Pandemic pen pals: How Colombian libraries lift spirits

Pandemic pen pals: How Colombian libraries lift spirits

Why We Wrote This

Locked down at home, we all feel isolated. Yet next door, or across town, most of us are wrestling with similar emotions. Libraries in the book-loving city of Medellín are helping readers connect – creatively.

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The Metrocable railway goes over a popular neighborhood next to the Spain Library in Medellín, Colombia, April 28, 2008. The city, which in the 1990s was one of the most violent in the world due to drug trafficking and civil war, has undergone a dramatic transformation.


July 30, 2020

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Colombia has long been a country of books. Before the pandemic, it was common to see tourists searching out its storied libraries – riding cable cars, for instance, to the “library parks” in Medellín’s mountainside barrios. The country is home to world-famous book and poetry festivals, and the birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez, one of Latin America’s most famous novelists.

But the love of libraries is more than a love of reading. During 50 years of conflict, they often provided literal and figurative refuge. Today, libraries are even part of the peace process. And now, amid COVID-19, the libraries of Medellín are again giving readers a way to connect and escape.

“Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” they call it – a play on Mr. Márquez’s best-selling novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Participants email letters written from the perspective of made-up characters, literary figures, or using pen names, which are passed along anonymously to another reader.

“I feel like the pandemic has generated so many feelings that I’ve never experienced before,” says letter-writer Alejandra Correa. “This opportunity to communicate so deeply with people you don’t know and to transmit words that might help others feel less alone; it’s a gift.”

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When Alejandra Correa wrote her first letter under the pen name “Ale” in mid-July, she felt a huge sense of relief. 

“I hope this [letter] allows you to feel all of the emotions that are hitting you: the rage, the anguish, but also the hope,” she typed, polishing off a one-page missive on floral, navy-blue stationary in less than 10 minutes. She doesn’t consider herself a writer, but says her words and pent-up emotions spilled onto the page.

Her letter wasn’t addressed to a dear friend or old flame. In fact, Ms. Correa, a human resources manager in Medellín, Colombia, has no idea who received her note. Just like she will never know who sent her the achingly romantic account about surviving COVID-19 in order to reunite with a soulmate.

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These letters are some of the more than 300 sent in an anonymous letter-writing campaign, organized by libraries, that emerged following Medellín’s initial COVID-19 lockdown last spring. Community members email library staff letters written from the perspective of made-up characters, literary figures, or personal reflections shielded by pen names, and the letter is passed along anonymously to other participants. For each letter you pen, you receive one in your inbox.

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“I feel like the pandemic has generated so many feelings that I’ve never experienced before,” Ms. Correa says of why she joined the initiative – and plans to keep sending letters as long as the program is up and running. “This opportunity to communicate so deeply with people you don’t know and to transmit words that might help others feel less alone; it’s a gift.”

Libraries in Colombia have a rich history of coming to the service of communities in crisis, and this project, created by a network of libraries known as Comfenalco, is just the latest iteration. Neighborhood-run libraries popped up in impoverished and overlooked areas during the nation’s 50-year armed conflict, serving as a unifying force. Libraries provided physical shelter from violence in the heyday of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel trafficking empire, and most recently have offered a mental escape from the pandemic-induced confinement.

Courtesy of Alejandra Correa

Alejandra Correa heard about an anonymous letter-writing project through the Comfenalco library network in Medellín a few months into the coronavirus pandemic. By the end of July she’d sent two letters, and says it’s been an important way to express her pent-up emotions. “The key is that we are human and we are interested in hearing from others and sharing without judgement,” she says.

“Reading and writing can unite us and can generate community,” says Bibiana Álvarez, who promotes reading and culture at Comfenalco libraries in and around Medellín. She was part of the team that came up with the idea for the letter-writing program, known as “Love in the Time of Coronavirus.” It’s a play on the title of the bestselling 1985 novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” by Colombia’s arguably most internationally-known author, Gabriel García Márquez. In the book, two young strangers begin exchanging letters, leading to a distanced love affair and years of correspondence.

“The idea of the letters – that really stuck with us,” she says. “This is a moment when you can’t touch or see other people … With the arrival of a letter, you can see how you are valued.”

Beloved tradition

Medellín has long been a city of books and libraries: from receiving one of UNESCO’s three public library pilots in the 1950s, meant to serve as a model for cultural promotion in the developing world; to Catholic priests promoting grassroots community libraries following the famous 1968 Medellín conference of bishops; to hosting world-famous book and poetry festivals. For the past decade, Medellín has had public policies designed to promote reading, writing, and oral histories, with libraries playing a central role.

But librarians in Medellín have a favorite point of reference about the power of their work. In the 1980s and ’90s, drug-trafficking-related violence swept much of Colombia. Medellín was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. By 2002, a federal government operation meant to instill peace in one of the city’s poor, mountainside neighborhoods instead led to the deaths and arrests of scores of civilians, shuttering everything from corner stores to playgrounds for nearly two weeks. Everything except for the library, that is.

“This library was the oasis of protection for the community,” recalls Adriana Betancur, who has worked in Colombia’s public library system for more than two decades and has written on the role and history of libraries there. Although stepping foot outside put their lives at risk, “the kids kept coming to the library,” she says, and family programming continued. “It’s the protective space of the community, a space of liberation from the problems of the neighborhood. Here, libraries have played a really important role in constructing peace, but even more than that, creating community.”

There are more than 4,000 libraries nationwide, estimates Ms. Betancur, and pre-coronavirus it was common to see tourists, guidebooks in hand, seeking out these sacred spaces: from the Luis Ángel Arango Library in the historic center of Bogotá, to riding cable cars or outdoor escalators to “library parks” in Medellín’s mountainside barrios.

More recently, libraries became part of the country’s peace process, with the Ministry of Culture launching Mobile Libraries for Peace. The program works with demobilized guerrilla fighters to help them reintegrate into civilian life through a focus on literacy and digital skills.

“In some parts of the world people think of a library’s success in terms of literacy,” says Clara Chu, director of the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois. “Without literacy it’s hard to advance in terms of development, but once people understand that all these things work hand in hand, they realize it isn’t just about” reading, she says. Libraries have a key “social role,” no matter where they’re located in the world.

“We’re not alone”

Ms. Álvarez, from the letter-writing project, says pivoting to keep up the library’s important community role during a time when human interaction – and visiting enclosed public spaces – is so discouraged has been a unique challenge. Books themselves go into quarantine upon return, barred from checkout until they’ve been properly cleaned. Her team worked quickly to shift most of their programming online, from writing groups to children’s story hours. They’ve hosted a series of webinars on topics from illustrating stories to getting to know Medellín.  

But “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” amazed even the most biblio-faithful among them.

“We were surprised,” says Ms. Álvarez, who recalls that one or two cards trickled in when they first launched the project, and then suddenly they’d receive 25 in one day. The library is archiving all of the letters, but hasn’t made them public yet.

Ms. Correa says “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” has allowed her to share emotions she can’t express with friends and family. “You don’t have to drown in these feelings or shoulder them on your own. There are so many sounds inside that we can’t express right now and [this program] is a really appropriate way to do it. Writing and reading is a really powerful tool,” she says.

In her second letter, written on July 25, Ms. Correa gets personal. She talks about missing her mother’s birthday and how her family’s tendency to express their love with actions, not words, has made being apart even harder.

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“The written word allows us to understand other humans, and whether we’re reading a novel, a story, or a letter, it helps us understand we’re not alone,” Ms. Alvarez says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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