Growing up as a child in southeast Los Angeles, I don’t remember a single summer in which I wasn’t enrolled in the reading program at the Downey City Library. Multiple times a week, I would skip through the electronic doors holding my father’s hand, the air conditioning coaxing us into the entryway where we were greeted by a display case featuring the latest children’s books. I would greedily pick a handful of the new releases before my dad walked me to the children’s section, handing me off to the young librarian who would watch me read as my father studied in his favorite carrel at the other end of the library. This ritual felt like home.

On International Literacy Day I am thinking of my parents and what I owe to their complicated relationships to language and the written word. Children of adults with low literacy skills like my mom’s are 72% more likely to be at a low reading level in school. Poverty also plays a large role in whether children develop literacy skills during their early years, and 45% of Latino fourth graders score below basic reading levels. In many ways I’m simply lucky to have beaten these odds, but I am also the product of two people who fought like hell to make sure I excelled in reading and writing.

I do not come from a family of readers. I am an outlier who developed a love of reading and writing at a very young age. I grew up to be a journalist largely because I had parents who nurtured my interests even while navigating their own tangled up feelings about respectability and literacy. But I also grew up to become what writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio calls in her book The Undocumented Americans, a “professional immigrant’s daughter,” a child of a migrant who tries to “solve shit.” As a reporter who covers immigration, I try to use what I have been afforded as a citizen of the United States to investigate and make sense of the laws and policies that brutalize immigrant communities. Given my personal and familial background, this industry—as hard as it is to tolerate sometimes—has brought me full circle. 

My mom died 10 years ago. She was diagnosed with a learning disability growing up poor and white in Bell Gardens, not far from where I would be raised. As an adult, she was functionally illiterate, able to scratch out a grocery list, for example, or a short message in a birthday card, but not much beyond that. My father, a Mexican immigrant, came to the United States in his early 20s. Learning English while undocumented was a slow, painful, and humbling process—the vestiges of which still haunt him today. After nearly 50 years in the United States, my dad is still self-conscious about his accent, and flies into a rage if white Americans assume he does not know English. He is a proficient reader and writer, but remains unsure of his abilities. Sometimes he calls me from work late at night to double check the spelling for a note he wants to leave behind for a lost and found item, always afraid someone at the hospital where he works as a janitor will accuse him of stealing.

Growing up, our family of five was poor and there was little money for toys or birthday parties, but given their experiences in the education system and their own insecurities surrounding literacy, my parents always found a way to put books in my life. During the fall, always my most beloved time of year, my mom would scrounge up money for the Scholastic Book Fair, ensuring I was able to purchase at least two books. My father, who for the entirety of my childhood juggled two or more jobs, made reading a priority, whether that was signing me up for the summer reading program or only allowing me to watch Reading Rainbow when I was home sick. I flourished in school because of my parents. I won reading contests and “student of the month” awards, and I was even offered the opportunity to skip fourth grade.

My parents’ investment in me was also an investment in our family. My voracious reading gave me an extensive vocabulary and writing skills that were well above my grade level, which meant that my role as family advocate was cemented from an early age. I could help my parents craft letters, decode complicated documents, and even help my dad with his homework when he enrolled in adult education classes.

The irony is not lost on me that I would eventually work as a movement journalist, making the most of the skills I first acquired as a child to focus on journalism that seeks to advance justice. I owe so much of how I work to who raised me, but everything wasn’t peachy in my family. I’ve written before about my complicated relationship with my father, the violence in our home, and the enduring trauma of poverty. My teenage years were a nightmare. I veered very far away from being the star student and regularly hovered into dangerous territory that could have permanently derailed my life. If I didn’t have reading and writing to anchor myself, I am certain I would not be here today.

Illiteracy is almost always tangled up with poverty, which speaks to the communities and populations of children our country deems worthy of investing in. In southeast Los Angeles, Latinos make up 81% of the population and like many of the children in her community, my niece is navigating challenges that make her more prone to illiteracy, including poverty, a family history of illiteracy, and an underfunded publication education system in a state that—as The Guardian reportedhas “a greater concentration of billionaires and holders of university doctorates than any place on earth.” During the pandemic, school systems nationwide are on the brink of disaster and it is already vulnerable children like my beloved eight-year-old niece who will fall further behind.

She lives in southeast Los Angeles and is attending the same elementary school where I flourished, and she cannot read. Last summer when she came to visit me in North Carolina, we walked to the local library and she very specifically insisted on reading The Little Red Hen. It took me a few moments to realize that she had developed the clever and common coping mechanism of memorizing the book.

Each day I am riddled with guilt and grief that in all of the work I do to seek justice for communities of color, there seems to be so little that I can do for my niece. There is no easy fix for the problems she faces. In many ways, she is battling the same conditions that I once encountered. Fortunately I had adults in my life who refused to let me fall through the cracks. I am hoping that from 3,000 miles away, I can somehow figure out how to do the same for her.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.