Often, the community and popular libraries of Antioquia —25 of them grouped in Rebipoa, a network that helps in the training processes and in the search for titles to nurture the bibliographic offer— are the way for the communities to fight against violence and state indifference. Located in sectors marked with the red ink of poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunities, libraries are a short but courageous answer to the complexity of a hostile environment. EL COLOMBIANO visited three of them, based in different parts of the geography of the Aburra Valley.
Their stories are different, each one has reached where they are by different paths. For example, the Girasol Foundation Library —El Salado, Envigado— arose from an amateur soccer team, founded 33 years ago. From the beginning, the team and the library were parallel strategies for the same purpose: to offer young people from the sector scenarios to enjoy their free time.
A very similar motivation encouraged the creation of the Sembrando Futuro Library —Barrio Santander, Medellín—, an hour’s drive from the Girasol facilities. The starting point of this library was not the sports arenas. Its origin was given under the mantle of a religious community, the Missionaries of Calvary. At the end of the eighties, the sisters Socorro Cuesta and María Requejo summoned the young people of the sector and planted in them the idea of a library for the community. Since then, the managers of the initiative have persevered in their efforts, even after the nuns’ trip to Bogotá.
From Santander to the Lola Vélez Library —París, Bello— there are just over two kilometers. Lola Vélez is the youngest of the three institutions: the curtain was raised in September 2019. In its genesis, the Fundación T-asombro bet on the theatrical and artistic training of the young people of the most populated commune of Bello. However, the need to adapt a space for consultation and reading soon made its way. One of its founders took advantage of her studies in library science to convince the other members of the cultural group to seek donations and pay tribute to a painter from the municipality.
Things are not easy for community and popular libraries. The ghost of closure walks in the economic balances that with a lot of work reach the balance point. Sometimes the dice roll and you don’t know what the lucky number will be. The Sunflower Library works in a room next to the parish of the sector, the Santiago Apóstol. The one in Santander has its own headquarters, built with the support of an international NGO, while the Lola Vélez pays rent. The circumstances are different, but they share the trait of being an uphill climb that cultural managers must climb every month.
Most of the calendar, popular and community libraries defy the tide of things. And sometimes goals are not met. A couple of months ago, Rebipoa opened a Vaki to import a donation of eight thousand copies from Spain. The sum amounted to 25 million pesos. The collection was open for three months, but the contribution of citizens was far from reaching the goal. The project was put on hold. Despite this and other setbacks, the managers do not throw in the towel: they persevere in an almost invisible but vital task to dignify vulnerable communities.
Gloria Hernández, the library is a seed
“We were a youth group before we had a library, before we had a corporation. We started in the streets of the Santander neighborhood doing recreation on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays. In the month of October we had a super nice party for Children’s Day. In December we made them the ninth live and direct. Here were some Spanish nuns, the Missionaries of Calvary: Socorro Cuesta and María Requejo. They were living here. They cared a lot about the young people and the mothers who were heads of families. Then they invited us to be part of a youth group called Nuevo Amanecer. We lived through very strong times of violence and in that context we wanted to create this library. First a project was made, which we sent to Spain. We came out favored with a resource that served to buy this land and build the first floor. The idea was to build three floors: one for the library, another for a social room and another for a gym. The money was not enough.
We have been on this site since 1995, after having other offices. Due to the conditions of the violence, the sisters left here that same year, the community sent them to Bogotá.
We have always sought for people to come, use the library, delight and enjoy the books we have because there are some very good collections. We have done many things to finance ourselves: bazaars, the sale of Dona Emilia’s empanadas, recycling. We did the egg collection: every month we went out on a Sunday to collect an egg or the value of an egg through the streets of the neighborhood. We organized them in baskets and sold them. That gave us very good results because financially resources came in. We also did something very nice that was a tribute to mothers: in the month of May we did an activity that included reading poems, songs with dedications and all that.
One of the great challenges is keeping the library open with the few resources that exist. We work with children, adolescents, grandparents, people with disabilities. Getting people to come is not difficult: you have to be very clear about the project you want to work on with them, have a work plan. I had the joy of having a child with a disability. As a result of this I have learned a lot about the fears, the world, the desires of these people. I have worked with them: it has been a way of including them, of opening up other spaces for them. I am always aware of the subsidies that the government offers for them and I go to the mothers to encourage them to present themselves, to go, to look for opportunities for their children”.
María Lucelly Castañeda, between books and balls
“This corporation was born 33 years ago as a soccer school. It was born exactly in 1988. We were what was left of a youth group that the parish had. The first youth group ended and then a group of people came out of it who thought: “Well, now what do we do?” So we said, “Well, we’re going to start engaging kids with sports. And in parallel we did workshops with them on sexuality, reading promotion, workshops on various things. We chose the name Giralsol in my living room. The sunflower seeks sunlight and offers a healthy oil. We wanted that: health and knowledge for children.
We wanted to help a little bit in the process of educating the children, get them off the streets, keep them busy, so that they spend their free time in a more positive way. In 1994 we told the then director of the House of Culture that the community needed a library, we didn’t have one. She told us: “you are ready, I don’t have to invent anything anymore because you already have your group”. The rector of the school lent us this space, the room over there so that we could set up the library and we began to advertise in the community. We set up a troupe. People began to donate books: everyone went, took the old books that they had in the house. Most of the books that were brought to us were for recycling. The José Felix Restrepo library helped us, they put a library official who helped us to discard it because we didn’t know anything about libraries. I was a secretary, but library science, nothing. So they gave us all the initial advice. With what we sold from recycling, we fixed the room, we painted it and the EAFIT university gave away some chairs, some tables and the university doctor gave away his personal computer with the Encarta library. So our reference material was that encyclopedia and an encyclopedia that we bought from the Círculo de Lectores, which was very good.
On Friday there are two groups of crafts that are participatory budget and each group has 24 people. 18 or 20 people come to dance classes. In the oil painting group there are more or less 12 people who are coming. And in the children’s theater group we have more or less 15 children, because the idea we have this year is to put on a play. We work to take the play to the Envigado Theater Festival.
One is sometimes asked how I think the library has impacted the neighborhood. When we started the library we had a good relationship with some teachers and they brought the children here at story time. Two of those professors were doing research work at the University of Antioquia on the profile of the students of the Salado school. They realized that most of the boys thought of leaving school to be taxi drivers and the girls of working as cashiers. After several years in the library, many of the young people who came have reached professional life. I say that in some way the library helped to change the chip because one of the objectives was to improve the quality of education in the area. In some way we have helped broaden the aspirations of the people in the sector”.
Manuela Henao, a little lung in the city
“Paris is an area with a very high population density. It is the most inhabited commune in Bello and is an area marked by state abandonment. The population does not have access to quality education, to a decent health system. And youth do not have access to healthy recreation spaces. Here there is a giant pink zone, full of nightclubs, there are many parks and courts, but those parks and those courts are spaces that were taken over by illegal armed groups, the dynamics of micro-trafficking. They are not safe spaces for youth. We wanted to install a kind of little lung in the middle of the neighborhood, where people can come, can access artistic and cultural programming, can have a space where they can come to study, talk, generate dialogue about what happens to us as a community, what we feel, of what we live.
Everything is born from the theater. At first we were just a theater corporation, but little by little those horizons have expanded and today we have a popular education school and we have folk dance, piano, theater and children’s theater classes. We want to help outline life projects different from those that the territory itself has conditioned: survival profiles. Most of the households in the area are made up of a single parent. In addition, young people are exposed to gang recruitment. We cannot solve all the problems, but we can provide inputs so that vital projects begin to change. We’ve had three cohorts from a popular pre-college and some of the kids went on to college.
The library was founded in September 2019 and is named after the beautiful painter Lola Vélez. We did it because the institutional framework does not make much effort to give permanence to that legacy. In the foundation of the library we participated Zully Melissa Ballesteros, Manuela Henao Aguirre, supported by Leidy Laura Castrillón. Here we are all volunteers. In addition to the library, the house has a theater for fifty people and a coffee bar.
At this time we are looking for initiatives to achieve sustainability. We do events and perform plays with low ticket prices that allow us to bring the community closer and at the same time be sustainable. The coffee bar is not yet.
The books we have were donated by the community. We owe months of rent because this building is not ours. We participate in municipal, departmental and Ministry of Culture calls. We have also ventured into corporate theater.”