When my parents were kids in the Colonia in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they had no library.
For decades the city didn't see the need to give the barrio it's own branch. The Oxnard Library, a beautiful and historic Carnegie library located in downtown Oxnard, was only about a mile from the heart of La Colonia. So why couldn't my parents and their classmates just use that library?
In those days, La Colonia did not have the 3rd Street bridge, which goes over the railroad tracks separating the barrio from the rest of Oxnard. This meant that, in order to get to the library, children would have had to cross both the railroad tracks and busy Oxnard Boulevard-a prohibitively dangerous trip.
In fact, when Cesar Chavez lived in La Colonia as a boy, so many neighborhood children were killed by trains that when Chavez returned to the barrio to begin his career in activism with the CSO (Community Service Organization) in 1958, he was certain that the dangerous railroad tracks would be residents' number-one concern. He was surprised to learn the bracero program and the insufferable conditions workers faced both in the barrio and in the fields were more a more urgent threat than even the trains. Library access was the least of their worries.
Today the barrio does have a library, albeit a rather small one. It is located in a municipal building on the outskirts of the neighborhood. It's surprisingly well-stocked and gets a great deal of use from the community, in spite of it's limited hours (Mon-Thu, Noon-6) and equally limited size.
While working on the book, my mom and I spoke with a retired Colonia teacher. She told us that when she used to bring her students to this library, they would always make a nice day of it, bringing along a picnic to enjoy on the lawn outside.
This was because all of the children in her class could not fit in the room at the same time, so they would have to use the library in shifts. But she still took them, because she knew that teaching them how to use a library could have a massive impact on the trajectory of their lives.
My mom and I just couldn't stop thinking about those kids.
Throughmy job, I get to work with a lot of really cool literacy organizations, libraries and independent booksellers. Like many cities around the world, San Diego (the city where I live)is filled with Little Free Libaries-you know the ones...
Little Free Library is a wonderful non-profit that promotes what they call, "Literacy-Friendly Neighborhoods." They also have something called an "Impact Program" - where they donate LFLs to the communities who need them most.
I wrote to the folks at Little Free Library at the end of April and told them a little about the Colonia and it's library. They immediately and generously offered to send me an Impact Library for the barrio. It took a while to find the right location to install it, but we will be "opening" the Bibliotequita Free de La Colonia on July 28, 2019 (see our EVENTS page for details). Local author Martin Gonzales and many local artists will be participating in this event-so stay tuned!
We are so grateful to Little Free Library for this important gift. When we got the news, we sure felt like celebrating! But then...
The City of Oxnard announced they were planning to close the Colonia Library.
According to the city manager, years of mismanagement had left the city approximately $9 million in debt and it was time to "stop the bleeding." How to accomplish this? Make cuts. Lots of cuts. Deep cuts. The city argued that closing the Colonia Library would not have a devastating impact on the city. After all, couldn't those kids just use the main branch in downtown Oxnard? To many, it felt like the 1940s all over again.
So just how much was the little Colonia Library "bleeding" the city? How much had this service to the most economically underprivileged segment of the population contributed to the massive deficit the city leaders had created through their mismanagement?
Under $27,000. And the list of "Impacts?" Seems like they forgot a few things.
According to data cited at DoSomething.org:
So the city saves $27k-but at what cost? Who's paying for those food stamps? Who's paying for those prison cells? Just the Colonia residents?
And the library wasn't the only thing on the chopping block. The city was also proposing closing the Performing Arts Center, cutting hours at the historic Colonia Boxing Club and yes, even closing the museum housed in the old Carnegie Library building. They also wanted to downsize a firestation in an already underserved part of the city.
The people of Oxnard spoke out, showed up and fought to keep these critically important institutions. They turned out en masse at the public hearings the city held to announce their plans. They flooded the city council meetings. On June 5, 100 people signed up to speak at that night's city council meeting, including champion boxer Fernando Vargas. The doors had opened at 5:30pm and the meeting adjourned after midnight.
The results so far? The city reversed it's plans on all the cuts except the museum. To learn more, read reporter Wendy Leung's excellent coverage of the story.
But the fight is far from over. Even though the library is staying open for now, #SaveColoniaLibrary is still a movement, still a symbol that is relevant far outside this tiny barrio. It's about how we all pay the price when our fellow citizens are marginalized and neglected and it's about how, when we have each other's backs, we all get to cash in the benefits.
As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, Do not doubt that a small group of determined citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.