, the survey shows that about 1/3 of the lowest income (families with income under $10,000) read literature during the survey year. In comparison with the highest income group, families with income of $75,000, 61% read literature in the survey year.

Looking outside of this survey, the recent research indicates that poverty has risen tremendously in the US during the Great Recession. “The overall poverty rate climbed to 14.3 percent, or 43.6 million people,” say National Public Radio in a recent story. The story also states how African-Americans and Latinos were especially “hit hard.” For these two ethnic groups, the rate is above 25%. Astounding me was a comement by Anirudh Krishna, associate professor of public policy at Duke University, that “if we keep going at this rate, then poverty among African-Americans and Latino-Americans, will soon be greater than poverty in India.”

In terms of purchasing power, it goes without saying, those with higher income buy more books. “Twenty-three (23%) percent of people have household income of $75,000 or more, 33% of books are bought by those with household income in this range.”

Geographic Areas

The Western States, at 50%, read more than other parts of the country. I think this shows good potential for Chicana(o)s, as the majority of Chicano(a)s live in the Western states. The survey does not say why the Western States would have higher reading rates -- and as we shall see later -- higher creative writing rates. The Northeast follows with 51%, the Midwest with 47%, and the South with 42%.

“People who live in the suburbs are more likely to be readers than either those who live in the city or the country,” says the study. For rural residents, their reading rate is 41%. For those who live in cities, it is 47%, and for suburbs, 49%.

Adult Education

The survey shows that the higher education of adults, the more likely they are to read to their children. An earlier SPPA survey showed that respondents whose mothers had attended college were nearly 50% more likely than others to read literature in 2002. This is promising in that women undergraduates already outnumber men undergraduates in our country (search NPR for the story). In 2008-9, more women than men earned Ph.D.s. (search NPR for the story).

Above, children listening to a reading at the EPCC Literary Fiesta

However, the number of those that finish an undergraduate education at all is low. A recent story in Texas stated how “just more than half of Texas’ college students will graduate in six years, a dropout rate Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes calls 'just as severe' as the high school graduation rates garnering attention across the state.” (Abeline Reporter). The story says the “number of Hispanic students going to college has risen 75 percent,” though I am unsure if this number is for Texas or the nation as a whole.

Impact of Television

According to a 2002 SPPA survey, literary readers watched an average of 2.7 hours of TV a day. Those who did not read literature, read and average of 3.1 hours a day. The Reading at Risk survey says that “a statistical model created to analyze frequent readers found that watching four hours or more of TV per day had a negative impact on the chances of someone reading 12 books or more per year.”


Reading at Risk states that “Although 46.7 percent of the adult population read literature in 2002, a comparable percentage of adults may not have been capable of reading and understanding most novels, short stories, poetry, or plays.” 

Again, this goes to what is our responsibility as Chicano(a) writers. Do we have a responsibility to write “advance reading” works just as much as we have a responsibility to write works that those with lower reading levels can read?

Reading at Risk quotes a 1995 report from the National Center for Education Statistics that shows “45 percent of adults read at 'prose literacy levels' one and two.” What the heck are these levels? 

The NCES “classifies adults into five levels of literacy”: If you are at levels 1 and 2, you “probably do not have the skills necessary to read many types of literature.” Yikes!

The NCES study is 15 years old, but I will try to find it for you all. But take a closer look: 45% of adults read at levels one and two, which are reading levels in which people “do not have the skills necessary to read many types of literature.” Double Yikes!

Participation of Literary Readers in Other Cultural and Leisure Activities

The report also looked at what people who read do. One statistical model of literary reading showed that attending events at art museum and performing arts events are significant factors in predicting reading.

Demographics and Characteristics of Frequent Readers

Some highlights here include:

Frequent readers among racial and ethnic groups break down into these percentages:
  • 20 % white Americans;
  • 9% African-Americans;
  • 5% Hispanic Americans.
Remember, the study qualified “frequent readers” as those that read 8 books a year.

Those between 45 and 74 years of age tend to read the most books in a year.

Thirty percent (37%) of performing arts attenders (compared to 10 percent of non-attenders) read 12 or more books in 2002.

  • Men are 37 percent less likely than women to be frequent readers (12 or more books of any kind per years). Not a good number for Chicanos, but good for Chcianas;
  • White Americans are 63 percent more likely than people from other ethnic and racial groups to be frequent readers;
  • Those who are not in the labor force are 17 percent more likely than others to be frequent readers;
  • Those who did charity work are 26 percent more likely to read 12 or more books per year than those who did not;
  • Those who did not watch TV in a typical day are 48 percent more likely to be frequent readers than are those who watched one to three hours of TV per day.
Readers of Novels, Short Stories, Poetry, and Plays

  • Novels or short stories were the most popular types of literature with 45 percent of the survey respondents indicating that they had read novels or short stories in the survey year.
  • Poetry: Only 12 percent read poetry;
  • Plays: More depressing, only 4 read plays;
  • Reading rates increased with income levels, with people with family incomes under $40,000 reading at rates below the overall average;
  • Those with family incomes of $40,000 or more exceeded average reading rates.

However, there are some interesting results for people of color. The survey indicates that there were “some difference in the reading rates of different types of literature for non-white ethnic and racial group.”

  • Novels or short stories – there is a large gap between the reading rates in these genres with White at 50%, African Americans at 35%, and Hispanics at 25%;
  • Poetry – African Americans and Whites “have similar rates”: African Americans 12% and Whites 13%;
  • Plays – Hispanics are “only somewhat less likely” than Whites to read plays (Hispanics 3.1 % and Whites 3.8 %);
  • Poetry Readings: While Whites “are mostly likely to listen to a book readings, African-Americans are most likely to listen to poetry readings";
  • What age is most likely to attend a poetry reading: The second-most likely age group to attend poetry readings is 18-24.

That last number is important. That is the college entry age. It is important for us to target this age group to attend poetry readings.

Personal Creative Writing

Who is writing? Well not just me. According to Reading at Risk, one in 14 people (7%) said that they wrote creatively during the survey year. 

The study says, “Women were more likely than men to pursue creative writing.” Again, those with high education are more likely to write creatively, and those in the western region of the U.S. are more likely to write than those in other regions. We can look at this positively in regard to Chicana(o)s.

Reading at Risk found, however, that “creative writing does not increase consistently by income levels. Low- and middle-income people are about as likely to write creative works as those with high incomes.” Furthermore, the data “shows that African-Americans are as likely as white Americans to do creative writing.”

Looking at these number above, women are more likely to write creatively. I've seen this first hand in programs for survivors of domestic violence. Author, Michelle Otero, writes about these programs. In her book Malinche's Daughter, Otero writes about one she implemented in Oaxaca.

Second, if creative writing does not increase with income levels, what are we waiting for? One good program locally in El Paso is the Memorias de Silencio program run by the literary journal BorderSenses. It works with the El Paso Community College Migrant Program to teach creative writing to farmworkers. They have published three books already.

Another thing to look that, one that aims "to link children to books, languages, and cultures" is El Dia de Los Ninos/El Dia de Los Libros started by Pat Mora and now taken on by REFORMA and the American Language Association. READ MORE.

It might be no surprise to you that people in general don't read much literature. The survey does not say that people are not reading. Remember, the report just focuses on literature. It does not focus on Internet reading, magazines, and other genres. In addition, it focuses English reading.

However, it does bring us back to the basic question? Who are we writing for? It does not look like it is for our people. And if it is not Chicano(a) writers who will rescue Chicano(as) from dismal reading rates, who will it be?


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