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La Biblioteca, the Core of San Miguel for 60 Years

By Jesús Aguado

The walls of the building located on Insurgentes 25 are the keepers of a history that started to be written 60 years ago. The memories are still fresh and can be told by those who at some point were related to La Biblioteca by checking out a book, taking a class, or receiving a scholarship.

The stories may vary, but they are well registered in the minds of sanmiguelenses, and they will be fresh for 20 more years, now that free-use contract has been renewed.

At 60, La Biblioteca’s commitment to the community is stronger than ever. Its goal is to continue in its mission to “provide, promote, and maintain educational and cultural activities contributing to the community’s integral development.”

Building the history

The building that holds La Biblioteca was built by priests from the Santa Ana church to be a shelter for the widowed, abandoned, mistreated, or single women in extreme poverty. However, the building was expropriated by the federation in 1862 during the Reform War, and it remained abandoned. Later, the municipal slaughter house (now located on Calzada de la Estación) operated in this place. There was also a box office for buying tickets for the Alteña buses, which used to park on Insurgentes.

In the early 1950s, Helen Wale, a Canadian, lived on calle Hospicio. She realized that after their regular classes, local children did not other activities, so she decided to invite a very small group to her living room, where she had books from her grandsons and magazines. Step-by-step, more children, attracted by the word of others, started attending. Thus began what later would be known as La Biblioteca.

After a few years, the space was not enough to shelter all the children. Wale, along with friends, decided to rent a house adjacent to Wale’s. There, they offered not just books for children to read, but also painting classes. To pay the rent, the volunteers started selling cards and other items. That brought about the first financially productive project of the organization, La Tienda. Currently La Tienda customers can find jewelry, books, postcards, art, crafts, and even tickets for different tours.

In 1958, after hard work, the nonprofit organization was granted a free-use contract on the current building, so it was reconditioned with a children’s hall, as well as one for youths, plus a Spanish room. Chief Librarian Juan Manuel Fajardo, who has worked with the institution for 41 years, says that at the beginning, most of the children’s books were in English. The volunteers tried to make translations into Spanish, which were typed and stuck on the sides of the books. In 1993, the area now occupied by the Café and Santa Ana Theater was given to the organization by then governor Vicente Fox Quesada.

Scholarships that change lives

Sandra Suaste, general manager, has worked at La Biblioteca for 25 years. She remembers that when she started working, there were only six employees. Now there are more than 40! Suaste highlighted that in the last 36 years, the organization has given 8, 900 scholarships. Currently, due to the lack of donations, the number of scholarships for the school year is 170. (In the past, it was higher than 280).

Cristina Montes is a general practitioner whose memories of La Biblioteca are that it was “a space full of wonderful books, a place for recreation as well as a building to do homework in and for taking English classes with a teacher named Ginger Eades.” The first book Montes read was The Three Musketeers, a book “that I did not want to take home with me because I loved reading it at the library, at a special place that I found.” Montes benefited from a scholarship when she was about to start her medical degree. “When nobody believed that I could make it, La Biblioteca supported me,” she remarked. According to Montes, she received financial support even for food. She is now the doctor at a preparatory school (CBTis 60) and offers medical checkups at low cost in the CASA hospital.

Laura Flores works for the Public Services Department of the local administration and is the link with federal and state government for improving and maintaining the good state of the sanitary landfill. With the help of La Biblioteca she attended college. The help continued until she received her diploma on agro-industrial engineering at the Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo.

Damaris Camargo is a 16-year-old girl who received the benefit of a scholarship this year. Damaris has been a permanent member of the Biblioteca since seven years ago, when she joined the Science Club. Later, she enrolled in the painting classes. Although she loves painting, she visualizes herself as a psychologist. Damaris not only receives support from the library, but she supports the organization, too. During the summer course this year, she taught a group of children how to sculpt dinosaurs with play dough. In addition, her paintings sell well at La Biblioteca on Sundays, and 50 percent of the price goes to the institution.

The first bilingual board of directors

New Yorker Rita De Brito is the current president of the Biblioteca’s board of directors. She worked in the United States developing programs to help students learn a second language (English or Spanish) using sciences as a base; De Brito decided to abandon a career on the rise and move to San Miguel, where she founded a bilingual Science Club for children at a friend’s garden; later she offered the course in the Charco del Ingenio, and now for seven years, it has been part of La Biblioteca.

The President notes that the current board of directors is one of the most hard-working she remembers; although they are working on future projects, first they started fixing what has been wrong in the social enterprises to strengthen them and make them self-sustainable to avoid putting the mission or the social programs of the organization at risk. Donations are needed, she highlighted, since now there are not as many as there were in the past.

Productive projects sustain the library

Since its beginning, La Biblioteca has been self-sustaining. At first kept afloat with donations, the library later started social enterprises to help fund its programs and pay its employees.

La Tienda is a small store that sells, among other items, artwork, jewelry, crafts, books, newspapers, and tickets for tours.

The House and Garden Tour, started in 1955, is another of La Biblioteca’s popular enterprises. Held almost every Sunday, the tour takes visitors to outstanding houses opened to the public by their owners to benefit the library. For visitors to San Miguel, this tour is often one of the most memorable parts of their trip to the city.

The Bodega de Sorpresas (Warehouse of Surprises) is a place where an eclectic mix of second-hand items and clothing donated to La Biblioteca is sold on Thursdays. The store is run by Mexican women who volunteer their time. As part of the Bodega there is a sale book every Thursday as well.

The Teatro Santa Ana, which has a seating capacity of 85, is one of the most important venues for cultural events in the city. The library does not charge the organizers to hold an event there if the event is free. If an entrance fee is charged, 30 percent of the profits must be donated to the institution. Next to the theater is Café Santa Ana, which offers quality food at reasonable prices.

La Biblioteca, when it first opened, held 12,000 books and had 800 patrons and about 30 visitors per day. Now it has more than 60,000 books in English, French, and Spanish and is one of the largest libraries in Latin America.

Atención appeared for the first time on Friday June 20, 1975, and since then, it has informed people about what happens in the city and has been the voice for the different sectors in San Miguel, from the rural communities to the urban area. The newspaper also includes information about the nonprofit organizations, government, tourism, and traditions. The number of copies issued ranges from two thousand in low season to three thousand in the highest season, when the content is distributed in 120 pages. Atención appears every Friday, and its price is 15 pesos. The newspaper also includes the Qué Pasa events supplement, which is free. The profits go straight to the social and cultural programs of La Biblioteca.

La Biblioteca offers free courses, workshops, and classes for children and adults, such as piano, guitar, painting, computing, mathematics, and English. Annually between July and August, more than 250 children attend the summer courses. The Science Club is a bilingual space where children learn about animal and human anatomy; they also learn to understand—in English and Spanish—the world that surrounds them. Plática entre amigos (Conversation with Friends) is informal talk sessions that Mexicans—who want to practice English—and foreigners—wanting to learn Spanish—have on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5-7pm. The only rule is to talk in English from 5-6 and in Spanish from 6-7pm.


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