BOGOTA — Colombia has significantly developed over the past few years, raising its national literacy rate to approximately 93.4 percent. However, that means that 6.6 percent of the population—roughly 1.6 million people—still cannot read. Most of these illiterate civilians also live in poverty and have no access to education or books in Colombia. It must have been quite a shock when 54-year-old Jose Alberto Gutierrez, a public service waste collector, found books in the trash around the city of Bogota.
Gutierrez himself never finished primary school because he couldn’t afford it. Nevertheless, his mother read cartoons to him every night as a child, cultivating in him a deep love for literature. He was horrified to realize that people were throwing books away and felt that he simply had to “rescue them.”
The first book Gutierrez ever rescued was a Spanish copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. He slowly began amassing books he found in the trash around the wealthier parts of the city. He then began giving the books to low-income families in his neighborhood. As word got out, families began asking for books to help their children with homework. The demand for books in Colombia became so high Gutierrez’s wife and three children began helping him. It seemed like they couldn’t get rid of books fast enough; he says that “the more books we give away, the more come to us.”
That was twenty years ago. As of today, Gutierrez has collected over 20,000 books. In his house, three rooms are overflowing with stacks of books. In 2000, the Gutierrezes turned their home into a makeshift library, calling it “La Fuerza de las Palabras,” which is Spanish for “The Strength of Words.” At its inception, the Gutierrezes held reading sessions for children in their home but eventually had so many books come in that they had to suspend the readings. They’re not discouraged, though, as most of their customers have plenty of books on their own now.
Most of the books now come from donations instead of dumpsters. Gutierrez makes trips regularly to impoverished parts of the city and surrounding regions that have no access to libraries to drop off books. His trade has earned him the title “Lord of the Books” among his friends and neighbors. Gutierrez hopes, however, that more libraries will appear, bigger and stronger than his, in “each corner of every neighborhood.” He believes having more books in Colombia will be the nation’s “salvation.” The more people who can read, the better his nation will become.
Gutierrez’s belief is already having positive effects on the people of Colombia. While literacy rates are growing for children in the areas around Bogota, soldiers have also taken interest in books. Former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have asked for books from Gutierrez. The militant leftist rebel group signed a peace agreement in 2016 with the Colombian government after decades of fighting.
However, the war displaced several thousand soldiers in different zones around the country, most with no education. Several FARC leaders have asked Gutierrez for books in the hopes of studying for a career as they re-integrate back into Colombian society. Gutierrez is ecstatic about the deal, seeing books in Colombia as not just a symbol of hope for a better life but also peace among his people.
Currently, Gutierrez has returned to school and is studying for his leave exam. This standardized test is required during the last two years of primary school in order to graduate. Since he was unable to afford school as a boy, he never passed the exam.
But whether you’re a child from a low-income family, a soldier from a rebel group or a 54-year-old man who couldn’t afford primary school, it’s never too late to get a good education.
– Sydney Cooney