Las Cruces, N.M. • A good book can take a reader on a journey, but for migrants on an actual journey, a book can also uplift, entertain and inspire.
New Mexico author Denise Chavez created Libros para el Viaje, or Books for the Journey, with that idea in mind.
“Our commitment is to deliver books to our children, young people and adults wherever they are housed,” Chavez said.
That includes shelters on both sides of the border, camps near international bridges in Ciudad Juárez, where people are waiting for the chance to make an asylum claim, and a small library in Anapra, a working-class community that borders New Mexico.
Chavez came up with the idea at her Casa Camino Real bookstore in Las Cruces when a friend came in looking for English/Spanish dictionaries for migrants temporarily staying at the Peace Lutheran Church respite center.
Chavez began taking books to that temporary shelter last May and expanded to include other churches and nonprofits helping migrants and refugees in Las Cruces.
She ramped up the effort during the humanitarian crisis this year when thousands of migrant families released by Border Patrol briefly needed shelter in Las Cruces before making their way to other cities in the U.S. to stay with relatives or sponsors until an immigration judge decides their asylum cases.
“Each time we received families, Denise would come and do storytelling and lay out books so every single person, adults, youth and children, got to take a book with them,” said Kari Lenander, executive director of the nonprofit Border Servant Corps.
The books did more than help migrants pass the time.
"A dad would come and pick up a baby book and just start reading through. And it would be a bilingual book, and he would be practicing in both languages," Lenander said.
"One can't stop because you realize the power and the magnitude, the importance of a book to a child, somebody living in a tent, somebody who's just come out of confinement," Chavez said.
Now, she and volunteers with the Border Servant Corps are taking books to Ciudad Juárez to asylum seekers waiting weeks or months for a decision on their asylum cases under the Migrant Protection Protocol commonly known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy established by the Trump administration.
"The waiting is very hard and a book will help that," Chavez said.
The American Booksellers Association joined the effort to bring books to the border when the independent booksellers group held its conference in Albuquerque in February.
More than 50 bookstores nationwide have donated books, according to Chavez. Faculty and students in the Spanish and Portuguese departments at the University of New Mexico have also contributed to Libros para el Viaje.
The books can be new or used but in good condition — as was the case with an anthology of Walt Whitman’s works translated to Spanish.
"I remember this young man from Honduras literally hugging that book," Chavez said.
Volunteers in Minneapolis-St. Paul launched Books for Border Kids to buy bilingual, Spanish and Portuguese reading material with the help of Red Balloon Book shop and Wild Rumpus books. During the two-month book drive, about 3,000 donated books were shipped free of charge to Las Cruces, according to Chavez.
Writers have also donated their own books, including bestselling children’s author Adam Rubin. The Barcelona-based writer sent 140 books, including his popular “Fiesta Secreta de Pizza,” featuring a raccoon that loves pizza, and “Dragones y Tacos,” about dragons that love tacos but have to avoid hot salsa, which causes them to spew fire. The books are illustrated by Daniel Salieri.
Along with giving books to migrant children and their families, the book drive helps a small library that serves children in Mexico living in Anapra.
Chavez, Lenander and volunteers with the Border Servant Corps make monthly visits to the Biblioteca para La Vida to participate in Saturday morning storytelling sessions.
"The kids will come in their pajamas and just put blankets and pillows all over the floor," Lenander said.
In December, the children each got their own bookbag with a book and toy and celebrated the season with a piñata shaped like a big book. Chavez read from "Dragones y Tacos" during the Christmas party as the kids munched on tacos.
Stories are what bind, she said.
"We're on a journey, all of us together as human beings," Chavez said. "We're on that road and we need to reflect on the fact that we're all familia. We're all connected to each other."
To donate books or volunteer contact Casa Camino Real Book Store at 575-523-3988 or the Border Servant Corp.