The Library as Home
January 3, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
When I was 15 years old, I moved with my family from Connecticut back to the small town in Ecuador where I was born. I knew that leaving my childhood home would have a myriad of consequences, but I never imagined that one of those would be depriving me of access to a library. In my naïveté, I thought that all countries and cities had libraries like the ones I spent time in while growing up, attending art classes, going to author events, accompanying my mom to her ESL lessons, and losing myself in the book in front of me. But just like that, I got on a plane, and that privilege was gone.
Though Ecuador has libraries, very few of them allow you to borrow books. My hometown had a small municipal library with outdated, fraying books, but borrowing wasn’t an option. Instead, there were open markets by unused train tracks where you could buy books. Many of them were religious books, all in Spanish, and each priced at one or two dollars. There was no author’s name or publisher listed, just the cover and the start of the book on the first page. I had seen bootleg DVDs and CDs, but it was the first time I had ever encountered a bootleg book. My parents offered to buy me what I wanted, but I said no. I could touch them, but they weren’t real.
One of the agreements with my parents when we moved was that I would go back to Ecuador only if my dog and all my books came with us. The books arrived to the port of Guayaquil a few months after we settled in. When I opened the boxes, it felt like Christmas, my birthday, and a gift from the universe wrapped all in one to keep me sane. I reread and reread those books for the seven years I stayed in Ecuador. My personal library grew a bit every time I went to Guayaquil and purchased another book. I had to carefully pick the ones I wanted to add to the collection since I no longer had the privilege of taking ten books home and bringing them back weeks later.
In 2012, when I was 22, I moved back to Connecticut, with only one suitcase and a carry-on bag to stuff all the clothes I needed to once more start a new life in another country. There was no space for the books I took to Ecuador or for the ones that were added to my collection over the years, so I picked the one book from my collection that was a mix of English and Spanish: Buffalo Bill ha muerto by E.E. Cummings, translated by José Casas. It’s one of my favorite books, anthologizing Cumming’s poetry from 1910 to 1962 with the original English poem on one page and the Spanish translation on the other. This book would serve as a reminder of where I came from and where I was heading.
I arrived to the U.S. unemployed, but I knew I didn’t need to afford books in order to have access to them. I immediately began to take advantage of my local library just where I had left off. I had to wait until I could prove I was a resident of the town so I borrowed a family member’s library card. Then I borrowed books like I was hoarding them. I attended informational sessions on applying for health insurance at the library. I renewed my passport there. I also went to free book events while I looked for a job. I read magazines I couldn’t afford to buy. I read books that had been on my to-read list for years. For the first few months, I lived with three others in a one-bedroom apartment and the library was the only place where I could get some silence and solace.
Just a few months ago, a friend and translator reached out to me with the following question: “How do you call the borrowing system libraries have in the United States?” What an odd question. “We just call them libraries,” I said. Yes, she explained, but the translation she was working on would be intended for audiences in Ecuador, and she wanted to make it clear that this particular library was an anomaly because it in fact had a “book lending program.” The memories came rushing back, and it spurred me to donate to my local library.
I then tallied up the library events I had been part of in the last year. I was a volunteer at Love All Project’s Community Storycast event in the Norwalk Library. I took a memoir workshop at the Greenwich Library by Joan Motyka. I participated in my first poetry writing workshop this past summer at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT led by Sally Bliumis-Dunn. Some of my published essays and many of the stories in my draft folders have come from inspiration from those workshops and the people I met.
Even though now I have a collection of books stored in my home, I go to the library at least once a week. As a reader and writer, the library is not a place I will ever take for granted. Someone asked me recently what places I love the most, and I said the mountains, the beach, and the library. It might have come off as a bizarre response, but for me entering a library has always felt like coming home.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.