Surrogate Librarian

The Book Ambassador
One man and two burros bridge an impoverished South America and a world of possibilities...

Luis Soriano has found a way to make the impossible possible for thousands of desperately poor children living in his native Colombia. From the small town of La Gloria, the 39 year-old school teacher works part-time as a librarian and life-saver. Every week, "maestro" Soriano spends many hours riding on the back of a burro to deliver hope, also known as books, to awaiting children in poor, rural areas.

Visit the website! http://www.fundacionbiblioburro.com/

His two donkeys, Alpha and Beta, make the journeying possible. On one he rides; on the other, he places about one hundred books—for reading aloud and for loaning to his eager patrons. He endures long periods away from his family and nets virtually no financial gain. So why does he do it? "We’re trying to help people, through reading, to improve their social situation." This is the simple answer. A more complete explanation begins with a broken heart.

Colombia’s history is full of civil war, drug trafficking, corruption and strife. Soriano recalls violent men at his family’s door when he was only six or seven years old. He remembers a frightening confrontation, followed by his mother’s tears. After this, he was taken away to live with his grandparents. The separation was traumatic for him; the consequences of lawlessness have left an indelible mark.

Soriano was sixteen when he returned home to La Gloria, having earned a high school diploma. Yet the children who greeted him there had not been so fortunate. He says he knew immediately that he would become a school teacher and that he would help others to read. "Those children," he says, "today they are the parents in my school."

Seeing how books and reading opened up new worlds of possibility for the children, Soriano took it upon himself to do more. Twelve years ago, he pressed into service his two burros and gathered up a few books that he owned. He began riding out to the hinterlands to help families with homework, to read stories aloud, to loan books and to show people what amazing possibilities dwelled dormant within each of them. He remarks with some surprise that the many years of the Biblioburro have gone by quickly.

Soriano says his job, our job, is to awaken the imagination in young people. It was his own imagination, he says, that helped him to survive the separation from his parents as a child. In La Gloria’s outlying villages, he sees hardship everywhere, as families live off the land as they can…with no luxuries and with few material comforts. But he is clearly not fooled by appearances. "We are from poor homes, but we have millionaire hearts. You have to cultivate the children’s imagination, because a child with an imagination is invincible."

Soriano and his burros have become celebrated in recent years. Newspaper and television journalists have shared his story. He was even selected as a CNN Hero last year. But he says to really understand how stark life is for these poor families, you have to see it for yourself. "Everything that’s been written is true, but it can’t really capture the full reality of what is happening here."

He acknowledges that the violence he remembers from his childhood has abated some and that freedom and opportunity are expanding in Colombia. But he doesn’t undersell the amount of work that remains. "This program is directed to the children who don’t have access to information through the internet or a telephone. Some of these children can’t pronounce words. These are kids who never see a city. I am dedicating myself to making sure these kids have access to communication and that they can learn to express themselves. This is what the Biblioburro brings to them."

Of the thousands of children who have benefited from Soriano’s teaching and from the literary offerings of the Biblioburro, Soriano shares that many of them are now strong, community leaders. "Carlos Mario," for example, "works in the city of Medellin in finance in one of the finest banks in Medellin." Amadelys Espane is now a rural teacher, and Soriano recalls with fondness that "she had the best handwriting in her class."

He wants to create Colombians with a desire to be Colombians, to be better Colombians, so if they encounter violence, they are armed with education, with confidence, and with the ability to think for themselves. He wants them to imagine something better for themselves. "I want to plant in them the idea…in company with the rural teachers, the involved parents…a strategy to get out of the mentality of ‘I’m poor. I can’t do this.’ We believe we are constructing citizens of good and great value."

Every week, on the back of a burro, Soriano sees these children in seemingly forgotten places… but he sees beyond their poor circumstances to their rich possibilities. "The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer," he intones. "Our only alternative is to change our children’s thinking." He is an ambassador, bearing books, to change the future for deserving children. But Soriano is an ambassador of another sort, as well. He wants the world to see the Colombia that he loves. He welcomes anyone who believes in what he is doing to come meet the many Colombians who are intelligent, caring, capable individuals who strive for high ideals. Luis Soriano is only one man with two burros, but he has become an ambassador of possibilities for the whole world. He welcomes all to join him on his mission of love and learning. "If anyone wants to come," he says, "our doors are open."

Luis Soriano has a foundation to support the work of the Biblioburro program. Donations of Spanish language (or bilingual) books are welcome. Soriano says because shipping is expensive, the foundation can do more with monetary donations that allow them to purchase books in Colombia.

The Biblioburro program has inspired similar efforts in other countries and is the subject of a children’s picture book by Jeanette Winter, currently featured in the HAPPY Reading Books area.

The Biblioburro is also the subject of a documentary which premieres on PBS’s Point of View (POV) program July 19th. The documentary will be viewable online from July 20th through September 18th at: http://www.pbs.org/pov/biblioburro

HAPPY Reading appreciates Mr. Soriano’s patience with our limited Spanish. Photographs appear courtesy the Fundacion Biblioburro.


  

 

   

(c) HAPPY Reading 2011