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Orlando Sentinel

Secrets And Struggles: The Need To Read

By Aline Mendelsohn

August 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Two years ago, when Carmen Mercado landed a job at Cirque de Soleil, she worried that her employer would learn her secret.

"Some people would rather say, 'I've been in jail,' than 'Listen, I can't read,' " says Mercado, who has lived in Central Florida for 15 years.

With one out of five Floridians unable to read at a functional level, the state has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the country.

"In your daily life you've probably stood in line behind someone who doesn't know how to read," says Joyce Whidden, executive director of the Adult Literacy League in Orlando. "Most people have a block of skills, but those who are not functionally literate have some holes in the block like Swiss cheese, enough holes that they can't do everyday things."

These people struggle with the most mundane of tasks -- finding an intersection on a map, completing a job application, using ATM machines.

Mercado and others are working to end that struggle, with the help of the Adult Literacy League.

Nancy Cooper scribbles at a whiteboard, asking her student to explain the difference between "a" and "an."

Mercado, 52, answers the question correctly and adds: "I have that in the folders in my head. I have a big filing cabinet in my head."

"And we're making it bigger," says Cooper, her tutor.

As a child in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mercado was always the quiet girl in the back. The one who couldn't read. Her teachers paid more attention to the troublemakers, but just because she didn't make trouble didn't mean she wasn't in trouble.

The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants who did not read or write English, Mercado often stayed home from school to take care of her three siblings.In the seventh grade, she dropped out.

She found work in a Brooklyn textile factory until she married at age 21. For the next 30 years, she lived with the fear that others would discover her reading difficulties.

But she had two children severely disabled by muscular dystrophy, and their needs came first. She took care of them until they died.

When she received the call from Cirque du Soleil offering her part-time work, she knew it was time to find help.

She called information, inquiring about adult literacy resources. The operator transferred her to the Adult Literacy League, where she spoke to Cooper.

The duo began to meet weekly, developing reading, math and everyday skills, such as using a measuring tape and writing checks. Now Mercado reads newspapers and enjoys books by horror novelist V.C. Andrews.

"It's not Shakespeare, but they're books that I like," she says.

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