Press Package

Salt Lake Tribune

Latinos Seeking Empowerment Through Learning

Utah group looks to libraries; artist to punctuate message Reforma de Utah Says Libraries Empower Latinos

Published: 04/26/1999

As a high school student, Jose Luis Orozco left Mexico to escape the economic hardship of his struggling country. He came to America only to discover another kind of difficulty in what he thought would be the land of dreams.

"There were so many Latino students trying to swim in the mainstream, but often they failed because they lacked any kind of positive identity," Orozco said. "There was oppression and segregation and these things still exist. It is a constant struggle."

Now Orozco, a Los-Angeles based artist who will be in Utah this week, uses music and folk tales from across Latin America to try to combat the problem.

Ben Ocon, one of the founders of the Latino organization Reforma de Utah, is trying to use libraries to accomplish the same objective.

"Libraries can change lives," Ocon said. "Our goal for Latinos is the same that libraries should have for all people -- to come into the fold and receive information."

This week, Ocon and Orozco's worlds will come together with a series of events designed to promote bilingual literacy and culturally diverse children's literature. Latino literacy advocates have dubbed Friday El Dia de los Ninos/El Dia de los Libros, or The Day of the Children/The Day of the Books. Orozco, who has received several awards for his recordings and books, will perform Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at libraries in West Valley City, Ogden and Salt Lake City.

Orozco uses folk songs and lullabies learned from his grandmother and on his travels across Latin America and the Caribbean to teach about valuing culture -- your own and others'.

"Once children, at an early age, understand other cultures, the more they appreciate that people are different from each other and that it is OK," Orozco said. "When there is more understanding, there is less conflict. It is ignorance that often creates the problems."

Music, Orozco says, is the perfect teaching tool.

And libraries, Ocon believes, are the perfect setting -- for Orozco's music and more.

"What we've seen is that using libraries empowers people," Ocon said. "Information is a commodity that allows people to act: In the political sector it raises consciousness, in the business sector is gives people a chance to be successful."

Ocon's organization is the state chapter of the national Reforma group that seeks to encourage Latinos to use the libraries and help libraries develop Spanish language collections that will be relevant to Latinos.

Latinos, the state's fastest-growing ethnic minority group, account for about 6 percent of the state's population. From 1990 to 1996, the number of Utah Latinos grew from 85,329 to 121,000 -- a 42 percent increase compared to a 14 percent increase of the state's white population during that period.

One of Reforma's mottos has been Leer es Poder, or Reading is Power. It is bad enough, Ocon said, that many Latinos do not use libraries or feel comfortable checking out books and other materials. But in an age where information on computers is so prevalent, and rates of computer ownership for ethnic minorities are low, libraries are more important than ever, he said.

"The library has a role to play in society as a gateway for immigrant communities," said Ocon, a native of Mexico who lived most of his life in Los Angeles. "Our libraries have to have collections that are relevant, and many do -- like the English-as-a-second-language materials to help immigrants learn English."

In an attempt to recognize authors' efforts at authentic portrayals of Latino life, Graciela Italiano-Thomas established the Americas Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature. Italiano-Thomas, director of the Utah Latino social service organization Centro de la Familia, has created a library -- with the help of a volunteer from Reforma de Utah -- that features recipients of the award.

Orozco will be on hand Friday for the dedication of the library at Centro de la Familia, 320 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

On Wednesday, Orozco will perform at 7 p.m. at the Hunter Library, 4700 West 4100 South. On Thursday, he will be at Ogden's Weber County Library, 2464 Jefferson Ave., at 7 p.m. And the following day, Orozco will sing at the Day-Riverside Library, 1575 West 1000 North, at 7 p.m.