That kid from a low-income neighborhood with a “Ph.D. in poverty” is now Colombia’s Lord of the Books.
23 years ago, when Jose Alberto Gutierrez dug out a discarded copy of Tolstoy’s hit novel Anna Karenina from someone’s trash, he was shocked at how people could throw away such precious embellishments of words and literature. Gutierrez picked up the novel and that moment marked the beginning of something that would change thousands of lives in the future – a free library stocked by discarded books .
Gutierrez is a sanitation worker in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city. The father-of-three was shocked to find that most of the books children require for their homework are thrown out in the trash by well-to-do families, and he began rescuing the ones in good condition and stacking them in his home.
The lower level of Gutierrez’s home has now been transformed into a library where many school kids come to borrow books for their studies. The library has grown so popular that other sanitation workers around the capital are now conscious of discarded books, picking them up, and delivering them to Gutierrez for free. The library is so deeply appreciated by the community that it’s now referred to as “La Fuerza de las Palabras” or “Strength in Words.”
Gutierrez believes reading and getting quality education are the keys to breaking the cycle of poverty. He was only able to study up to the primary level but his mother made sure to read to him every night. He developed a strong love for books and has a natural attraction to worded pages.
Gutierrez hopes the library will increase the literacy level amongst children in his community, at absolutely no cost to the kids and their families. The low-income neighborhood has one school without a library, but thanks to the kind man’s efforts, the children now have access to a free repository for the many books their families cannot afford.
Although Bogota is a large city that’s widely known for its beautiful libraries, a lot of these establishments are situated up north and tend mostly to the affluent. Sadly, for neighborhoods like La Nueva Gloria, not even a single library was seen anywhere for decades, at least not until Gutierrez became fed up with the deprivation.
“This neighborhood used to be just miserable,” Jose says. “I grew up here and I can tell you it got me a Ph.D. in marginalization and poverty. Kids here don’t have a place to study; instead, they have to start working early.”
“The whole value of what we do lies in helping kids start reading,” Gutiérrez told Al Jazeera . “I grew up, here and I can tell you it got me a Ph.D. in marginalization and poverty. Kids here don’t have a place to study; instead, they have to start working early.”
Better days ahead
As Gutierrez’s library grew with thousands of books to manage, his family began helping out with administrative duties such as coordinating pickups and returns, organizing bookshelves, and even setting up local reading events. His oldest child, 29-year-old Maria Angelica is the Chief Operations Officer of the library while his son, 25-year-old Johann Sebastian helps with other administrative duties and budgeting.
Gutierrez is also grateful for the efforts of his youngest daughter, 19-year-old Merylin Marcela, who drives the old ambulance donated to the library to pick up and deliver books. His wife, Luz Mery is the library’s strongest ally as she answers the phone, helps kids find the books they need and is always involved in organizing library events.
La Fuerza de las Palabras does not only loan books to kids but sometimes, they give away when it’s needed. Gutierrez has delivered books to over 235 schools around Bogota and has contributed greatly to improving literacy in Colombia’s vast capital.
As reported by the BBC, the library does not only cater to kids but to adults as well. Many rebel fighters and activists who are demobilized due to Colombia’s peace negotiations often depend on the library for books. Gutierrez mentioned that a fighter from the Farc rebel group appealed for books to help the fighters prepare for civilian employment when they return to normal life.“Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places. They are a symbol of peace,” said Gutierrez.