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How the Gonzalezes rose - partway - from poverty

''Maria Gonzalez is a Peruvian mother of 11 - none of whom have the same father. She and her current 'husband,' Jose, and the 11 children are crowded into a small hovel smack against a brackish pond in Lima's infamous 17-mile slum belt running from the Peruvian capital down to the sea at Callao.''

Those words appeared on the editorial page of The Christian Science Monitor in 1964.

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Maria's story etched in sharp detail the whole population dilemma besetting her country and Latin America in general. It was then, and still is, a story of too rapid a population growth - a rate of 3.2 percent a year - with the resultant creation of mammoth social, economic, and political problems.

But it is also a very human story.

Over the years and particularly in the early 1970s, brief glimpses of Maria Gonzalez and her family have appeared in these columns.

I returned to Peru earlier this year, 17 years after first meeting this family, for a fresh look.

Their saga during the past generation suggests that, although Latin America's population spiral remains frightening and discouraging, there are occasionally some good reports and hopeful signs.

Most impressive, perhaps, is the fact that Maria and Jose have stayed together all these years. Maria wasn't always so sure; after all, the other 10 men with whom she had lived, who fathered one child each, moved on, leaving Maria to care for the additional child. Jose, father of 18-year-old Josefina, became a permanent fixture. Over the years, the other 10 children came to accept him as ''Papa.''

Maria and Jose no longer live in that slum hovel; they have long since moved to a more adequate, although unimaginative, three-room apartment in one of the massiveel3l

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concrete housing projects that dot the landscape around Lima.

Two of their children, Guillermo and Juana, pay the rent. That in itself is a story. They lifted themselves out of the poverty that stalks hundreds of thousands, even millions, of young Peruvians.

Guillermo, now 32, has done extremely well. At 15, illiterate and unskilled, he got a job on the cleaning staff of a Lima hotel with the help of this reporter. His willingness to work and his courtesy soon attracted the attention of the management and guests of the hotel - and he was sent to night school. In the years since, Guillermo has not only become literate, he has also earned a high school diploma. He is now finishing a university course in business and has a manager's job in a Lima hotel.

Juana, who at 4 used to go to one of Lima's sprawling, rat-infested garbage dumps with her mother to forage for food for the family, is now 20. She, too, has earned a high school diploma. She works as a secretary to a United States businessman in Lima, a job she acquired through a North American family for whom she worked as a maid while attending primary and secondary school.

Juana has had some of her poetry published in a literary journal - ''Nothing that will make me any money, but it gives me a good feeling.''

And it gives Maria and Jose a good feeling, too. They look at the printed material and smile. But both are essentially illiterate and cannot read what Juana has written. Maria has tried to learn to read and write, ''but it is too much for me,'' she says. ''I would rather go to the movies and listen,'' she adds.

Not all the other children have done as well as Guillermo and Juana. Two have disappeared. Three live in slum conditions.

But the four remaining, including Josefina, 18, have completed high school programs. They are part of the 13 percent of all Peruvian young people who have a high school education. As poor as that statistic seems, an even more ominous one is this: Of the million people in that infamous slum belt where Maria and her family spent many of their years, less than 1 percent have obtained a third-grade education.

Dire poverty remains - not only in Peru, but elsewhere in Latin America. Solutions are slow in coming. But from time to time a story like that of Maria Gonzalez comes along to brighten the otherwise dark picture.

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