Magazine article American Libraries

Chicano Librarianship: On the 40th Anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, a Leader in the Movement Remembers the Early Years in East Los Angeles County

Magazine article American Libraries

Chicano Librarianship: On the 40th Anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, a Leader in the Movement Remembers the Early Years in East Los Angeles County

Article excerpt

August 29, 2010, marked the 40th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles, and it brought back many memories. I was part of a library contingent marching in 1970 in protest of the disproportionate number of Mexican Americans dying in the Vietnam War; some 30,000 other Chicanos were marching too.

After the police tear-gassed the peaceful youth and families listening to music and speakers in Laguna Park (now Salazar Park), we fled to the nearest library, the Stephenson branch (now El Camino Real Library), where Library Assistant Flora Bailes closed the door behind us and sheltered us until we felt safe to travel the streets. Later that day, we learned that respected journalist Ruben Salazar, the voice of the Spanish-speaking/Mexican-American community in the Los Angeles Times and KMEX Spanish radio, had been killed. He was reputed to be investigating police brutality in greater Los Angeles. The inquest into the death of Ruben Salazar lasted months and the death was ruled accidental--to activists, confirmation of a police cover-up.


I was a librarian assigned to a federal grant called "The Way Out Project" (team pictured above, me far right) that the Los Angeles County Public Library received to provide relevant programs at four libraries in the Mexican-American/Chicano community of East Los Angeles and seven libraries in the African-American community in South Central Los Angeles. The library branches in the Mexican-American community were Belvedere (now Anthony Quinn), City Terrace, Stephenson, and East Los Angeles Library. The county librarian said that officials searched nationwide for a Chicano librarian for the federal project and ultimately found me, a recent hire, already working for them. Then he added, "She changed her name" and "Can we ask her to give up her married name, Smith?" At the time, it was said that 1 was the first Chicano librarian in California--the first to self-describe by the term Chicano. The moment of commitment for me came when I was approached at a community screening of the film I Am Joaquin by the editor of La Raza magazine, who said, "Are you the librarian at the ELA Library? We need you."

Our project staff consisted of a group of librarians from varied backgrounds, and we became advocates for the recruitment of Spanish-speaking, Mexican-American, and African-American librarians, as well as the addition of ethnic resources and collections, community-based programs, and ethnic library decor to establish presence and a welcoming environment for the community. However, there was resistance within the organization to changing the culture of the libraries.

Basically, the public libraries in these communities had little that reflected the Mexican-American/Chicano or African-American constituencies they served. The culture of these libraries said "English only" and reflected the public library profile in Anglo communities, with Anglo-centric collections and programs. Most library employees lacked the ability to communicate with community residents. Speaking Spanish among staff and with patrons was prohibited or discouraged, and longtime library employees were reluctant to change what they believed was appropriate.

Everything was Anglo-centric

Our project librarians each had a unique cultural lens. Librarian Harriett Covey was Anglo and a formidable advocate for liberal, learned, radical, and young adult literature. Disagreeing with her required caution. Librarian Anne Rosen was Jewish and had worked on the Lower East Side with New York's immigrants and at the Institute for the Blind, and she had stories about demonstrating against worker abuse in the copper mines in Arizona. She was the wise counsel that kept us all from losing our focus. Black librarian Joyce Sumbi, a former children's specialist, was the compass who calmly brought reality to our work. She questioned whether racism would ever disappear from the American scene, reminding us about the Star Trek episode where a planet's population was black on one side of their bodies and white on the other; the planet was at war over which left/right color split was superior. …

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