Monday, September 10, 2018

2018 Summer Library Series: A Chinese Laborer, a Mural, Carlos Santana, and My Hometown Library by Donna Miscolta

Autumn may be reaching into these last weeks of Summer, but this year's Summer Library Series continues. Please enjoy this reflection by Donna Miscolta.


A Chinese Laborer, a Mural, Carlos Santana, and My Hometown Library

Donna Miscolta

Library turned Arts Center, National City, CA

Each Saturday after catechism class, our minds numb with doctrine, my siblings and I crossed the street to the public library. It seemed not a coincidence that our weekly visit to a place of books would follow something religious and utterly rote. True, there was something holy about the library, its orderly rows of books, the expectation of silence, the rules of checking out books like a liturgy, the fines for late returns like a penance. But liberation was what the library offered – from the memorized answers to questions about God and creation, which opened up space for stories and imagination and dreams.

We moved to National City the summer before I started fourth grade. Library visits soon became a ritual. It gave our parents an extra hour without us in the house. It made us feel grown up to be someplace unsupervised except by the shushing librarians. In all those years, while we read story after story, I never gave a thought to how that library came to be, how it had its own story.

The library was on 12th Street and sat on the northwest edge of Kimball Park, named after Frank Kimball, who, according to a local historian, purchased the Rancho de la Nación, a “barren” Mexican land grant. Nice to see that “barren” is in quotation marks, an acknowledgement that it was not actually empty or unproductive, just absent its indigenous inhabitants who had been driven inland onto reservations. Also, the name reflects the long history of Mexico’s claim to the land.

The library had its start in 1884 when Frank Kimball moved his personal book collection into his National City real estate office. His Chinese workman Ah Lem lent a hand. Kimball’s diary contains entries such as these:
“Ah Lem at work on library and on bookcases.”
“At work on 2nd bookcase for Public Library.”
“Ah Lem hauled 3 loads of books to the Library rooms in my real estate office.”
Um, it seems that Ah Lem was doing an awful lot of the work. I’d like to offer my personal gratitude to Ah Lem for his labor in creating the first National City public library.
After various permutations in terms of location and architectural styles, the National City Library of my youth was established in the early 1950s. The style was the ranch house design, ironically reflecting the original name of the land upon which its sat. The style was popular for suburban homes – long, low-slung, rectangular, with deep overhanging eaves. The library had two wings: one for the children’s section and one for the adult section.

In that children’s library, I read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald. Another title that I remember was a book called Three Wishes for Sarah, which I checked out multiple times. Recently, I searched for and found the Kirkus review, which summed up the book as “A somewhat saccharine flavor for a story with no particular significance.” It was a book about a girl who saves a small child from drowning. A girl hero, which I must’ve found to be of particular significance.

When I turned twelve, on the cusp of junior high school, I was allowed to borrow from the adult section of the library. I remember checking out Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, William Faulkner’s Light in August, and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. I checked them out multiple times. Because of the language. Because of the story. Because I don’t remember women writers or writers of color being terribly visible on those shelves.

As we got older and reached confirmation, we ceased going to catechism classes. And so ceased our regular trips to the public library, our devotion over.

In the 80s, several years after I had moved to the Pacific Northwest, the flat, bland design of the library was improved with the addition of a mural, one that I never saw, since in all my return visits to National City I never had reason to visit the library. I had not yet achieved the age of nostalgia.
Journalist Daniel Hernandez wrote about his memory of the mural:
“I remember a huge mural loomed from behind the library’s reception desk, depicting scenes of Mexican American life in the San Diego area in the late 1970s and early 1980s: a quinceañera celebration, students lifting up their diplomas, a backyard carne asada, a news reporter interviewing a vintage car enthusiast before the painted pillars of Chicano Park. The colors were rich, the images drawn with an appealing cleanliness, the lines easy to follow.” 

The library mural by David Avalos
When a new library was built in 2005 on the southwest corner of Kimball Park and the contents transferred from the old library, the mural was lost. Eventually David Avalos, the painter of the mural and Juan Parrino who helped lead the mural project in 1981, located the lost painting and found it a home in the new library at the renovated high school.

The old public library I had grown up in was converted into an arts center. Its original ranch style is still recognizable even with a multistory addition that serves as its entrance. A couple of murals decorate the façade. One depicts a pair of birds dancing a jarabe. The other is of a young Carlos Santana, a psychedelic peace sign with hearts and doves emanating from it, and these Carlos Santana words: "The most valuable possession you can own is an open heart. The most powerful weapon you can be is an instrument of peace. Welcome is spelled out in metal-sculpted letters.

The façade of the new, state-of-the-art library is graced in multiple languages with these words by Jorge Luis Borges: "I always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of Library."

The new library is where my books When the de la Cruz Family Danced and Hola and Goodbye, both set in a fictional town called Kimball Park, reside. It’s where Paradise and the imagination meet.


This week's library author:

Donna Miscolta
(photo by Meryl Schenker)
Donna Miscolta’s story collection Hola and Goodbye won the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and was published by Carolina Wren Press (2016). It also won an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Recent work has appeared in The Fourth River, Cascadia Magazine, Moss, Blood Orange Review, and The Seattle Review of Books. She writes a monthly blog at

Continue enjoying reflections from the Summer Library Series: