Colombia's 'lord of the books' saves tomes from the trash

When José Alberto Gutierrez began working as a garbage collector in 1997, he thought it was a waste that so many books were being thrown away. So he decided to save them. Now known as the “lord of the books," Mr. Gutierrez has donated thousands of books across Colombia. 

César Melgarejo/El Tiempo
José Alberto Gutierrez has spent 21 years transforming Colombia with the books he rescues from the garbage. In his home, he lives among thousands of them, saved in stacks.

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When José Alberto Gutierrez began his job as a garbage truck driver in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1997, he was struck by how many people threw away books. So Mr. Gutierrez and his wife decided to build a community library in their home. Ten years later, the library has grown into Fundación La Fuerza de las Palabras (Power of Words Foundation), an organization that distributes books to vulnerable communities across the country. Gutierrez has rescued and distributed more than 50,000 books to hundreds of community centers and rural schools in Colombia. Only 4 out of 10 students who complete high school in Colombia will graduate from university, according to its Ministry of Education. “The most valuable inheritance we can leave our children is education,” Gutierrez, whom locals call “the lord of the books,” says, adding that dozens of Colombian students have been able to pursue higher education thanks to the foundation. “The world needs more initiatives like this, because in an area that lacks access to many resources, a book becomes a symbol of hope.”

This story is one of several from world news outlets that the Monitor is publishing as part of an international effort to highlight solutions journalism.

“The day I fill Colombia with books, I’ll feel like Odysseus when he rescued Penelope and saved Ithaca from the war,” José Alberto Gutierrez says with an air of stoicism. He has dedicated the last two decades of his life to filling more than 450 libraries, schools, and reading centers in Colombia with books recovered from the garbage.

By rescuing books from the trash, the “lord of the books,” as locals call Mr. Gutierrez in Bogotá’s popular neighborhood La Nueva Gloria, has helped more than 22,000 Colombians in vulnerable, mainly rural areas across the country to imagine a better future.

To enter Gutierrez’s house is to go through a labyrinth of thousands of stacked books, covering approximately 160 square feet. Among them are universal classics such as “Gone with the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell; an English edition of “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and a collection of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s works – all rescued from the garbage.

The books started showing up here at the end of 1997, when Gutierrez began his job as a garbage truck driver for Bogotá’s waste management company. While working his nightly route on the west side of the city, he was struck by the potential of so many discarded books. With help from his wife, Gutierrez decided to build a community library in his own home. Ten years later it became the Fundación La Fuerza de las Palabras (Power of Words Foundation). Since then, Gutierrez has rescued and distributed more than 50,000 books – spanning subjects such as science, literature, business, and medicine – to hundreds of community centers and rural schools across the country.

La Fuerza de las Palabras’s process is simple yet effective. First, the foundation receives a call from someone, in any area of the country, who wishes to donate or receive books. Then, Gutierrez and his wife select the texts according to their destination – children's books, literary, or scientific. Depending on the distance, the organization will either deliver the books in its own vehicle, or look for the best way to make the delivery. To date, their efforts have allowed them to reach more than 450 territories in the country.

According to figures from the Colombian Ministry of Education, each year only 4 out of every 10 students who complete high school in Colombia will graduate from university. The number is even lower in disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as La Nueva Gloria.

“The most valuable inheritance we can leave our children is education,” Gutierrez says, adding that dozens of students in Colombia have been able to pursue higher education thanks to the foundation.

At the end of 2017, the foundation sent five crates of books by plane to the indigenous community of Huitotacueimaní, in southern Colombia, an area characterized by its jungles and rivers. Days later, one of the leaders of the community replied with a video message saying that all the indigenous communities of the region were waiting for the “lord of the books” – and for more books – with open arms.

Gutierrez has also delivered the works of dozens of Nobel Prize-winning authors, such as fellow Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, to a group of ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla organization that scourged the region for 50 years and recently signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government.

“Reading symbolizes peace and hope in our country. If a book changed my life, imagine the impact it could have in one of these places that has fallen victim to armed conflict and abandonment by the state,” Gutierrez says.

Since he was let go in February by the recycling center where he worked, Gutierrez and his family have been dreaming of building a library museum in Bogotá, which would include a recycling workshop, a book bank, and a collection of literary classics, all with the aim of continuing to bring the world of reading to the most vulnerable sectors of the country. The foundation estimates that the construction of the library museum will require 800 million Colombian pesos ($275,000), which they hope to secure soon.

“The world needs more initiatives like this, because in an area that lacks access to many resources, a book becomes a symbol of hope,” Gutierrez says. “Listen, if humans treated each other as they do in many of the books that I've read, this planet would be governed only by love.”

This story was reported by El Tiempo, a news outlet in Colombia. The Monitor is publishing it as part of an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project, please click here

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