How I Learned to Read


Willy Palomo



¿Are you mi Mama? 

beckoned the birdie in our favorite book. 

Cuddled and coddled, I want to brag, 

decirte that she read to me the most,

every night. Except if you ask Mama, it was

faith, not education, not knowledge, but the Holy 

Ghost which gave her the power to understand the scriptures, when she,

humiliated, confessed to the missionaries she didn’t know how to read.

It never occurred to me until

just now that if her story is true, then she never actually read me anything as a 

kid. She must have looked at

letters & saw nothing but another endless

maze of streets & signs, another

nameless map of New York, left to navigate

on pure faith and instinct. She’d interpret   

pictures the same way she’d memorize streets the same way she’d read

quiet gringos, smirking as she passed. In 1st grade, I made it my goal to teach her to

read. I took out all our books in front of guests,

spilling a library of shame into the room. I’d correct her English

the same way I’d correct her children’s stories the same way I now write her story

under a language she will never call home. There’s not a word for her

verdad in English, no matter how many times I try 

write it down. From a country where poets are

executed & literacy meant little more than signing away

your name next to an X, she taught me to walk without

zapatos, to read without an alphabet shackling my tongue.


After Javier Zamora