The group’s lively chatter was like a flashback to the 1990s, when Mexican singer Rigo Tovar’s song “El Sirenito” was famous. Speaking in Spanish, the group discussed the painful and constant corruption in the small town of Paracuan, Mexico, and characters that reminded them of Mexican actor Mario Almada and Police Chief Arturo Durazo.
Memories of those years turned to the telling of personal anecdotes, some of them funny, others painful, and eventually uproarious laughter when the members of the Commerce Library’s Spanish Book Club learned the town of Paracuan never existed: except in the novel they had just read and their imaginations.
The dialogue took place during the book club’s January meeting. The plot and characters at the center of the discussion are from “The Black Minutes,” a novel by Mexican writer Martin Solares.
The book club’s participants, about 20 strong, are of all ages, and while some men do join in, most of the participants are mothers or grandmothers. All the books the group reads are in Spanish, as are the monthly discussions about what they’ve read.
“They read the book for three weeks or so and we discuss it, usually the last Monday of the month,” Yolanda Cardenas-Parra, the group’s facilitator and circulation supervisor at Commerce’s Central Library, told EGP.
The club was started about 15 years ago. It grew out of the library system’s “Ambassadors of the Library” outreach effort to attract more Spanish speakers to the city’s four libraries.
“ [We] knew the library was more than just books and movies” and that if we educated the ambassadors about “what the library does they would go and talk to their neighbors,” Beatriz Sarmiento, director of Commerce’s Central Library told EGP.
“Because of that effort we have more people that use the library right now, they know about it and once they know about it they tell more neighbors,” she added.
The Spanish Book Club, like many programs offered through the city-run libraries, offers more than just reading resources. Its members say the help they get is both personal and motivational.
“Coming here is like therapy,” the club’s co-founder Graciela G. Gonzalez told EGP. She said attending is a good way to relieve stress.
“We laugh, sometimes we even cry together. We talk, but it’s optional what one wants to share,” Gonzalez said. “But we do get [down] to personal levels,” she emphasized, adding that whatever is said in the group “cannot be repeated outside.”
“We analyze the stories and we make a connection to our lives, our experiences and I learn a lot because most of them are mothers, aunts or grandmothers,” said Josue Martinez, one of the youngest members of the group. “It is almost like talking to my mom multiplied by 10,” he joked.
The participants choose the selection of books to be considered. They read those that get the most votes. “The library buys a certain number of books and we borrow some from other libraries so we can have enough for all the members” to read without them having to buy it, Cardenas-Parra explained.
Participants agree that the group has been beneficial to them in many ways, such as broadening their vocabulary and learning how to express themselves. Some say the discussions have helped them overcome their shyness and to feel more comfortable with other people.
And the group knows how to have a good time. So good that the monthly meetings can take on a party atmosphere, snacks included.
“Every time we meet we bring a dish; cake, jell-o, candies, salads,” club member Consuelo Bonada told EGP. “We always share and we are very happy with this program,” said the woman who other club members say makes the “best” jell-o.
Last month’s menu included ham, salad, chocolate cake, candies and strawberries.
As for their latest literary venture, most agreed “The Black Minutes” “wasn’t too bad or too good,” and that the main character, Macedonio, was confusing. However, when the discussion turned to the book’s ending, described as the “five black minutes,” they all agreed that the author had taken “a risk,” and compared the “crisis” and “experiment” to their own lives.
While it may have not been the best book they’d ever read, each said they had learned something. “Even if sometimes I don’t like the titles, I learn from the perceptions and life experiences from others and how each one applies it to the story,” said Martinez, a library assistant at Central Library.
Cardenas-Parra said that many times the book does not end when they are done reading. If there’s a movie or a play they go as a group to see it.
“We have seen, “Love in the Times of Cholera,” “Take My Life Away,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and many more,” she said.
The club is open to everyone, not just Commerce residents. Some of its members are from Montebello, Pico Rivera, Los Angeles and West Covina.
“When we started, people would say ‘I have never read an entire book’ or ‘I have never read at all’ and ‘I don’t have a good vocabulary,’” said Gonzalez. But “Just by being here we have grown.”
The club’s members share another reason to feel comfortable; they all are either immigrants or descendents of immigrants. They speak about the countries where they or members of their family were born, often sharing anecdotes that feel familiar to the others in the group, helping them feel closer and more like friends sharing a conversation.
“Having people from different countries makes the conversations richer, because suddenly someone will identify with some part of the story or with the author,” said Cardenas-Parra.
“I have been attending the meeting for about a year and a half and I love it, mainly because we can share a good time with our fellow members,” Bonada said.
The group does not limit its reading to one category of books, said Cardenas-Parra. “There are all kind of subjects: history, biographies, self-esteem, mystery, police and more,” she explained.
Last month, as the January Spanish Club meeting was about to end, attention turned to the next book on their reading list. Some were astonished, and a few even blushed when they realized that they would next be reading the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“You will pervert me!” exclaimed Martinez with a big smile.
To participate or obtain more information about the Commerce Library Spanish Book Club, call (323) 722-6660 ext. 2825 or visit the city’s Central Library.