Kathryn White, with Nami Patel
Shhh. Don’t tell Nicole this, but my favorite bookstore in all the world is Libros del Lago, a tiny bookstore along Calle Santander in Panajachel, Guatemala. It’s sandwiched between an ice cream shop and street vendors, and is my go-to store for books to develop my Spanish fluency and literacy. In Guatemala, independent bookstores don’t compete against big chains and online retailers, they compete against literacy rates among the worst in the hemisphere.
Folks from the Northside won’t be surprised to learn that it is Guatemalan women themselves who are kicking these dismal literacy rates to the curb and working to create a generation of readers — and leaders — whose impact will ripple out for centuries to come. Starfish: Her Infinite Impact is a partnership between indigenous women in rural Guatemala and communities of learning and support who have come alongside them from the U.S.
I joined this amazing group of women as their US Executive Director last year, and what unfolded was nothing short of an adventure. Year One as a first-time Executive Director, has at times felt like juggling my grandmother’s china tea cups while jumping on a trampoline! But working with a community of empowered women came with built-in support. And my attempts to master Spanish have been met with great empathy by my co-workers in Guatemala. For most of them, Spanish is their second language too. Over 50% of Guatemalans are indigenous peoples of Mayan descent who speak one (or more!) of over twenty Mayan languages. Young people begin to learn Spanish when they start school and — for many — the older members of their family were not able to attend school long enough to become fluent themselves.
Against a backdrop of dismay literacy rates, this year we launched the Starfish Impact School, a free, all-girls secondary school that differs radically from existing schools in Guatemala. The Starfish Impact School is fostering a lifelong love of reading in our students. Earlier this year, students read Esperanza Rising, a novella about a young girl in Mexico whose fairytale life is interrupted by a sudden tragedy that forces Esperanza and her mother to flee to California during the Great Depression and settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. For most of our girls, this was the first book that they read not only for academic purposes, but also as part of an ongoing effort to experience learning as something fun, interactive, and engaging. Next they’ll read The Diary of Anne Frank and continue to better understand the world outside of and within themselves.
Literacy is a basic human right. And because of its “multiplier effect”, literacy holds the key to eradicating poverty, achieving gender equality, and improving the quality of life for entire communities. Illiteracy has an overwhelmingly female face worldwide. According to a 2015 study, only 39% of Mayan women ages 15-64 in Guatemala are literate. Most of our 7th-graders have never had an individual, personal copy of a book to read, let alone had books at home. And yet we know that literacy leads to transformative change: it inspires, it educates, it opens all doors.
BookBar has jumped in to support literacy efforts at the Starfish Impact School by donating over 80 Spanish language books to fill the shelves of our library and captivate and inspire our students. I can’t wait to see the looks on students’ faces when they see these amazing titles. From James Y El Melocoton Gigante to La Casa En Mango Street, these stories will foster imagination, built empathy, expand vocabulary, increase students’ knowledge of the world, and — most importantly — fuel a love of school and learning.
BookBar, thank you! Starfish welcomes you with abrazos fuertes to the mighty force of Coloradans supporting our efforts. And if anyone in the BookBar Community would like to add their own support, join us at the Space Gallery on Sept 7th where you can inscribe one of these books with a message of support to our students, make a gift on our website, or send us a note with ideas for how we can work together.