I arrived in the United States at the age of 7 from Bogota, Colombia, wearing a pink pant suit and holding the hands of my siblings as we deplaned at Miami International Airport. The year was 1974, and although it was December, the air was fragrant and the temperature felt strangely balmy to a little girl used to living on the edge of the cool, crisp Andes Mountains.
Although I spoke not a word of English, I was excited about the new adventure. According to our mom, who had moved heaven and Earth to bring her four children to America, we were here to get an education, to learn, to live productive, constructive lives.
Little did I know that my mom, who had moved to the United States without us two years earlier, had been busily planning for her kids’ future as she anxiously awaited our arrival.
Mama’s planning was done on the 49 bus, as she went to and from her factory job in Hialeah. And, the planning was centered around two buildings Mama saw every day of her bus commute: James H. Bright Elementary School and the John F. Kennedy Library located at 190 W. 49th St.
Within weeks of our arrival, we were enrolled in elementary school. And, shortly after that, on a beautiful, cloudless Saturday morning, mom and her four little ones boarded the No. 12 bus and then the No. 49 bus on their way to John F. Kennedy Library.
When we got to the library, the two things that immediately struck me were the huge windows that offered a view of the trees outside and the smell of all of those library books — shelves and shelves of them. Over the years, I would learn about the Dewey Decimal System and I would master those little wooden file drawers with all of the cards — making order out of chaos. But not on this day. This was my first day ever inside a public library. It was a day to be overwhelmed and awed.
That day started our Saturday library ritual, which lasted for years. The library ritual saw me get my first library card — which I safely tucked in my little red and blue wallet with the Velcro closure. It saw me learn English; write my first book report; and discover Amelia Bedelia. And it saw me master the hidden treasures in microfiche. Who can forget that microfiche reader and the way it hypnotically magnifies and shrinks those little pieces of film?
My first public-library experience is inextricably tied to my immigrant experience — I was poor and different and had a funny-sounding accent when outside the library. But, upon going inside, I felt rich enough to “afford” all of those books, and my funny accent did not matter as I sat in front of the giant windows reading and doing my homework.
That little library in Hialeah gave me a love of the written word, a passion for researching and an intellectual curiosity that has served me well over the years.
I was blessed to receive an elite education precisely because regular visits to the library became a part of my life from very early on. And, as a practicing lawyer who has been honored to work in some wonderful, prestigious places, I have come to see that people of means in this country value and appreciate libraries as a regular and natural part of living a privileged life.
Thus, my immigrant mother’s realization that her children’s lives would absolutely be bettered by regular visits to the public library was wise beyond words. Public libraries are part of the amazing public institutions that make this country singularly special — a beacon for those who aspire to rely on hard work and an education to better themselves.
I am so very sure that my public library story is familiar to the countless immigrants in this community who have been lucky enough to find a measure of success through education. So we owe it to the new generation of immigrants to be champions of public libraries because the tools for making real the American Dream, are hidden among all of those books.