By Daniel Woolls
Thursday, August 1, 2002
After teaching older women to read, a Spanish literacy program encourages the students to write about their lives. The results are sometimes sheer poetry. Also, update on Canadian gay-marriage ruling and this month's "Our Story."
BARCELONA, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)--Ursula Ibanez says there's been just one thing sweeter than learning to read in her late 50s: writing a love story and seeing it published.
"I was floating in the clouds," says the 66-year-old Barcelona native. "I was so overwhelmed, and said to myself, 'Good Lord, is this possible?'"
Her pride and joy is a short, first-person account of how she met her husband Antonio in rural Spain in the 1950s, a time when education wasn't mandatory and women often got shut out. Ibanez couldn't read the letters her suitor sent from an army barracks, so a girlfriend read them to her and wrote back for her. "It was a pity," Ibanez writes.
Ibanez is a graduate of GAMA, a pioneering adult literacy program in Barcelona that goes a step beyond teaching its students--the vast majority of them women in their 50s and 60s--to read. It encourages them to write and then publishes their work.
GAMA director Angel Marzo says the overriding idea is that these eager, late bloomers have so much living under their belts, so much pent-up experience and wisdom, that it would be a shame not to get it down on paper and share it with others. GAMA is an acronym for the Grupo de Autoedicion de Materiales por y para personas adultas que Aprenden.
Indeed, GAMA's books, which are actually thin, paperback booklets, are used as reading texts in a much broader adult-literacy program run by the Catalonia regional government in northeast Spain. Marzo says around 1,000 people have studied the 50-odd stories, essays, and poems penned by Ibanez and company since GAMA was founded 10 years ago.
"Until now, the texts used in these classes were either too advanced or too simple," Marzo said. See Spot run and Meet Dick and Jane don't quite work for people who have raised families and buried husbands.
As of 2000, Spain's literacy rate was 96.8 percent for women ages 15 or older, compared to 98.6 percent for men. The government offers no breakdown by age, but in 1950, nearly 10 percent of the population over age 10 was illiterate. No information on literacy by gender is available for this time.
According to Marzo and his students, the hardest part of learning to read is not the actual learning, the strangeness of letters taking shape to form words, but conquering the shame--walking into a room full of strangers and admitting you read poorly or not at all.
Support from home can be spotty. Although children tend to rally behind their mothers as they muster the courage to learn to read, husbands and older-generation neighbors and relatives often ask why they bother, says Montserrat Olive, another GAMA teacher.
"But once they have taken the big step of coming to school, they've broken a kind of taboo," Olive said. "And although they may be a bit embarrassed at first, they get caught up in a will to learn and in no time are tremendously motivated."
Nuria Tabernero, 58, spent decades toiling as a seamstress, with minimal reading skills. At age 52 she quit working and went to school, even dabbling in mathematics. It was the best thing she ever did, she says. These days she's writing a short novel. Still, she remembers those initial jitters.
"How could I tell them how little I knew?" she recalls thinking.
"But in a matter of days I saw I wasn't the only one," Tabernero said. "Most of the people from my day are like this. There are some who were luckier than we were, but back then Spain worked this way."
Tabernero's contribution to the GAMA library is a collection of cherished anecdotes about her grandmother. In one, Granny tells of an all-night wake at which the deceased let out a gasp of trapped air, frightening two mourners so badly they got wedged in the doorway as they made a mad dash for safety.
In the introduction to her passages, Tabernero describes the sheer joy she derives from being able to read and write. "I feel like a baby when it discovers it can grab things with its little hands," she says.
Not all the writing is light. Many women describe hard lives in poor, sun-scorched rural regions of southern Spain such as Andalusia and Extremadura and being forced to emigrate all the way across the country to industrial powerhouse Barcelona in the 1950s with their husbands seeking work. Some sound homesick.
Then there is the pain and silence of twilight years spent alone. Another graduate, Carmen Salamanca, published a set of poems with GAMA in 1998 when she was 80 years old. Most are about widowhood and how much she misses her husband. In "Solitude" she writes:
Music is for listening to
In silence and with love
Just like when you were here
And we'd listen together.
You swore you loved me
And that is all over now.
All I have left is music
And my memory of love.
Olive, the teacher, says that, surprisingly, many of the women in GAMA choose verse when they take their first, tentative baby steps in writing. Some even seem to think in poetry, she says. That may be because in their youth, the oral tradition was still alive and well in rural Spain. People told stories, or recited "coplas," a kind of poetic chant, as they worked in the fields or huddled around a fireplace. So some who couldn't read developed a special knack for the rhythm of spoken language.
And in adult literacy classes decades later, that gift surfaces in unexpected and beautiful ways: illiterate people reciting long, elaborate poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca, arguably Spain's most prominent 20th-century bard.
"My mouth would drop open," Olive says. "In their youth they had heard it and recited it and eventually learned it by heart. And they had never seen a single letter of the alphabet."
Daniel Woolls is a journalist based in Madrid.
The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers:
University of Pennsylvania/Graduate School of Education, LITERACY.org:
Also see Women's Enews, July 29, 2002:
"Canada Court Tells Parliament to OK Gay Marriages":
By Penney Kome
CALGARY, Alberta (WOMENSENEWS)--Canada's justice minister announced he will appeal a landmark Ontario court ruling that instructs Parliament to recognize same-sex marriages.
"The government believes it is the responsible course to seek further clarity on these issues," Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said in a terse statement Monday.
Martha McCarthy, the lawyer for the eight gay and lesbian couples who won the case, responded by saying that "same-sex marriage is inevitable." With all the rights that gays and lesbians have won in Canada since 1995, she said, "marriage is virtually the only right that is still withheld." Sexual orientation has been a prohibited ground for discrimination in Canada since 1995 and gay and lesbian couples already have the same status as heterosexual common-law couples.
Monday's announcement came on the very last day that the government could appeal the July 12 court ruling. It was also the day the Pope John Paul II left Canada following seven days of massive public gatherings, including an outdoor Mass that drew an estimated 800,000.
A recent Pollara public opinion poll found that 48 percent of Canadians favor recognizing same-sex marriage and 43 percent oppose it. About 45 percent of Canadians are at least nominally Roman Catholic. The religion opposes homosexual relationships.
Penney Kome is an award-winning feminist author and journalist based in Calgary. She wrote a national column for 12 years, a local column for four years, and has published six books.