Marabet Morales Sikahall is an Oakland Voices alumna. This story is part of Amplify Oakland, Oaklandside’s series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words. Cross-published with Oaklandside.org.
Sometimes things are easier said than written. Yet, I love books. I love them so much that I became a writer. But becoming a writer requires a journey, and mine began in East Oakland where my mother taught me how to read and write my name at the age of three. Even at that young age, I knew I wanted to create. But what I wanted above all was to read. My parents, both immigrants from Guatemala, encouraged that impulse by giving me books (at times as a reward for good behavior and passing grades) and by taking weekly trips to our local library, the Eastmont Branch at 7200 Bancroft Ave. I spent many days there walking the aisles, looking for a title or a cover to catch my eye.
Fast forward 20 years later, and libraries in Oakland and across the nation have had to pivot their resources and reimagine how to serve their communities because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. No longer can kids or adults like myself peruse the shelves after school or work for a good book to curl up with, in their favorite chair or bed, pulled into the story by the inviting, familiar scent of its pages.
Which is why the other day, when I visited The Oakland Public Library’s website to look for a book to electronically borrow through their Overdrive app, it came as a wonderful surprise when I read on their events schedule that the 81st Avenue Branch would be celebrating its 10-year anniversary. The news filled me with a sense of pride and joy that libraries in East Oakland remain beacons of light for students, families, and other community members, even during the pandemic. And not only because of the many books they offer but because of the countless other free services they provide, like meal pickups (everyone is eligible!), legal advice and referrals through their virtual Lawyers in the Library program, educational film screenings, and online discussion clubs for English learners, to name a few.
Some of these Oakland Public Library services, I’ve benefited from personally. When I was in third grade, I would go to the Eastmont library every Saturday for math tutoring. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the Asian gentleman who dedicated his mornings to helping me, a struggling child, with multiplication and division. But if he should ever see this, please know I am so thankful.
Perhaps it’s just my nerdy self speaking, but the libraries in East Oakland were the sweetest escape for me. In the pages of the countless books that I found and read, I explored and discovered some of the many aspects of who I am: adventurer, Guatemalan American, young woman, and writer. In other words, books reinforced my existence and put a different spin on Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” This writer would prefer to say that I read, therefore I am.
I will always be grateful for the Oakland Public Library’s many resources, some of which I still use today. The library’s online tools, like Overdrive, are especially helpful since I no longer live in East Oakland, due to being pushed out a few years ago because I couldn’t afford the rent. The library has helped me maintain my ties with the community I grew up in.
In 2016 and 2017, I had the chance to be a member of Oakland Voices, a community journalism program. When my cohort finished, we celebrated our graduation at the 81st Avenue Branch. In 2019, when I co-produced a story about community mental health care providers for “Sights & Sounds of East Oakland,” a radio series on KALW, our release party was held there as well. Around the same time, one of my professors from San Francisco State invited me to attend a reading of “The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States,” at the Cesar Chavez Library in Fruitvale. It was a wonderful opportunity that allowed me to meet fellow Central American writers and even other Guatemalan American writers like myself who are working to ensure our communities are represented in literature.
These experiences are another reason why I am thankful and beyond appreciative that libraries in East Oakland exist: They gave me the chance to make connections that I would have never thought possible. I have felt less alone. If anything, I find myself at home whenever I go to the Eastmont library or the 81st Avenue Branch. (I also have to give a shout out to the Dimond library.)
In East Oakland, you grow up knowing that the struggle is real. Of course, at a young age you do not have the words to explain what that means, but now that I am older I can tell you all about it. I can tell you about the economic, educational, and racial disparities. I can tell you about the lead poisoning. I can tell you about these things and write about them because I have seen and experienced them, but also because I understand them through the books I have come across in my lifetime. It is the knowledge that I have found in these East Oakland libraries that has propelled my journey as a writer forward.
Libraries are an integral part of the fabric that is East Oakland — an amazing support system for community members dealing with everyday challenges, who can find resources when they visit. But East Oakland’s libraries also offer us insight into what we can accomplish, individually, and together. They speak to our inner child, encourage us to live our story, to find a home, unravel our imagination, and dream of new ways to better ourselves and the neighborhoods we come from. Libraries keep us grounded, aid us in knowing ourselves and, most importantly, help us become our most genuine selves.
I find comfort in reminding myself that libraries are not going anywhere; that they have existed for a long time, across many centuries, and other pandemics. For me, having the opportunity to use the library has been an amazing, lifelong journey, one that is still unfolding. They are without a doubt what guided me to be the writer I am today, even if I am at heart, still just a kid from East Oakland.