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Reading a Lot Into New Library on the Eastside

Times Staff Writer

With mariachis blaring, the first county library built in an unincorporated area in 40 years opened its doors Saturday in East Los Angeles.

Visitors said its expanded Chicano Resource Center, touted by the county as the largest of its kind in Southern California, signals an evolution from 30 years ago, when Latinos were jailed for their activism at the county sheriff’s substation across Belvedere Lake from the new library.

“It is critical that tomorrow’s writers and scholars have these resources, not just to learn what we did, but to empower them to do what’s needed next,” said resource center curator Tomas Benitez, who is also executive director of Self-Help Graphics, the Eastside printmaking shop that has become an incubator for Chicano art.

At a Saturday morning dedication ceremony that attracted 200 people and featured Aztec dancers and the Garfield High School marching band, Benitez held up his first library card from 1959.

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“This card was my introduction to the world,” he told the audience, urging patrons to take advantage of their increased access to great authors and to make the library a second home.

The children at the opening event wasted no time before taking his advice at the 26,000-square-foot facility on 3rd Street, twice the size of the old library across the street.

Isaiah Velasquez, 2, immediately darted to the truck books, picked out three, then planted himself in a small chair next to his father in the children’s section. For more than an hour, David Velasquez, 38, read aloud to his son above the din of a mariachi band.

“I feel comfortable here,” the father said, taking a brief break. “The way it’s laid out makes me feel at home.”

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Designed to evoke a Mayan observatory, the library is jammed with local Chicano art, including a glass mosaic mural that includes likenesses of Latino leaders such as slain journalist Ruben Salazar, activist Dolores Huerta and actor Edward James Olmos.

The library is part of a complete renovation of the area around the lake spearheaded by county Supervisor Gloria Molina. The supervisor told visitors Saturday that when she was growing up nearby, the eldest of 10 children in a two-bedroom house, she cherished the peace the library offered.

“The library became a refuge,” Molina said.

The Chicano Resource Center is the largest room in the library, featuring a dozen rows of books, map cabinets holding movie and art posters, and file cabinets packed with archived articles on topics ranging from Aztecs to zoot suits.

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“It’s a powerful dream come true to have this facility in our own backyard,” said Gus Frias, the author of “Leaders and Achievers,” a collection of biographies on influential Latinos. “Access to this kind of empowering information shows how much progress we have made.”


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