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Bronx Library Center Connects Visitors with Hispanic Heritage

By Jeanmarie Evelly | September 25, 2012 11:41am

FORDHAM — Inside the sparkling, modern and digitally-equipped Bronx Library Center, a tiny room tucked away on the facility’s’ fourth floor transports visitors to a different, simpler time and place.

Its walls are adorned with vejigantes — colorful masks that were worn in Puerto Rico during Carnival time — and library patrons can browse the room’s packed book shelves to read about Caribbean plants with medicinal healing powers or traditional Puerto Rican folk stories.

The Bronx Library Center, at 310 East Kingsbridge Road, is home to the New York Public Library’s Latino/Puerto Rican Heritage Center. Over the last several months, librarian Linda Caycedo has transformed this small room from a collection of books into something more — a space flush with literature, artifacts and works of art that celebrate Hispanic and Puerto Rican culture.

“Here, heritage is everything,” she said.

For the next several weeks, in honor of national Hispanic Heritage Month, the library will be hosting events to highlight the Hispanic experience, including film screenings, a photo exhibit, cultural art lessons and an ancestry workshop.

Caycedo said the goal of the Heritage Gallery is to give visitors an opportunity to learn about and connect with their roots.

“We have people that come here who have grandparents that are from Puerto Rico, but they’ve never been,” she said. “They want to do a little research and they want to see what it’s all about, the culture and the history.”

More than half of the Bronx’s population is of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to Census data. And while the Heritage Gallery’s materials are predominately Puerto Rican, Caycedo said they attract visitors of all backgrounds.

“It’s becoming a big family of different Latinos,” she said.  

For years after the new Bronx Library Center was built in 2006, the fourth-floor gallery was mainly a space for the library’s special Hispanic book collection. But Caycedo decided to re-vamp the room as a way to draw more visitors.

“In the last six months, Linda has really brought this collection alive,” said Evelyn Muriel-Cooper, a supervising librarian.  “In the beginning they were interested in redoing this room to something different, but since Linda has brought it back to life, they’re like, ‘Oh no, this is just fantastic.’”

In addition to the gallery’s book collection — which includes a number of out-of-print titles that Caycedo calls “sacred,” — she’s filled the room with artwork created by local Puerto Rican artists, handmade dolls, toys, beadwork, and musical instruments.

“That room that she has there is full of stuff that you can’t really get anywhere,” said Fordham-area artist Jose Rios, who runs art-workshops at the library. “It’s a great resource. It’s like a little museum.”

Though they keep the door locked if no one is inside, library-goers can access the room anytime by asking someone at the fourth-floor information desk to open it. They can spend as long as they want browsing the collection if they sign the room’s guest book, which is filled with pages of kind words and compliments.

“Beautiful collection,” one guest wrote. “It takes me back home!”

“A lot of the items are familiar to them,” Caycedo said. “They say, ‘Oh, my grandmother used this to make frito,’ or ‘Oh, I used to play with this.’ And they will recognize certain things they have seen in their house and it brings something to them.”

Twice a month, the library hosts “Heritage Arts” workshops, teaching patrons to paint vejigante masks, sew handmade dolls and craft Puerto Rican inspired jewelry. On Thursday, Caycedo led a Puerto Rican storytelling and puppet-making workshop, where Bronx resident Rosa Carlo, 58, was putting the finishing touches on a puppet with black hair and a long, black lace dress, who she named Ruby.

Though she lives across the borough, in Pelham Bay, Carlo says she comes to the library often for the workshops and classes, befriending many of the other regular patrons.

“I come here at least once, maybe twice a week,” she said. “And the first place I go is to the fourth-floor.”

“There’s a lot of love for this room,” Caycedo said.

The Hispanic Heritage Month celebration will run at the Bronx Library Center through Oct. 15. For more information, visit the New York Public Library here. For a complete listing of Bronx Library Center events, visit the calendar here.