Gentefied and the Libraries of Boyle Heights

Lupita Leyva, Senior Librarian, Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library,
outside view of the Benjamin Franklin Branch Library
Actors from the TV Show, Gentefied, outside the real Benjamin Franklin Branch Library

Not often does a TV series begin with a shot of a library. In this case, the series in question began with a shot of the Benjamin Franklin Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Be still my heart! This library is very special for me as this was the first library I frequented growing up. It's where I essentially learned to read in English, practiced reading in Spanish, and cultivated my nascent bibliophilia beginning around four decades ago.

Lupe in front of Stevenson branch library
Librarian Lupita Leyva outside the R.L. Stevenson Branch Library

I had been hearing buzz for a while around a new Netflix series called Gentefied. For those of you who may not have heard, Gentefied premiered this February on Netflix. Since the series takes place in the Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights, my hometown, I couldn’t wait to see it! I also couldn’t wait because the series centers around a Mexican-American family, and there aren’t that many on-screen stories about Mexican-Americans (but that’s another blog post for another time). The title of the series is a play on the words gente (Spanish for people) and gentrified (gentrification is a huge topic in many L.A. communities and especially in Boyle Heights).

Well this past weekend I settled in on my couch with my 13-year old son to watch Gentefied. It seems like everyone is talking about the new series. It’s been quite a hit, especially in the Latinx community. Vulture calls it, “a bilingual love letter to Boyle Heights.” Like many others, I loved loved loved the representation, and I was quite impressed by how well it portrayed my neighborhood and Mexican-American culture as it changes with the generations. But it captured my heart when it included the library, a real library in the heart of Boyle Heights.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love my community and its libraries. I grew up in one Boyle Heights library, and I’ve been a branch manager in another Boyle Heights library, the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch, for the past nine years. Although I no longer live in Boyle Heights, my family still owns the house I grew up in, a house that’s only about a mile and a half away from both the Benjamin Franklin and Robert Louis Stevenson libraries.

I decided to become a librarian because I wanted to work specifically with the Boyle Heights community. I’ve been blessed to have worked at all three Boyle Heights libraries—the Malabar Branch is the third—and I have to say there is a special kind of magic working in the same community where I grew up. I'm paying it forward to others that I received growing up in these same enchanted spaces. I champion this community and its libraries whenever I can. When I saw that Gentefied had included Benjamin Franklin Branch in its show, it gave me an extraordinary sense of pride because in a community like ours—in all communities, I guess—the public library is so important. I can go on and on about all the things the libraries in Boyle Heights provides to our community—books, yes, but also homework help, citizenship classes (¡en inglés y en español!), English classes, and a plethora of programs for the whole family in both English and Spanish. We even bring live theatre into the library for our gente, shout out to Jesus Reyes of Center Theatre Group for our incredible multi-year partnership! Ultimately what we provide is an oasis in the desert storm of life, a calm place where you can lose yourself in a book or get help with the computer or enjoy a play reading (in English or Spanish) or be a part of a community, of something greater than yourself. I can wax poetic for days on the wonderfulness of the libraries in Boyle Heights; maybe that’s why I came back to my community after going away to college and after graduate school. Maybe that’s why I’m still here.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way. I know of several of my colleagues who also grew up in Boyle Heights and who came back to work in our libraries with the express purpose of passing it on and giving back to our community. There are also our colleagues who may not have grown up here, but who work here now and for whom Boyle Heights is home. So I wanted to highlight the real librarians of Boyle Heights. Thank you, Gentefied, for representing our community. And thank you, librarians of Boyle Heights, for all you do every day for our libraries and our community.

Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros, here are some of the real librarians of Boyle Heights in their own words.

Dora Suárez, Branch Manager: Arroyo Seco Branch Library

Dora Suarez
Dora Suárez in front of the branch library she manages

When I was twelve years old and living in Boyle Heights, trips to the library were my only escape from a strict home life. The summer reading program was a time where I could break free from some of my summer chores. The theme of the first summer reading program I participated in was “Treasure Island.” I remember the librarian at Robert Louis Stevenson and her carefully crafted programs for us kids; my twelve-year-old mind thought they were just magical!

young girls at a library program
Young Dora during the Treasure Island themed summer reading program, 1981

That summer, I discovered the Sweet Valley High and Caitlin series along with the classic works of C.S. Lewis. I also won prizes for reading books that opened up my imagination. From then on, trips to the library were a regular occurrence. My love of reading and my regular trips to the library enabled me to attend college, during which I also spent what felt like infinite hours at the local library. It was then, during my final year of college, I decided I would become a librarian. When I finally became a librarian, coming back to work in Boyle Heights was a natural progression that brought my love of the Los Angeles Public Library full circle. I had the great honor to give back to the community what it had given me by building a robust summer program that included many art projects—I wanted to recreate that joy and adventure I had had as a child! One of the most fulfilling roles I have had as a librarian was in Boyle Heights working with immigrant families who are not as familiar with the services of the library but once becoming familiar with us, can use the library as an abundant community resource.

Patty Alvarado, Adult Librarian: Benjamin Franklin Branch Library

Patty Alvarado
Patty Alvarado seems right at home in front of the Benjamin Franklin Branch Library

I was born in Boyle Heights and raised in Whittier. Several years ago, I tutored in a handful of branches, and I didn't see any librarians that looked like me. It made me think of the families I was helping and tutoring, majority Central American and Mexican. I wondered how they felt when they walked into a library and didn't see a librarian they could talk to in their native tongue. It made me think of my parents and the way they felt in their youth navigating their new home's government agencies. Twelve years later and now I'm an adult librarian at the Benjamin Franklin Branch in Boyle Heights. I wanted to work and live in Boyle Heights and embed myself in a neighborhood which reminds me of home, and because of that, this community means everything to me. When you live where you work, you're able to impact your community on a more intimate level. The connections we make are lifelines for our gente. ¡Eres lo máximo Boyle Heights!

Yannai Rodriguez, Young Adult Librarian: Malabar Branch Library

Yannai Rodriguez
Yannai Rodriguez on the steps of the Malabar Branch Library

The people of this community are the reason I have chosen to stay in my current library for over two years. Although I have worked in numerous libraries throughout the years in Southern California, I have never felt the sense of community that I feel in Malabar. Library patrons will call out “good morning” as you walk to the library, they will stop each other in the street to have long conversations, and people will come in and bring the local chisme to let us know about anything we should be aware of. This neighborhood in Boyle Heights has a small-town feel that I have never known before, but I am grateful to have experienced it now. The kids that come in every day to hang out or chat make the job worthwhile. As their librarian, I want to encourage their curiosity, nourish their creativity, and help them recognize everything they have to offer to the world.

Alejandra Reyes, Library Staff, and Graduate Student: Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library

Alejandra Reyes, Patty Tarango, and Lupita Leyva
Pictured from left: Alejandra Reyes, Patty Tarango, and Lupita Leyva in the children's reading room of the R.L. Stevenson Branch Library

I am not a librarian yet, but awesome librarians have surrounded me, and I aspire to be one soon! My memories of the library growing up are from Central Library’s Teen’Scape. I would take the #70 bus to downtown L.A. to find refuge and a safe space at Teen’Scape. It was my escape from reality and access to the internet, which at that time, I did not have. It was a quiet place where there were no police helicopters or no loud noises of the neighborhood. Being in Boyle Heights now, all I see is a reflection of myself when I was a child. I can see my childhood in the little kids who come to the programs and get so immersed in the activity they forget about reality for at least an hour. I want to introduce them to all the options they have in life and be an information gateway so that they can gain the knowledge they need. I want to become a librarian because I want to show the child ¡que sí se puede! I was once in their shoes, and like the song says, "Look at me now—or in a few years."

Further Reading

Los Angeles's Boyle Heights

Hotel Mariachi: Urban Space and Cultural Heritage in Los Angeles
Kurland, Catherine L.

Untold Stories from Boyle Heights: An In Our Global Village Book

Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945
Sanchez, George J.

Real Women Have Curves: A Comedy
López, Josefina

Confessions of Women from East L.A.: A Comedy
López, Josefina

Haunted East Los Angeles
Becerra, Mario J.

The Tomorrow We See Today: The Hopes of Boyle Heights Dreamers

No Fake News, Vol. 1
DSTL Arts.

Mexican American Baseball in East Los Angeles
Santillan, Richard

Celebrating Boyle Heights: Past, Present & Future

East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio
Romo, Ricardo

Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer
Guevara, Ruben

Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities
Pardo, Mary S.

Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology