Georgiane "Gina" Renteria was forced to drop out of school in the sixth grade to help support her cash-strapped family, kneading 200 flour tortillas a day and crafting scarves to sell on the streets of Jalisco, Mexico.
She spent the next two decades picking strawberries, oranges and grapes in Southern California and processing fish in a plant in Alaska. At age 30, the California-born Renteria landed a temporary position at Pacific Southwest Container in Modesto.
Through a program sponsored by the company, she studied an hour a week with tutor Elizabeth "Betty" Mulnix until she was able to read and write English well enough to pass employment tests for a permanent job with the box manufacturer.
The Literacy Network of Stanislaus County honored Renteria, along with two other women who have overcome obstacles to excel in literacy, Friday during the organization's annual Celebrate Literacy program at the First Baptist Church in Modesto.
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Mulnix was recognized for her dedication to literacy. She has been a reading teacher in California for 52 years.
Renteria's voice quavered as she described her family's struggles during her youth, but said that "with big dreams" she hopes to open her own business assisting children with disabilities.
"If you read, read, read, you are able to speak better. You can speak with precision and accuracy," said Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores, the keynote speaker at the event.
Flores, whose parents were Atwater farmworkers who didn't complete high school, said his mother would devour whatever reading materials she could find, often rereading the newspaper or issues of Readers Digest two or three times.
"It breaks my heart that my parents didn't have a high education, but they required all 10 of their kids to graduate high school," he said.
Many can't read a bus schedule
Nationwide, 43 percent of English-speaking adults are able to read at a "basic or below-basic" level, according to the 2003 National Adult Assessment of Literacy. In Stanislaus County, about 100,000 adults fall into that category, said Karen Williams, director of the Stanislaus Literacy Center.
Those who read at basic or below basic level can't read a bus schedule or use an automatic teller machine. Others in the category cannot read and understand a job application or follow simple written instructions.
Half of the nation's chronically unemployed and 75 percent of welfare recipients are not functionally literate, according to the NAAL.
Those are challenges that Christina Silveira and Maria Morales know well. Both were honored at Friday's event.
Silveira sought help from the ReadingWorks Program in Modesto to fulfill requirements of a welfare-to-work program. She never completed high school because at 17 she said she wanted to "party" instead, using meth and alcohol.
She got married at 19 and had a child. It wasn't until after her husband was sent to prison and her mother died that Silveira realized she had to do something to turn her life around.
"I realized it was me and my daughter and I have to support her," said Silveira, 23, who recently celebrated two years of being drug-free and sober.
Studying with a tutor from ReadingWorks, Silveira earned a general education degree and completed a certified nursing assistant course. She works for All Hours In-Home Care and plans to become a licensed vocational nurse.
"When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor," she said. "I'm probably not going to do that, but I can be a nurse."
Morales didn't speak English when she arrived in Newman at 15 from Mexico, where she had spent most of her youth cleaning houses with her mother and working for 50 cents a day in canneries.
She took intensive English language classes in Merced and eventually obtained her GED at Newman Adult School. Morales, 36, is on track to complete an associate of arts degree in child development from Modesto Junior College next year.
"Learning English opened up so many doors," said Morales, who lives in Newman with her husband and three children.
"I was able to overcome my fears and become someone in life. Now I can help others as I have been helped."
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at email@example.com or 238-4574.