Following are some of my emotions and experiences with the Libros Para Pueblos program through the years.
“Wow! Wow! Wow!” said the 10-year-old boy as he turned one page after another. He was talking to no one in particular. In fact, he didn't even take his eyes off the story book filled with colorful pictures. He just kept muttering “Wow! Wow! Wow!” and flipping the pages.
I had joined a group of Libros Para Pueblos volunteers to a small, remote village about two hours from Oaxaca City to inaugurate a new children's library. As is the custom, we piled dozens of books onto tables for the children to peruse. This gives them an idea of what they can check out and take home once the books are shelved. In festive Mexican fashion, the inauguration included music by the school band, a few speeches and songs by the children, and heaps of thanks from several village leaders.
After the ceremony, mothers, sisters, and grandmothers served us gourds of piping hot pozole (a smoky Mexican stew of hominy, chiles, radishes and shredded cabbage.) As we were leaving, appreciative folks presented us with mementos, such as hand-woven baskets, floral arrangements. and other things crafted from native plants. Their gratitude and appreciation lingers with me today. However, my fondest memory is the little boy's wonder as he flipped the pages of the book.
The LpP program was the idea of Tom Dunham and Jim Breedlove, two fellows who live in Oaxaca City. In 1998, they noticed families digging through garbage in the city's dump, scavenging for food, clothing, building materials and other daily necessities. Nearby, a warren of shacks had sprung up, built by men unable to find work due to the area's high unemployment rate. After a few years, the settlement had grown large enough to warrant a small school.
However, there was no space nor books for a library. Tom and Jim knew they could get donations from their book-loving friends, so they talked to the parents who agreed to build a library, from wood scraps, cardboard, tin, etc. Libros Para Pueblos was born.
Update: The Libros Para Pueblos program sponsors libraries in more than 70 villages, with a waiting list for many more. To qualify for a library, a school must provide space for books. Often, parents, teachers, and town folk work together to construct a building and bookshelves. The libraries are operated entirely by the teachers and parents or a volunteer librarian. New books are added and damaged ones replaced each year by LpP volunteers and donations from caring people in many countries.
Billows of dust, churned up by the car ahead of us, irritated my sinuses and caused an annoying hack in my throat. Otherwise it was a perfect November day in the countryside of Oaxaca. El sol hung high and bright in the clear blue sky, baking the rolling hillsides to an even crisper shade of brown. Irrigation ditches nourished small patches of corn and squash along the rutted dirt road.
We were heading to La Lobera, a small village known back then as the “pink church town,” because of its fairy-tale-like iglesia, perched high and alone on top of the hill. A few hundred meters from the church, kids romped and yelled in the playground of a small primary school. As we approached, they lined up to shake our hands and each offered a shy, “mucho gusto.” The boys wore eye-blinding white shirts, stiffly starched. The girls were dressed in ruffled pastel dresses of taffeta and satin. I guessed that this was a special day for them. I doubt they had ever seen three carloads of foreigners at their school.
We were told that in La Lobera some of the children had to walk several kilometers to school, accompanied by their mothers who waited all day to walk back home with them. The mothers had prepared tamales and punch for us, and the children entertained by reading out loud; their voices tentative but proud.
I have visited many children's libraries. The LpP program offers occasional fund-raising trips. I guarantee anyone taking these tours will never forget the intense faces of children learning and loving to read.
Often teachers share heart-warming stories. For instance, one third grade child returning her borrowed book asked: “Please may I keep this book another week? It has too many letters in it.”
At another library, I noticed a poster of a cartoon frog lounging next to a pool, holding a drink in a resort-like atmosphere. The caption: “All I'm lacking to be happy is a book.”
As we were ending our visit to one school, a wide-eyed girl shuffled to my side and said softly, “Me encanta leer.” I love to read.
For more information visit the LpP website: www.librosparapueblos.org