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'One Book Holyoke' helps readers remember roots

In addition to the One Book Holyoke events, the City of Springfield Public Library is celebrating literacy this month with a poetry competition. For more information visit

One Book Holyoke: For more information on April events and a planned April 30 visit by author Esmeralda Santiago, please visit

By Marie P. Grady


And, so, once again, I am transported into another world. It is a warm, verdant place where the scent of fresh oregano rises up from the Earth and melts into the mist of a humid day. Guava bushes grow close to the ground, and branches bending with sweet fruit beckon children.

Weary but still strong mothers rub rosemary oil into their long flowing hair. They are weathered but never old. They are raising their children in metal shacks rising up from red clay, but they are still redolent of sweet herbs.

In this world I am lulled to sleep by the mating song of a tiny tree frog named the coqui. His song is so beautiful that he has been exported to countries around the world. But he can never sing once he is uprooted from his home.

This is what one book can do. It can move you to a new place or transplant you in time. Sometimes it can even help you to mine your own soul or the essence of another's.

"When I was Puerto Rican" is such a book. This 1993 work by author Esmeralda Santiago traces her family's journey from an island of breathtaking beauty and stark poverty to the foreign streets of Los Nueva Yores, where triple locks on tenements in Queens guard against the "gente mala" bad people who lurk around every corner.

It is fitting that this memoir is the featured selection of "One-Book Holyoke." It is also fitting that this project began in Holyoke, a city built with the hopes, dreams and sweat of newcomers.

The idea to bring one city together around one book must have seemed like a pipe dream when it was first envisioned several years ago.

After all, who has time to read anymore, about ourselves or each other? But N. Tzivia Gover, a former journalist and a poet, carried that dream forward in her work at the CARE Center, a Holyoke program that has attracted nationwide notice for its work to transform the lives of teen mothers. I first learned about "One-Book Holyoke" from David Cruise, who led the Literacy Works Project for the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County before I did.

Cruise worked with Gover to gain early support from Barnes & Noble for the fledgling project. But I didn't hear this from him. A child of Irish immigrants, Cruise is like many of the men I grew up with. Silent movers and shakers. Self-effacing to an extreme. They can lift mountains and let someone else put the stake in the summit. Maybe that's how they lift mountains.

Today, "One-Book Holyoke" has become an annual event that transcends the divisions that separate newcomers from those who came before them. Beginning with a panel discussion on the book at the Wistariahurst Museum last month, events include film screenings and a planned literary fiesta with the author from 7 to 9:30 p.m. on April 30 at the United Congregational Church, 395 High St.

As I listened to the panelists at the museum in this beautiful mill city, I was struck by how the book resonated with their experiences. Panelists included Irma Medina, a Mount Holyoke College graduate who coordinates a Holyoke Community College student achievement program and serves on the board of the Community Education Project in that city.

Others included Natalia Mu oz, editor and founder of the bilingual newspaper La Prensa and the Internet site; Roberto Marquez, professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Mount Holyoke College; Maria G. Pagan, director of the Holyoke Public Library; Yolanda Robles, a teacher at the Community Education Project; and moderator Rhonda Soto of Class Action.

"This book made me reclaim my memories and what exactly that meant," said Medina.

Those memories, as they do for many people far from their roots, include parents singing songs from the Old Country even as their children blare the latest rock songs from the New World.

I recognized this memory. I also related to Medina's tale of getting lost in South Hadley as she tried to find Mount Holyoke. Actually, I get lost everywhere. Sometimes I think that's because I grew up in two worlds too. The Ireland of my parents' birth and this New World they came to in the hope of a better life.

I have shared such stories with one of the panelists, Mu oz. In a previous life as a journalist, I was her editor. Since she often comments on my pronunciation of 'Rs', I was not surprised to hear her tell the audience of her impression of Boston when her mother moved the family there when Natalia was a teenager. "R's. R's. R's." I also knew of the virulent hatred and racism she witnessed when the family arrived amid court-ordered busing to integrate Boston schools.

And because I often shared music compilations with her and others, I also wasn't surprised to hear that her "iTunes has about 2,000 songs, and half are in English, and half are in Spanish."

"When I Was Puerto Rican" is the story of living in two worlds, the one you came from and the one you are in. It is also a story of surviving in many worlds, without ever losing yourself.

The scholar Marquez spoke of all newcomers when he talked of hybrid souls who long for the best of an old world. It is a longing that imbues Puerto Rican songs such as "En Mi Viejo San Juan" and it is also a longing that colors Irish songs like, "Erin, Gra Mo Chroi" ("Ireland, Love of My Heart"). Yet the immigrants' love for their homeland is grounded in the reality that it is unrequited. It exists only in the dream of what once was.

"It's a yearning after something that was never there," Marquez said.

But because that yearning still exists, it propels all of us, newcomers and children of them, to move forward in this great country, while savoring the best memories of another life.

In the book, Santiago recounts a conversation with her father about the afterlife and the one we still live in.

"The soul is that part of us that never dies," Papi says. And, the living soul, he says, "writes poetry."

Marie P. Grady is director of the Literacy Works Project of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board. She can be reached at 755-1367 or