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.
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
|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 . . .
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
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
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
© 1999 Bruce Jensen
Could ESL revolutionize your
are some ideas for storming the barricades!