Students from the 6th grade class at Escuela Primaria Juan de la Barrera waited eagerly for me to begin reading them a story. Aline Shapiro, an American librarian whose dream had been to build a children’s library at the school, introduced me as a guest reader from California and handed me a book entitled Coyote: Un cuento folclòrico del sudoeste de Estados Unidos. I was a little nervous as it was my first time reading a book aloud in Spanish. In the middle of the story, after stumbling over just a few words, I asked the children “Me comprenden? Do you understand me? I was happy to hear them answer “Si.”
I was in Yelapa, Mexico, a town forty-five minutes away from Puerto Vallarta by water taxi, with my husband Mike. He had signed up for a five-day writing workshop, and I was going along for the ride. I would have two hours every morning to myself while he was in class, so I had decided before leaving for Mexico that I wanted to do some volunteer work while I was there.
Because Yelapa is inaccessible by car, it has remained a town that has seen little development. Electricity only came to the town in 2001, and the main method of transportation through the cobble-stoned streets and dirt paths is still primarily donkeys and horses, although “motos” (ATVs) now have a presence as well.
There are no street signs in Yelapa. “If you go up river and over the bridge,” Aline emailed me, “it is about a mile.” As I walked along the river path to the library, I saw chickens and dogs, homes with colorfully painted exteriors and occasional thatched roofs, laundry drying on the line, and lots of lush, jungle foliage. I crossed the bridge and turned right, and there was the sign for the school. Aline happened to pull up on her bicycle right as I got there, and together we walked across the grass to the library.
The Biblioteca Yelapa does not resemble the library in my home town. The approximately 250 square foot building, made with wood cut down from trees in the local jungle, stands several feet above the ground on cement posts. There are no computers and no scanners for checking out books. In fact, there is no electricity. Sunlight enters through the open, glassless windows to illuminate the interior. And unlike my library, shoes are not allowed. Instead of sitting in chairs at tables, the children sprawl out on the floor inside and on the outside porch.
Before she established the library, Aline explained, the children at the school had little access to books. Now the children can check out books daily and take them home. The library has about 400 books, mostly in Spanish. Three bookshelves contain books on a variety of subjects. The children love to look at picture books, but Aline is trying to get the older ones more interested in chapter books. Volunteers work in the library checking books in and out and reading to the children. The parents, teachers, and entire community in Yelapa have been very supportive of the project.
After spending the morning in the library, I felt a closer connection to the local community. Reading a story wasn’t a huge volunteer job, but I still felt like I was contributing, giving a little of my time and getting a lot back.
If you’re going to Yelapa and want to volunteer, contact Aline at: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t speak Spanish, Aline can still find ways for you to help. You can learn more about Biblioteca Yelapa here.