It was desperation. Pure, unadulterated desperation that drove us to scheming an international smuggling operation in which we involved our four youngsters.
Neither regret nor remorse are motivating me to come clean now, years later, though you may consider this my public confession of our contraband years.
Books and Fools
It all began shortly after we moved to Chihuahua, Mexico in 1998. We were having a conversation with a local pastor who offered his help with anything we may need to become acclimated.
“Where is the closest library?” I promptly asked, realizing books there would be in Spanish, not English. I was prepared for the challenge for both myself and our children.
His head turned and his brows furrowed as he asked, “¿Para qué? What do you need a library for?”
Questions like that are cultural clue cards. I took that one, filed it away, and answered matter-of-factly, “To have books to read at home.”
He snickered. “The libraries here do not loan out books.”
Shock registered on my face. “¿Por qué?”
“We have a saying here in Mexico,” he answered,
that if you loan a book to someone, you are a fool, but if you return a book you borrowed, you are a greater fool.”
That new cultural awareness would prove helpful to me years later in my task of organizing and managing a Bible Institute library in southern Mexico. Though it was a lending library limited to only students and staff, the end of the year inventory would unfortunately reveal the saying true.
In 2004, Mexico City ignored, or perhaps tried to overcome, this particular cultural nuance when they hoped to curb crime and improve literacy by lending 1.5 million books – on the honor system – at subway stations around the city. They stopped the program after having so few riders return the books.
El Paso is due north of Chihuahua City. We would make the five-hour trip through the desert, and the one-hour trip through Ciudad Juarez, often. Sometimes we just needed to hear English, sometimes we simply needed to de-stress, and usually we needed to retrieve our mail from across the border, where it waited unopened and its contents unchanged.
Always, though, we needed a library.
El Paso had public libraries. Those libraries loan books. We could check books out and take them into Mexico with us. Easy, right? Not exactly. There were rules mocking us.
First, the librarians voice, “Fill out this form, ma’am, and return it with a utility bill proving your local residency.”
Then, the sign: NO BORROWED ITEMS ARE TO BE TAKEN INTO MEXICO.
It was then that the desperation for books, namely to check them out to have at home in Mexico, overtook us, creating the wonderfully deviant smuggling plot.
A local retired missionary couple became accomplices by allowing us the use of their home address as our mailing address. Though we didn’t have utility bills, other mail such as credit card statements came in time and were deemed acceptable by the library staff. Five library cards were issued (the baby didn’t need one yet).
We lacked only one thing: a way to carry the amount of books we’d be checking out. Most normal people carry books in hand, or perhaps in a bag. Then again, most normal people don’t go to the library with a family of six to check out 60+ items at a time to smuggle across the border into another country.
To the nearest Wal-Mart we headed, purchasing the largest plastic laundry basket they had. Operation Carpe Librum was on.
Here is where we corrupted our children: we told them not to mention ‘home’ or ‘Mexico’ in the same sentence when we were in the library. And, no!, they could NOT say it in Spanish, since the majority of El Paso either speaks or understands Spanish. Each child was told to pick out ten titles, bring them to us for approval, then put them in the big basket.
I felt somewhat criminal-minded when we stood in line to check out and that sign would catch my eye, taunting me as it tugged at my conscience with the reminder that I didn’t have permission to smuggle those books out of the country.
It’s for the niños! I mentally hissed back, wishing the sign knew I was home-schooling and we were starving, literarily speaking. It stared back, hard and motionless, reminding me of Ruskin’s phrase: the cursed animosity of inanimate objects.
“Okay, it’s for me, too!” I ‘fessed up under its glare.
Into the back of the SUV my husband carefully and systematically placed the basket among the suitcases, ready to cross the border, go through customs and make the long journey home. The border guards with their AK-47s showed less hostility over the basket of books than the stupid sign back at the library.
Todo Bien (All is Well)
The end of the story is a happy one.
We enjoyed hundreds of books during those years, the library received back all their loans, we paid any fines we may have incurred, three of my four kids have graduated and gone on to college, two now holding Masters’ Degrees, and…
…I bought myself a Kindle.