In Land of TVs, a Fair Tries to Boost Literacy

Four-day book festival in Mexico tries to sell reading

On the pink-stone esplanade of Chalco's 16th-century church, gaggles of school kids and a few Indian families browse through two short rows of book-stuffed booths that make up the second annual Chalco Book Fair.

A rival to Frankfurt's and Chicago's giant bookfests it's not, but Chalco's four-day book fair, held last week, is extraordinary for other reasons.

Once the center of one of Mexico's greatest pre-Hispanic cultures, Chalco is now synonymous with the country's poverty, urban marginalization, and educational shortcomings. Yet in this slum-like sprawl on the eastern flank of Mexico City, a plucky effort is being made to bring the written word to a bookless population.

"Chalco is really a third-world city within a third-world country, with all the lower economic and educational levels and other limitations that implies," says Maria de los Angeles Vanegas Olivares, author of the book fair. "That's the reason for this year's slogan: 'Reading sets man free.' "

A year ago, Ms. Vanegas expanded her 15-year-old stationery business by opening a bookstore, the only one in the town of 1 million. "The bookstore and this fair are just a grain of sand in the titanic effort that is needed to encourage reading and the spiritual wealth it offers," she says. "But it's a start."

Chalco's book fair does pique some interest among school kids, judging by the numbers of them leafing through easy-read action stories and self-help volumes. But their comments reflect the reading reality not just of Chalco, but of many adolescents everywhere.

Learning from movies?

"I don't really read unless I have to for a report or something," says Omar Martnez Ambrosio, a high school student. "Anyway, books aren't the only way to learn, there are videos and movies," says Omar's friend Margarito Garca Arteaga, who adds, "If I read, it's just something like electronics."

The task of inspiring Mexicans to read is indeed daunting. In Mexico, a recent survey revealed that more than 1 in 5 homes don't have a single book. (At the same time, nearly 9 in 10 have a color TV). The survey found little reading of literature or for pleasure.

The lack of interest in reading reflects Mexico's stubborn illiteracy problem and enduring educational challenges. About 10 percent of those over age 15 are unable to read and write, according to INEGI, the country's national statistics institute.

But that figure hides the much higher levels of illiteracy in poor states with high indigenous populations. For example, in Chiapas nearly 1 in 5 men and 1 in 3 women can't read. Oaxaca and Guerrero States have similar numbers. Chalco's heavily immigrant population includes members of 40 of Mexico's 56 indigenous groups, many coming from states with the highest illiteracy, says municipal historian Alejandro Lpez.

Mexico's new education plan

Beyond illiteracy figures, low education levels provide another indication of the difficulties facing promoters of books and reading.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len unveiled an ambitious three-year development program last week that sets a goal for 90 percent of all children to complete elementary school. It also calls for 3 of every 4 adolescents who enter secondary education to graduate.

Today, only 70 percent of Mexican children complete elementary education, while just 45 percent complete secondary level, according to another INEGI study. In Chiapas, in Mexico's far south, 27 percent of school-age children (6-14) don't go to school. That suggests another of Mexico's challenges: its north-south divide. In northern states, the average educational level is 10th grade, while the average in some southern states falls below Grade 4.

The words of two girls reading intently through a romance novel hint that access to books and economics are the most important determinants of whether kids read.

"We have books in our house, and I like to read, but I'm sure that in general people are reading less," says Alma Denise Espinosa Barriga. "If the parents don't read or are too poor to buy a book, it's unlikely the children will turn to books."

Taking a cue from the book fair, Chalco's only higher education institution, Universidad Azteca, is working with the city to expand its library for public use. "We feel a real need to make more books accessible to more people," says Azteca rector Augustn Lpez Gonzlez Pacheco.

But the first step in opening Chalco to the world of books is already being taken by its modest book fair. "We're not here so much to sell books," says Victor Ral Macedo Lpez, a sales representative manning the booth of Editorial Trillas publishers. "We just want people to know books better and feel comfortable with them. Maybe then they'll understand a little better everything that books have to offer."

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