‘Coquito’ And The Magic of Reading

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 all over Peru.

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

Teaching how to read is difficult. Everardo felt obliged to invent a new method. He opened his notebook and scribbled some ideas. Everardo devoted school break to compose 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 like 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 seven years, the book was finally 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. In his dream, he had a son, a very smart child named 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 twelve thousand copies.

Most instructional books remain popular for 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. Focused on selling 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 passion was just to teach children. The multiple accolades, praise, and honorific titles happened because he was truthful to his dreams.

Nowadays, the 89-year-old Everardo Zapata Santillana reflects: «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.» 

Lately, technology has transformed education. Software resources, like media or interactive learning, obliged children to spend more time with a computer than with a real teacher. But 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 efforts to improve Peruvian education. Thank you, prosor.𝔖

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