“Hmm,” mused 10-year-old Isabella Gutierrez, deep in thought. The silence stretched. The Annunciation Catholic School fourth-grader furrowed her brow, trying to decide what her favorite part of the Luciernagas reading program has been so far. “There’s just so much stuff I like,” she finally announced, “but I think it was when we made tortillas!”
Isabella and her mother, Nicole, and younger brother, Juan Carlos, are among the families immersed in a six-week Spanish-English language initiative at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. The fun has not stopped with tortillas. There have been puppets, songs, door prizes and making instruments. There are themes to explore, like fairness, courage, heritage, family bonding and caring for the natural world. The magic unfolds each Thursday evening through the power of reading, storytelling and interaction.
What is it?
Luciernagas is a unique reading program developed by the Mississippi Humanities Council in response to the increasing number of Spanish-speaking families in the state.
In weekly sessions, children and their parents experience animated storytelling and activities that help move each family beyond functional reading to thoughtful literacy. Luciernagas uses the family unit to instill a love of reading, promote interest in public libraries and inspire reading aloud and book discussion at home.
Clara Marshall, with the AmeriCorps VISTA national service program, is coordinator of Luciernagas at the Columbus library. Her own parents are originally from Mexico.
“We have about 12 families in our program and give them books to take home to read to their children each week,” explained Marshall, who hails from Yuma, Arizona. “On Thursdays, we have a professional storyteller and discussion.” Selected books are read aloud in English and in Spanish. Titles include “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Magda’s Tortillas,” “Pepita Talks Twice” and “Where Fireflies Dance” — or “Ahi, Donde Bailan las Luciernagas,” the book that helped inspire the program’s name.
According to the Hispanic grandmother in Lucha Corpi’s tale, flickering fireflies — luciernagas — are the bright spirits of travelers who have passed on. At night, their lights protect from danger and show the way.
“I found this concept to be in keeping with the Mississippi Humanities Council’s foci on courage, tradition and family heritage,” said David Morgan, special projects director for the Jackson-based council. “On a more personal note, I selected the program title in memory and celebration of my deceased wife, Lucie’, who was a loving wife, wonderful mother and gifted teacher of elementary school children.”
Read me a story
Nicole Gutierrez, Isabella’s mother, is impressed with the program. The Columbus native met her husband, from Tecomatlan, Mexico, in 2003. Luciernagas is increasing Isabella’s and Juan Carlos’ dual-language skills, increasing their knowledge in an entertaining, relaxed setting.
“The storyteller is very great; she has a lot of enthusiasm, acts out the parts, makes funny faces … the [discussion leader] does the same, but in Spanish,” said Nicole.
June Caldwell of Pontotoc is the storyteller; Lilian Shannon of Caledonia is the discussion leader. Caldwell helped develop the Humanities Council’s Family Reading Bonds and its sister program, Luciernagas, years ago.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” said Caldwell, who used to teach gifted third- and fourth-graders. When more and more Hispanic families moved to Pontotoc, she saw some of the problems the children had in school. “Some of them were floundering trying to learn the language, and I saw the whole family was having problems.”
She viewed the reading programs as ways to increase language skills but also show parents how to work with children, and children how to work with parents.
“They’re not only learning a language, they are also bonding,” Caldwell noted.
Package in fun
Caldwell brings props to each session so the children can act out book characters. This week her inventory included a stop sign for a crossing guard and an apron for a butcher. Isabella got to act out making tortillas when the group heard “Magda’s Tortillas,” by Becky Chavarria-Chairez, read aloud in English and Spanish.
“She got to make ‘fake’ tortillas and then they made real tortillas; they loved it,” said Nicole. Making homemade percussive instruments was a big hit, too. “Clara played the saxophone, and the children played their little instruments. We were having our own little rock concert in there,” laughed Gutierrez. “It’s a fun family time — it’s a breath of fresh air.”
Diana Maya, 11, liked making instruments, too. Like the Gutierrez children, she and her younger sister, Abigail, attend Annunciation School. Diana’s mother, Maria Guadaloupe Maya, is from Guanajuato in central Mexico. Her husband is from Mexico City. Maria is still working on her English. The children are working on their Spanish.
“I don’t really understand Spanish,” said young Diana. But she is learning, even when she isn’t aware of it. “I made an instrument with a bottle and macaroni and we sang. I like it when they dance around and when they cook tortillas and read.”
“Yes,” her mother said, somewhat haltingly, “she is learning a lot, espanol. She’s asking.”
The final session Aug. 28 promises to be festive. Rumor has it there will even be music from First United Methodist Church choir director Doug Browning and the Gospel Night Crawlers.
Luciernagas is generating rewards for more than just the families involved. It’s empowered Marshall, too.
” … It has given me the confidence to engage in other multicultural programming and outreach for the library,” the coordinator said. “The absolute most rewarding part is gaining acceptance into this tight-knit community and witnessing them open up to the program team, the library and the (larger) community. … This program and its participants feel like home to me.”
Isabella may have summed it up well for everyone: “I hope they do it again next year!”
Editor’s note: The local Luciernagas program is financially assisted by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Mississippi Humanities Council. Other sponsors include Ashley Furniture, the Columbus Arts Council, Dr. David K. Curtis Pediatric Dentistry, First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir, Jack Link’s Beef Jerky and Tampico Bay.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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