Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Climbing the Ladder with Literacy

by Deleted User (writer), Los Angeles, May 24, 2007

Mario Martinez didn’t mind washing cars for a living at Mercedes Benz in Beverly Hills. It was one of his first jobs after moving here from El Salvador in 1993, and his coworkers made him feel at home.
English was still completely foreign. He didn’t speak a word of it, and they all spoke Spanish. But Martinez wasn’t interested in remaining in that comfortable world. He knew he had to do more to get ahead.

“I was cleaning cars, I really enjoyed doing that, but I believe everybody looks forward to moving on and trying to do different things,” he said. “In the environment where I was working, I used to speak Spanish all the time. Without English, it’s very difficult to get things going, to get a job.”

A new life in America meant new opportunities; Martinez was here for that one reason. He was chasing the American Dream, and the only thing blocking him now was the language. He saw his coworkers. He saw how much potential they had, but he also saw how happy they were not knowing much English and washing cars.

At work one day, they told Martinez about a free workplace literacy program out of the Beverly Hills Public Library, where volunteer tutors come to companies to teach employees how to read, write and speak in English. None of them decided to pursue it. Martinez, on the contrary, thought he had found gold.

For the many Spanish-speaking employees of big businesses in Beverly Hills, ranging from the Beverly Hilton, the Beverly Wilshire and the Post Office to Wells Fargo Bank and Whole Foods, the library’s workplace literacy program provides an opportunity to move up in the world by learning English.

“I know how difficult it is to advance…I know what it is not knowing enough,” said Mayor Jimmy Delshad, who was born in Iran and is the first Iranian-American mayor in the United States. In a speech to about 100 guests during the program’s 13th annual luncheon in April, he also paid specific tribute to Martinez. “It’s really the individual who makes a program like this work,” he said.

The workplace literacy program took off when the library received a five-year state grant in 1995. The Beverly Hills Rotary Club and the Friends of the Beverly Hills Public Library, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the library’s diverse programs, soon got involved as additional financial backers. Now, the city contributes more than two-thirds of the finances needed to keep the program alive.

“Year by year we’ve added more sites, Beverly Hills Hotel, Beverly Wilshire, Mercedes Benz…” said Adriane Lorin, a board member of the Friends of the Beverly Hills Public Library. “One of the most incredible things is hearing what the students have done and how they have improved.”

Many of the growing funds are also used for the library’s adult literary program, which takes place in the library and is popular among Persian residents in the community who want to improve their English. Lorin has been tutoring for the adult program since its inception and helped expand its reach five years ago to include families and members of the city government. But the workplace literacy student has a much different profile. Ninety-nine percent are Hispanic.

“They are dealing with entry-level jobs that they want to have upgraded,” said Delores Allmond, the Beverly Hills Public Library literacy coordinator, of students interested in the workplace program. “They are dishwashers, they are maids, they are porters, they wash cars…everybody wants to make more money and have jobs with more responsibility.”

It’s hard to imagine the 32-year-old, intelligent, bright-eyed and charismatic Martinez as the 18-year-old who had completed the 6th grade when he first came here. After enrolling in the workplace literacy program in 2003, he went on to receive his GED and attend night classes in college, all while washing cars at Mercedes Benz. Determined and quickly recognized as an exemplary student, he gained a place in the Henry Huffman Leadership Program, a six-month leadership development program for advanced English language learners, which he had heard of through the library.

Two years later, a position for Lease Return Specialist opened up at the car dealership. He called up the general manager at the time and applied for it. On November 17, 2005, he got the job.

“After I started speaking English, I said ‘Wow, I really have the opportunity to do something else,’” Martinez siad. “I work 100 percent to try to do things better than somebody else before and to me, education is very important. When we are very poor, it’s the best way to control the poorness.”

Martinez is now saving up for a house and was in the middle of fixing up a duplex he had just moved into with his wife and stepson. Some of his other plans for the future include finishing up college and eventually starting his own business. He thought marketing would be a good field to get into.

“This city has always battled with the intimidation factor of being Beverly Hills,” said Todd Johnson, the general manager of Lawry’s Prime Rib on La Cienega Boulevard. “The program has helped workers understand the language, learn it and raise a family here in a much better situation than they would have elsewhere.”

Lawry’s has been integral to the growth of individuals like Martinez as the literacy program’s biggest supporter. Each year, the restaurant holds three fundraisers for the program: a breakfast, the annual luncheon, and an event through the Beverly Hills Rotary Club that brings in $5,000 a year alone. In addition, 135 of its own employees have gone through the workplace learning process themselves. One bartender, Ricardo Diaz, improved his English so much with the program that his daughter decided to become a tutor to give back.

“Our company has always believed in improving people’s lives and helping them go further, and this is another program that enables that,” Johnson said.

In a city where 38 percent of the population is foreign-born and where nearly half speak languages other than English at home, promoting English language learning has helped build community strength and interactivity, regardless of race or class.

The 92 tutors, who are often residents, get invested in their students who in turn better the community, whether as confident waiters and waitresses in restaurants, or competent leasing coordinators at Mercedes Benz. It makes Beverly Hills a place that city officials are proud of.

“People say, ‘Literacy Program? In Beverly Hills?’ It leads to all kinds of jokes, but it’s truly a measure of the big heart of this community,” said Beverley Simmons, director of library services.

About the Writer

Deleted User is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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3 comments on Climbing the Ladder with Literacy

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By Steven Lane on May 24, 2007 at 12:34 am
Absolutely a great article, Mario will be a role model whether he asked for it or not. My hat's off to him.
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By Jen on May 24, 2007 at 03:43 pm
Wow. Now this is what we need MORE of. Awesome article! Very informative.
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By Annonymous on June 12, 2007 at 12:02 am
Loved the article and the reminder about how blessed we are to live in a country that, with all its problems, is still the greatest country on earth. great writing. H
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