How undocumented Rhode Islanders are picking up literacy skills as they learn to drive

New class in Central Falls helping prepare immigrants to obtain driver privilege cards is also opportunity for literacy education.

By: - June 27, 2023 5:00 am

Ramón Maysonet speaks to students during an adult driver’s education course targeted at Spanish-speakers unable to read or write. Progreso Latino, a Central Falls-based advocacy organization, started the classes in anticipation of the July 1 launch of driver privilege cards in Rhode Island. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

CENTRAL FALLS — Oscar sat hunched silently before a computer at Progreso Latino, a black hoodie obscuring his face from the sides.  

Until about a year ago, after a friend’s deportation, Oscar used to drive even though he cannot read. Friends and family helped him memorize the meanings of signs and how to use their bright colors, shapes, symbols and uniformity to navigate Ocean State roads. Rhode Island Current is not using his last name due to his immigration status.

‘I will be in line that very day’: Undocumented await July 1 start for driver privilege cards

Enrollment in the driver’s education program went against Oscar’s instincts to be invisible to avoid detection as an undocumented immigrant. He changed his mind when his employer — a shipping company — asked him to get a driver privilege card when the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles makes them available in July. 

“I’m not scared of driving,” he said in Spanish in an accent from northern Mexico. “I stopped driving about a year ago because I’m scared of breaking the law.”

The classes began in April as part of an effort to prepare undocumented Rhode Islanders for when a new law approved in 2022 takes effect on July 1. The law will allow undocumented Rhode Islanders to drive legally, many after risking deportation for years by driving without a license.

Students in a driver’s education class for Spanish speakers who can’t read or write listen as Wilfredo Rodriguez proctors a practice exam at Progreso Latino, a Central Falls-based advocacy organization. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

“We like to say we’re not just teachers,” Esther Acevedo, the adult education coordinator at Progreso Latino, said. “We are selling dreams.”

“They come here hoping to pass the test. But we hope that by being in this environment, seeing other students getting their education, they feel motivated to do so themselves.”

Acevedo said the program began in April after Heiny Maldonado, the head of a local labor and immigrant advocacy organization, mentioned the large number of Spanish speakers who seemed to lack the literacy skills to study for and pass the driver’s test. 

In Rhode Island, the written test is available in Spanish — and 17 other languages, including English — and a Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles contracted interpreter is available for those lacking literacy skills.

“[Lower literacy rates among Latin American immigrants] is something that we’ve known about for a long time,” said Maldonado, executive director of Fuerza Laboral, a Central Falls-based labor organization. “So I spoke with Esther about the possibility of Progreso Latino starting a class for those who can’t read or write focused on the driver’s test.”

Esther Acevedo, adult education coordinator at Progreso Latino, a Central Falls-based advocacy organization, talks about the goals of a driver’s education course targeting Spanish-speakers unable to read or write. Progreso Latino started the classes in anticipation of the July 1 launch of driver privilege cards in Rhode Island. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

The free program follows a curriculum created by the Mexican federal government’s National Institute for the Education of Adults called the Education Model for Work and Life (MEVyT). 

Acevedo said the majority of the students come from Guatemala, a country whose government and institutions were gutted by decades of civil war and genocide in the 20th century.

Among those whose education was affected by those conditions is Silvia, a 40-year old Central Falls resident. She said that though she learned to read and write a little bit, full literacy was out of reach. Rhode Island Current is not using her last name due to her undocumented immigration status.

“We lived in a town far from our school,” she said, adding that the government started a literacy program in a town two hours away, which she briefly attended when she was 13. Obligations at home, from work, and the daunting trek made that experience a short-lived one. 

Silvia said she drives around Central Falls when necessary, but worries about being stopped by police and the possibility of deportation because she is undocumented (Central Falls Police officially do not collaborate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). She said she hopes that changes with the driver privilege cards and the classes. 

“This helps me to lose the nerves,” she said. “I have been memorizing the answers, so I can be ready when the test comes.”

According to the World Bank, Guatemala had a literacy rate of 83% in 2021. In neighboring El Salvador — with a similar recent history of Civil War and institutional collapse — the literacy rate was 90%.

‘Que bueno’

Most of the 20 students before driver’s education teacher on June 10 Wilfredo Rodriguez were new to the class. 

After getting them organized, he called up a slide with the words Examen escrito — written exam — up top. Below, a question with three options.

Wilfredo Rodriguez sits at a computer preparing to proctor a practice driver’s test to students at driver’s education class at Progreso Latino, a Central Falls-based advocacy organization. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

“Of the signs you see, which indicates you should give the right of way to other vehicles?” he read, slowly and methodically, making sure his students understood. The options included: A) yield sign, B) a leftward curve sign, and C) an end-of-road sign. 

“¡La A!” they responded in unison, eliciting a grin from Rodriguez. The A!

“Que bueno,” he said softly, making his content apparent to the students. Very good.

The students’ energy and enthusiasm is what the teachers and volunteers hope to see.

“I believe that they get energy from coming here,” said Ramón Maysonet, a driver’s education instructor, adding that being at home with demanding work schedules, students often just sleep or get lost in chores. “Here, you can focus more on the goal.”

Apart from the lead teachers, who are all volunteers, other volunteers come in to work with students one-on-one. Adriana Rodriguez said she lives in Colombia and chose to volunteer while visiting family locally as part of an ethos of charity her family passed down. 

“Driving is a necessity here,” she said. “If you come to this country and can’t drive, things are much more difficult.”

Adriana Rodriguez, a volunteer at Progreso Latino, talks about what motivates her to work with students in preparation for their driver’s test during a coffee break. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

Rodriguez said that she is as much a student as those taking the class.

“You learn to have patience and empathy,” she said. “You need to meet them where they’re at.”

That is exactly what Acevedo hopes to do with the classes. Though the program aims to help students pass the written driving test, she said it also hopes they choose to continue improving their reading and writing skills and eventually move on to their GED. 

“Education is not something to be left for tomorrow,” Acevedo said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.