A network of rural libraries wins the annual Casa de la Literatura Peruana award | International

Exchange of books in the province of San Marcos (Cajamarca).
Exchange of books in the province of San Marcos (Cajamarca).Archive of the Cajamarca Rural Libraries Network

A huge peasant reading project in Cajamarca, one of Peru’s most illiterate areas, has just won the annual Casa de la Literatura Peruana award. The Cajamarca Rural Libraries Network has turned 50 and its co-founder, Alfredo Mires Ortiz, a cosmopolitan of the countryside and current director of the network, will be awarded an award that has distinguished referents of the culture of the Andean country.

In a region where more than 133,000 people over the age of 15 cannot read or write, the network does a titanic job. Its volunteers, all peasants, momentarily abandon their work in the fields to travel for hours on trails and steep roads and carry books to more than 500 communities where they are eagerly awaiting them.

“Each coordinator is in charge of 10 to 15 libraries, and it is an intense job, because they are not only book distributors: they have to leave the work of the farm (land) and sometimes walk many hours or days and stay in the community to meet with the children, see what population there is of children with disabilities, teach how to make a reading circle ”, Mires explains to EL PAÍS.

And they don’t always succeed, adds the cofounder: “The team is small and reaches (geographically) as far as we can go because we don’t have mobile units. We do not have international financing, but from small family groups who give us a hand ”. What happens then is that the communities find out about the service and send them requests for books.

However, when coordinators overcome difficulties and have reading encounters, extraordinary things happen such as those who cannot read or write join the circles and stand nearby to look at the finger of the person who reads and marks progress in the book. over words.

One of the oldest library coordinators is Javier Huamán, 59, a farmer from the Luychocolpa community. From the city of Cajamarca to your home, the journey is three hours by bus to Bambamarca (Hualgayoc province) and from there, a four-hour walk. “Before the pandemic, I would go out for three days to coordinate in my area: to bring them the new books and collect the others, the books rotate like people, like food,” he assures by phone.

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However, although he affirms that the pandemic affected them seriously, it has been a time to learn about technology and accompany each other by “keeping the protocol” for health. They have continued with virtual meetings, but it has not been easy because many of their colleagues do not have smartphones or enough memory for anything other than calls, or where they live, the internet signal does not reach.

In essence, these coordinators are still workers for the land. “In our library training there is never stopping working and living with our farm to grow our crops. This pandemic has taught us a lesson: not to renounce our own cultural identity, our community life, we must be together to be protected, ”says Huamán, convinced of the value of clean water and clean land and the importance of community health.

The work as coordinator of librarians has given him a discernment “that can help to live with a healthy spirit” despite the fact that he has not had the possibility of studying at the university. “We have gone to primary and secondary school and we have stayed there. But when we read the literature books of César Vallejo, José María Arguedas and Ciro Alegría —of the stories with the landowners— or Manuel Scorza —of life with the miner in the field— most of us identify not only by the situation in Cajamarca, but in other parts of the world ”, affirms the farmer.

According to Mires, the network today includes 50 schools and has expanded to the neighboring departments of Amazonas, La Libertad and Lambayeque. In each community they have appointed librarians responsible for managing a batch of books that they receive from the central office located in the city of Cajamarca. The books remain in the home of the librarian chosen by each community and he lends them to the villagers for a week – subject to renovation. However, there are some books, such as dictionaries, that do not leave your home. “Because it may be that someone comes to look for it and does not find it available,” says Mires.

The way to renew the copies is by exchanging with those that have another library in the network, although the central replenishes with new titles that the central publishes or acquires, because sometimes “books crash”, says Mires, alluding to deterioration due to use . The House of Peruvian Literature grants the award because it ensures that “throughout its 50 years, the Cajamarca Rural Libraries Network has promoted new dynamics for the creation and circulation of books”, but has also contributed to the “recovery and revaluation of community memory and oral traditions through the Campesino Encyclopedia ”.

And the thing is that the network also publishes books written by peasants. “This project questions and reinvents the compilation dynamics of community knowledge, proposing new ways to value the poetic word and publications made from the community and for the community,” says the jury of the Casa de la Literatura Peruana 2021 Prize.

“Over time, teachers have learned about this proposal. Before we were only community members, which is curious because the school formally did not incorporate reading as a vital issue or our books — peasant-style, written in our own language and that formal education would qualify as barbarism. There are teachers who have bought the lawsuit, ”says Mires, a self-taught librarian since he was an adolescent peasant on the coast in the 1970s.

For this reason, of the total of books that they send to the communities, 60% are their own publications. “In the peasant collection we have already exceeded 200 titles: the vast majority written by the people themselves, with the names of the people themselves. The others are the dictionary, the Constitution, the Civil Code, the Penal Code, and literature, ”says Mires.

Cosmopolitan peasants

Mires joined the Cajamarca Rural Libraries Network when he had not finished high school, at the age of 14 or 15, and it was a non-pastoral educational movement of the English priest Juan Medcalf, now deceased. The director of the civil association maintains that one of the most important challenges of the work has been to respond to the “reading demands of rural cosmopolitans” since there are no bookstores in the city of Cajamarca.

But why are they rural cosmopolitans and what do they find in books? “There is a lot of interest in knowing much beyond the borders, that goes against that stereotypical idea that they live on their farm and are not interested in anything else,” Mires responds. “An example is Pascual Sánchez Montoya, a colleague of ours from the Chuco community (San Marcos province), he is an expert in medieval English history who has specialized because he is an inveterate reader and does not boast. He is in the fourth year of primary school and in a conversation with a priest his command was very impressive in telling what has happened in the English courts as if they were his neighbors ”, he assures.

Until before the pandemic, the network held two or three assemblies per year: the last one took place in March 2020, on the eve of the government suddenly ordering a strict quarantine. It was an important event in the life of the institution that began with a ceremony in which they thanked the mountains and the deceased: in assemblies, for example, coordinators were elected by consensus. That was the last time they all met. During the health emergency, libraries have paid more attention to children, because the Ministry of Education opted for distance classes through digital means that are scarce in rural communities.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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