‘Coquito’ And The Magic of Reading

The Dream of Everardo Zapata Santillana

In the late 1940’s, Peru endured a tremendous level of inequality. Only four out of ten children were able to read. Governmental efforts on education had mainly concentrated in urban areas. In the countryside, education practically did not exist.

In those years, a twenty-year-old named Everardo Zapata Santillana had recently graduated as a teacher. Born and raised in Arequipa, Everardo was very distressed about Peru’s educational gap. He began traveling to several towns, visiting schools and learning different teaching techniques.

His travels lasted five years.

President Jose Luis Bustamante

Bustamante y Rivero

In 1945, Jose Luis Bustamante and Rivero was elected President of Peru. Bustamante professed a leftist stance, championing assistance for workers and the poor. In the political Peruvian arena, that was a very unpopular path. Peruvian oligarchs loathed empowering the masses. While the oligarchy plotted a way to overthrow him, Bustamante was able to issue an educational reform. The state would fund the construction of over two thousand schools across the Peruvian territory.

Everardo had ended his journey and returned to Arequipa, his hometown. After learning about Bustamante’s reform, Everardo founded the school Number 9638, in the town of Islay. At the time of inauguration, in 1947, twenty-six children were enrolled. After learning a lot in his travels, the young Everardo was confident of his teaching skills. But unfortunately, his students only made a small progress. Everardo’s teaching methods were worthless and he failed miserably. His disappointment worsened after hearing the recent news from Lima: President Bustamante had been deposed in a coup d’etat. General Odría assumed office and led a bloodthirsty regime.

Teaching how to read is a very difficult task. After admitting his failure, Everardo felt obliged to invent a new method. He opened his notebook and scribbled some ideas. Everardo devoted school break to compose a set of reading lessons. The teacher had to examine the world of children, he reasoned. “We must use words taken from children’s vocabulary. We must also integrate three-word sentences, adding rhythm and consonance which may sound as a melody to the ear”, he added.

Everardo Zapata and his students

Afterward, Everardo shared the lessons with teachers from nearby schools. His colleagues obtained astonishing results. Everardo’s lessons became popular and, in the second year, an inspector from the Education Department paid him a visit. After Everardo mentioned the success of his reading lessons, the inspector said: ‘you must turn that material into a book’.

An arduous creative process then unfolded. Everardo composed diagrams for every single vocabulary letter. But the real challenge came at the time of creating the first sentences. “Sentences must sound like melodies and use subjects and objects that children are fond of”, he thought. Then, as a mysterious revelation, he scribbled the following words on his notepad:

Mi mamá me mima.

The young Everardo never imagined this phrase would be read by millions of Peruvian children for various generations.

The Invention of ‘Coquito’

Mi mama me mima- Sumaq

After a work period of seven years, the book was ready for print. His publisher only intended to print two thousand copies. But Everardo pushed him to print five thousand. After some initial resistance, his publisher gave in. “I only hope we sell two thousand copies to recover the money invested”, he said to Everardo. Everardo brainstormed a list of potential book titles: Sunset, the Dawn or Twilight. But his publisher wanted a more original name. What do you think of the name “Coquito”?, his publisher asked. Everardo replied: I just don’t like it.

That same night, however, Everardo had a dream. He had fathered a very intelligent child whose name was Coquito. The next morning, Everardo told his publisher he liked ‘Coquito’ as a title. On April 1st, 1955, the book was released for sale. The first edition sold out in the first two weeks. The next month, an additional seven thousand copies were printed. This new batch also quickly went out of stock. Only in 1955, Everardo sold a total of 12 thousand copies.

Most instructional books remain popular just a few years, being replaced by new titles. This rule of thumb does not apply to Coquito. Its popularity grew solidly and it became children’s favorite book. From 1955 until today, Everardo Zapata Santillana has sold over 40 million Coquito copies.

The Legacy of Everardo Zapata

Everardo Zapata Santillana-Sumaq

How did they come up with the name ‘Coquito’? It just happened by serendipity. Coquito is a nickname given to boys named Jorge. Neither Everardo nor his publisher had children at the time. Since his only goal was to sell books, the publisher believed Coquito was a catchy title. Years later, Everardo decided to name his second child ‘Jorge’.

Coquito’s breakthrough surpassed Peru and expanded across Latin America. Children in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico, Uruguay and seven other nations have learned to read with Coquito. Although the book made Everardo a millionaire, he never cared for it. His only passion was to teach children how to read. The multiple accolades, praise, and honorific titles happened because he was truthful to his dreams.

Nowadays, the 89-year-old Everardo Zapata Santillana reflect in his long trajectory: “I’ve been fortunate to have recognition in life, here in Peru and abroad. I want to correspond to all the accolades by improving the future copies of Coquito. There is always so much to do. If you ever remember me, all praise to God.” 

Lately, modern technology has transformed education. Software resources, like media or interactive learning, obliged children to spend more hours in front of a computer than with a real teacher. After witnessing such transformation, the prospect of children being educated by machines does not fluster Everardo. This revolution is inevitable, he says, and people must adapt. In fact, he is also trying to adapt. His editors are now studying the options of taking Coquito to the computer screen.

In May 1955, Peruvian children began repeating the legendary “Mi mama me mima” and have continuously done so for five decades. If the efforts of Coquito going digital prove successful, this tradition will continue.

Sumaq salutes Don Everardo for his work in the advancement of Peruvian education. Thank you, profe.𝔖