I had no idea when I started photographing libraries in 1994 that I had stumbled upon a perfect way to travel the world, help us understand what we were seeing, and develop a way to advocate for the common good. Little did I know that studying dusty old books could be so exciting. And that libraries are, indeed, very noisy places filled with exciting and often raucous arguments between writers sometimes stretching back to our distant past. Or where the social issues of a given time get played out such as segregation in the past or book banning in our present. No matter how our current crisis of censorship and libraries gets resolved, libraries have proved to be an essential part of any healthy society. As Bill Moyers wrote in his introduction for my 2014 book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay “when a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open too.”

We went to Mexico to use libraries to try to learn some essential truths about this fascinating and complicated place. Because of its much older history, libraries in Mexico seemed to share more with their European counterparts than with American libraries. Of the libraries that we visited; one important function was to safeguard the deep inheritance from Mexican history. Ancient books and manuscripts were everywhere and highly valued by many libraries. As in Europe, protecting this history was paramount and access for the public was less important.

Another significant and unique aspect of Mexican libraries was to feature the work of the famous 20th century Mexican muralists. Everywhere we traveled we saw stunning examples of the work of Diego Rivera, Juan O’Gorman, Orozco, Siqueiros., Morado, etc. Besides the startling visuals of these artists, the political message was often socialist or communist with idealized images of Stalin or Mao and stridently anti-capitalist messages. History today often views Stalin and Mao as genocidal mass-murders. But these often-angry polemical artistic masterpieces fit well into the cacophony of ideas that makes for a healthy library. 

Another common theme we discovered in Mexican libraries was the commons itself. Certain private libraries in Oaxaca or San Miguel de Allende had great community outreach with a dizzying array of classes, workshops, studios, bookstores, etc. that made the libraries a source of community pride. We saw how these libraries worked hard to remain necessary and relevant to their communities. Funding for public libraries has been a struggle partly because of Mexico’s low productivity rate and low rate of people paying taxes. Since the revolution, education has always been important but vast income inequality makes it hard for the poor to access the resources that the wealthy take for granted. Libraries are only a part of this problem.

On this last trip of the larger Mexican Library Road trip, we were accompanied by our son Walker and his girlfriend Rosa. Both speak Spanish and Rosa is from Mexico. As with our last trip to Oaxaca and Puebla with Rosa’s mother and sister, we were well taken care of on this part of our journey. We headed west to the Spanish colonial town of Morelia. This beautifully preserved city is a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage site with elegant 16th and 17th century stone buildings with baroque facades and graceful archways. Lots of foreigners come to learn Spanish or Mexican cooking but, up to now, relatively few come as tourists.

The Biblioteca Pública de la Universidad Michoacana in Morelia is housed in an extraordinary 17th former church. The treasurers from the archive spoke to the long history of this place. A statue of Cervantes in a dark corner next to a 1950s mural was unsettling and beautiful. The highlight of our visit came when Rosa discovered a book written by her long-ago great, great grandfather who was historically important in the development of Mexican law.

Our next stop was the small adobe-and-cobblestone town of Pátzcuaro. Built in 1576, the Augustine Convent of Pátzcurao originally consisted of a church and cloister. Today, it is the Gertrudis Bocanegra Public Library, adorned with a mural painted in the 1940s by Irish Mexican artist Juan O’Gorman, and is now an important cultural center of Pátzcuaro. The astonishing mural depicts the indigenous Purépecha cosmogony, their way of life, the bloody Spanish conquest, and life after the conquest. Bocanegra was a martyred hero of the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s and we saw her image throughout the town. 

On our way to Guadalajara, we stopped at the impressive Tzintzuntzan Archeological site. It consists of five semicircular reconstructed temples which are all that remain of the once-mighty, ancient Purépecha empire. No one was here which helped intensify our feeling of mystery and wonder.

Our next stop was the Octavio Paz Iberoamerican Library in the large city of Guadalajara. It is housed in a building originally built in 1591 as a Jesuit school. In 1792, it became the first site of the University of Guadalajara. It was dedicated as the Octavio Paz Library in 1991 during the first Iberoamerican Summit meeting and includes distinctive murals by Mexican artist Siqueiros. The library collection largely comprises works by Latin American and Spanish scholars and is a celebration of Spanish language literature, writing, and culture.

We were given the greatest possible welcome at the Juan José Arreola Library at the University of Guadalajara because we were accompanied by Rosa. Her father had worked in the Mexican government and helped direct money to fund the library. And the library has named a section of law books after her great great grandfather. The wonderful reception started with a large gathering of staff and the director where Rosa served as our much-needed translator. We were then given a guided tour of every section of this large library by enthusiastic librarians and archivists. We were taken to see the newspaper library, the map library and even a library for the blind. As we were leaving, we saw a sobering exhibit of animal sculptures made from weapons taken by the police from the Mexican cartels which are an ongoing problem in this part of the country. After one of our best meals in Mexico at an innovative, corn-based restaurant called Xokol, we came back to the library in the evening to photograph the fabulous exterior.

One of my favorite cities in Mexico was the former mining town of Guanajuato. It is another extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage city which was founded by the Spanish in 1559. I was stunned by its geography and blown away by its vibrant culture. The city’s main roads twist around the hillsides and plunge into long dank subterranean tunnels that were formerly rivers and mining tunnels. Walking around the city was like living in a 3D MC Escher drawing. It is a colorful and lively place with surprises around every corner and a youthful energy provided by live musical performances everywhere. We even came upon a Lucha libre theater group doing an improv performance accompanied by a rock band in costume playing to a rapturous audience. In another place we came upon three live mariachi bands all playing at the same time. I kept muttering over and over to myself “this is crazy!” and loving every minute of it. It all had a fascinating edge and I noticed that the crowd was almost all Mexican and not foreigners.

The Armando Olivares Library is part of the University of Guanajuato. It contains some of the most valuable treasures of bibliographic archives in the country. One doesn’t need to be a specialized researcher to access the archive, just have the restlessness for knowledge. We were given a remarkable tour by a gifted librarian/professor. What I thought would be a short visit fortunately stretched out over several hours as we asked every question we could think of about local and Mexican history. The depth of the collection and the interesting architecture made this one of the biggest surprises of the trip.

The rest of our time in Guanajuato was way too short as we tried to soak up all this incredible, exciting, and beautiful place. No doubt, we will be back.

On our way to our next stop, we visited the place where Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed Mexican Independence in 1810. It was a deep dive into Mexican history, and I was fascinated by Hidalgo’s book collection. I realized that I didn’t know much about this history but visiting some of the sites where the history had happened made me want to know more about this endlessly fascinating subject.

The Public Library of San Miguel de Allende is a non-profit organization that has been in existence for 65 years. It is an incredible place that provides educational and cultural activities in a community center that includes a lending library, bookstore, skills training, painting and ceramics studios, etc. in a safe environment for a multi-generational and multi-cultural community. On the day we visited, it was a beehive of activity, and I admired the incredible energy of the overworked staff and volunteers.

The beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende is one of Mexico’s biggest tourist attractions and includes a large population of Americans who either live full time in the town or have winter homes here. The town is also a UNESCO World Heritage site despite receiving huge numbers of visitors. Although they were both Spanish colonial mining towns, the contrast between here and Guanajuato is large. I preferred the edgy charm of Guanajuato but came to really like San Miguel as well. We had an incredible dinner with old friends of Ellen who have permanently settled here after leaving Colorado. As we were leaving the next day, I photographed the municipal public library which was closed on Sunday.

On our way to our next stop, we visited the fascinating and mysterious Archeological Site of Tula.  It was the Mesoamerican capital of the Toltec Empire, but little is known about it. When we arrived, lighting bolts were hitting the distant peaks with a storm heading our way. We reluctantly kept our visit short and made a quick dash for our car before the rain began. All the ancient sites that we visited on this trip brought more questions than answers. Hopefully, this deep dive into ancient and more recent Mexican history will continue in our future.

The last city on our Mexican Library Road Trip was the rapidly growing city of Querétaro. It is one of the fastest growing cities in the northern hemisphere thanks to a booming aerospace and technologies industry.  It has an old colonial center which may someday be made more attractive for the tourist industry. Querétaro does possess some striking examples of urban sprawl and bad traffic. We couldn’t help talking about JB Jackson and other urban theorists. and wondered what they would say about what we were seeing. After seeing so many towns from Mexico’s past, it was startling to see in Querétaro a possible future. It wasn’t pretty, but the optimism and faith in the future here was positive even as we wondered about the environmental consequences of a boom town exploding across an arid landscape. Unfortunately, we have seen plenty of examples of this dilemma before in the American West.

As we were leaving Querétaro the next morning, we discovered a library on the edge of town that is housed in a line of old railroad cars and in an old train station. It was really struggling and the private funding for its only computers and Wi-Fi setup had dried up. Because of the finicky nature of private funding and lack of government support, this poor part of a suddenly prosperous region will probably remain poor until something changes. Here was where hope can die on the raggedy edge of the sparkling boom town of Querétaro.

We arrived back in Mexico City inspired but very tired from our month-long journey. But we had one more library to visit. The Mapoteca is a map library that is maintained by the Cartography Department of the Federal Government. The archive contains a valuable technical collection including more than 5,000 files and field notebooks dating from 1860 to 1970 relating to topography, astronomy, geodesics, etc. Because of our passion for geography, we were like kids in a candy store as we dashed from one exciting discovery to the next. The enthusiastic staff gave us a remarkably well-curated presentation of the treasurers of this unique place.

We could not have done this trip without the support of Rosa and her remarkable family – Paulina and Ana. They fed us, housed us, and were our traveling companions during different parts of this trip. We are forever indebted to them for their generosity, kindness, and wisdom. Abrazos!

On our flight home, I was fortunate to sit next to a man from Mexico who was flying back to his home in the Bay Area. He explained how he had emigrated to the US, worked hard for many years in the medical industry in Palo Alto and eventually bought a home in Modesto. After we landed in San Francisco he added “America is the place where dreams can still come true.” As we deplaned, I was still choked up by the wisdom of this quiet, soft-spoken Mexican man.

I took my last photo of the trip of Ellen entering US Customs under a huge sign stating, “Welcome to the United States of America.” In the distance there appeared to be a huge crowd cheering her on. As Walker later said about this photo “this is Ellen making it to the finish line and winning the race.”  There’s no place like home.

In the next few weeks, I will be sending out one more blog post of the greatest hits of images from my Nikon from the trip. Until then…

1 Comment

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  1. Jeff Gates

    What an incredible and “dense” trip. New experiences, people, and feelings around every corner. Thanks for taking us with you, Ellen and Bob.

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