Reading takes center-stage in Hunts Point

Photo by Kimberly Devi Milner.

Volunteer Johann Suarez reading his copy of “In the Time of the Butterflies.”

The Point kicks off national literacy campaign for second year

By Kimberly Devi Milner

The Point CDC kicked off its second year in the national literacy initiative, The Big Read, on March 2nd, with Julia Alvarez discussing her acclaimed 2004 novel, “In the Time of the Butterflies,” via Skype.  

Alvarez addressed a small group of readers through the virtual connection, explaining her decision to write a fictional account of the lives of the Mirabal sisters, political dissidents in the Dominican Republic who were murdered under the Trujillo dictatorship.

Copies of the novel will be distributed at events at The Point until June, and afterschool instructors will be encouraged to incorporate the book into their programs, said Danny Peralta, The Point’s Director of Arts and Education.

Alvarez fled with her family to the United States in 1960, leaving the Dominican Republic four months before the Mirabal sisters were murdered after visiting their husbands in prison. The author called the women “shadow sisters who were martyrs of the dictatorship.”

The United Nations designated the day of the sisters’ deaths as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1999.

“It’s amazing that this story about three girls from a country people didn’t even know about become the international symbol of freedom and the rights of women,” said Alvarez.

The kick-off ended, like every Big Read event, with a book-giveaway.

“People can come to an event, check out a show and go home with a book,” said Peralta, who applied for the National Endowment for the Arts grant to work with the novel at a Big Read conference in Minneapolis last year.

Several afterschool instructors who taught The Point’s previous Big Read pick in 2010, Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, which was chosen to commemorate the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, attended the kick-off to get insight on the new material.

Carey Clark, The Point’s Visual Arts Director, said the imagery and surrealism of the Mexican short stories were probably easier for students to translate into visual art than Alvarez’s novel would be. Clark remained optimistic, however.

“It’s such a powerful story–I try to get people to tell their own story–their struggle. People in this neighborhood have a connection to struggle; even if you come from a place of privilege you have those struggles,” she said.

Ernesto Nunez, who helps students at The Point improve their reading skills, noted the novel was well suited for Hunts Point’s extensive Dominican population, but emphasized that the story had universal appeal. Nunez said he would find ways to have younger readers access the novel.

“Younger kids will hear this as a folktale,” said Steven Arti, an army veteran who sat in the audience. “Older students will say how could this happen and will question their history and freedom.”

Johan Suarez, a 24-year-old who volunteers helping young people at The Point and at Banana Kelly High School in Longwood, appreciated receiving a copy of the novel. “Because of this book, I’m more versed with these people’s families and I’m grateful,” he said.

According to Peralta, The Point will try to introduce the novel to readers of all ages, and engage the story in creative ways to appeal to younger readers. He added getting the books out into the community in events ranging from screening the film adaptation to break dancing was itself a success.

“People are going to be spending the next few months working with the book,” he said.

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