Aula Máxima es la biblioteca y también lugar de recreo del espíritu.   - José Vasconcelos



Un Poco de Todo/ ˇLevantamiento! The Popular Uprising in Carlos's Library

In the center of the capital city of Sonora, Mexico, next door to the main post office, there's a public library. You're unlikely to notice it until someone leads you to the front step of the gray building and gives you a gentle shove through its swinging doors. But there in the heart of Hermosillo stands the Biblioteca 'Jaime Óscar Arellano', a humble little joint inhabited by a peculiar magic. The kind of magic that sometimes happens in a library.

You may have heard of Hermosillo, a searing desert city of a million people, and half as many cattle, not far from the Arizona line. Globetrotting gourmand Peter Fox once went there to file a National Public Radio report, convinced he'd found the birthplace of the burrito. Hermosillo juxtaposes the modernity of universities and large foreign-owned supermarket chains with the prevalent reality of scorching poverty and a quickly evaporating water reservoir.

The eponym of Hermosillo's downtown library was no politician or Carnegie-style philanthropist. No, Jaime Arellano was a civil servant, a humble guy who worked in the building when it was a government office piled high with manila folders. When his bureau vacated the space, he led its conversion to a library.

By all accounts the late Mr. Arellano was a kind and quiet man. His sepia-toned portrait hangs over the philosophy section; the face is unsmiling, earnest. His story recalls for me Kurosawa's film, Ikiru (To Live), and its government clerk whose courageous final accomplishment is to leave behind a simple neighborhood playground.

The first time I came in off the melting Hermosillo sidewalk I found myself in a sleepy room in the company of metal shelves and dusty-looking books. A few high schoolers studied at tables in the airstream of a huge floor fan. As I browsed, a stout smiling man with a mustache appeared at my side. Formal and obliging, he introduced himself as the librarian and assured me he'd be pleased to help me find anything.

"Mexican history? Why, right over here we have a very nice set of books. See what you think of these." His pride was unmistakable. I got in the habit of dropping by the library after work and soon came to learn a little about this Carlos, part-time library director, engineering graduate of the University of Sonora, who ran the place solo with the occasional help of high school kids on community service duty.


Carlos operated the library much as you'd expect Mom & Pop to run their little grocery store. If he had a date and wanted to close early, the library closed early. If he had to sleep late Saturday or attend a barbecue, then students would stand clutching notebooks at the building's door, waiting in vain for its opening. And if Carlos felt like inviting some friends in to have pizza and watch a baseball game, you could be sure to find a television and a flat cardboard box at his desk that evening. The ˇSILENCIO! signs on the walls were intended for the patrons, not the librarian and his companions.

The little library, in short, functioned as a benevolent dictatorship. But the moment Carlos asked me a small, innocent favor, he unwittingly set in motion a strange chain of events that was to topple his regime.

I had often seen students working with a tutor in the library's small classroom, and one day Carlos lamented that some of them had been deserted by their English teacher. Would I be willing to help out? It wouldn't be so much time, and seeing's how the library was already my second home . . .

My day job as an overpaid professor at the most exclusive private university in town--or rather, securely outside of town, where some of the students were brought to school by armed bodyguards--wasn't fulfilling. But teaching working teens in a high school equivalency program at the library would be a way to atone, and keep myself busy in the evenings as I waited for my fiancée to join me in Hermosillo.

The classroom was a chalky cave. More bookshelves, with the overflow from the library proper and a motley set of titles in English--agronomy texts from the late '70's, paperback fiction, ancient computer manuals. The room's oddest feature was a pale green chalkboard, warped and peeling from the wall, that rebounded like a diving board when you wrote on it. Any chalk pieces on the bottom tray were automatically catapulted to the floor. No need to worry about dropping the eraser--there wasn't one.

The classes were enjoyable, but I soon craved a few more learners to give our group a desirable critical mass. Carlos agreed to place a flyer in the library, and a couple more students joined. When my fiancée arrived she pitched right in as a teacher, and in time a couple of my young university colleagues jumped aboard. We had a good crew of instructors, and felt that with just a few more students we'd have a solid program.

Carlos, for his part, was more cautious about who joined the classes. I had no limits in mind, yet he discouraged some of the inquiries. I didn't know why he turned people away, but after all it was his library.

One morning, on a whim, I emailed Hermosillo's largest daily newspaper, El Imparcial, a short press release and was surprised to see it in print that weekend. Other surprises were soon to follow.

On Monday evening we ambled toward class as usual, under a typically blue Sonoran desert sky. There seemed to be some activity near the library's entrance, but with Carlos's favorite taco cart just around the corner, the crowd sometimes spilled over--led by the friendly taco-scarfing librarian himself.

Carlos was in front of the building. His face held no tacos nor, oddly, even a smile. His usual cool was nowhere in evidence as he hustled toward us. Something was horribly wrong.

"Bruce! We have a huge problem! There's no room for all these people! What were you thinking? Don't you realize that we can't--"

I tuned out his complaints, and hung on that phrase: All these people?

Carlos was panicked but he wasn't mistaken. We pushed the door open and the tiny foyer was packed. A solid cloud of heads continued around the walls on both sides. I fled back outside, shocked and thrilled.

"See?" said Carlos, exasperated. "Bruce, this is too many people! I don't have chairs for all of them!" Chairs? It crossed my mind that the people inside outnumbered the books. The signup sheet we circulated later in the evening came back with nearly 70 names. I was as ecstatic as Carlos was furious. Running a library used to be so tranquil . . .

Back inside, I thanked everyone for coming, explained that we were a little unprepared for such a large group but would do our best to work something out. And, sure enough, we did. Our impromptu class was rousing, and when the crowds came back the next night we knew we had a hit. The library was buzzing, whether Carlos liked it or not. After a while, that extraordinarily gregarious librarian did like it.

Good things happened. One student, aghast at seeing me wipe the bouncing chalkboard with my bandanna, made us a gift of a proper eraser. My posh university, moving into the whiteboard and PowerPoint era, let us have a big handsome chalkboard which Carlos mounted to the wall. And students showed up early to class, stayed late, explored the shelves, took out library cards.

What is it that transpires when you fill a room with books and leave the doors wide open? It's a supremely humane act, one that's apt to be repaid, sooner or later, in odd and unexpected ways.

The portrait of Jaime Óscar Arellano gazes out over the library, tight-lipped, serious. He knew Carlos as a young man and taught him something about librarianship. I don't know, but believe that his spirit hung somewhere in that crowd of 70, watching his protégé unravel. I like to think that's when Licenciado Arellano's face broke into a big broad smile.

© 1999 Bruce Jensen

Could ESL revolutionize your library? Here are some ideas for storming the barricades!


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