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Freeport book club puts accent on Spanish

Donald Temple discusses the work of Mexican author

Donald Temple discusses the work of Mexican author Laura Esquivel at a book club for fluent Spanish speakers at the Freeport Public Library. Lupe Velasquez is at left. (Jan. 28, 2010) Photo Credit: Johnny Simon

The literature books are open, and the discussion is heating up in the Freeport Memorial Library.

The topic among the dozen literature fans - most of them boomers and older enthusiasts who enjoy reading - is a novel by the noted Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Her international bestseller, "Like Water for Chocolate," was adapted into a hit 1992 movie.

"Tan Veloz Como El Deseo" ("Swift as Desire"), published nine years after that, is a romantic novel about a tragic love relationship between a telepathic telegraph operator named Júbilo (he knows what's in people's hearts) and his wife, Lucha. The plot includes an unsolved murder and other complications.

What makes this book club unusual on Long Island is that everything is in Spanish, including the reading selections and the spirited discussions. The idea came from library director Dave Opatow eight years ago. "I was hoping to bring Spanish-speaking people into the library so they could take full advantage of the facility," he said. A talented staff and available books made it a reality.

Tonight, Lupe Velasquez, 57, of East Meadow starts the exchanges around a table in the library's wood-paneled meeting room. She suggests to the group that Júbilo's problem is "machismo," or an exaggerated sense of masculinity.

Others in the group say his trouble may stem from alcoholism, or an inability to communicate. But Donald Temple, 63, of Farmingdale, comes to Júbilo's defense. The question they should be asking, he says, is, "Why was he getting drunk?"

About midway through the session, warm Argentine empanadas (pastry pockets stuffed with turkey or beef, olives and eggs) and carrot cake are passed around. After the treats, it's back to work dissecting "Tan Veloz."
Only Spanish spoken

Every two months, the club meets at the library, tackling an assigned work of literature, like a graduate literature class - but more fun and without the burdensome term papers. By mutual agreement, the group speaks only Spanish. (For this article, their comments have been translated into English.)

Some come for the lively conversation, others to reconnect with roots in Latin American culture that go back decades. Others see an opportunity to brush up on rusty Spanish language skills, both by reading the book and jousting rhetorically with other literature lovers.

"I want to recapture . . . being bilingual," Temple said. He learned Spanish in high school in Rockville Centre and in training for the Peace Corps in the late 1960s and early '70s. He lived for four years in Peru, and these days attends a Spanish-language Catholic Mass.

Temple said he joined the book club because, "I just think it allows me to be more educated being able to think and write and read in two languages."

The group includes immigrants from Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and Ecuador, and Spanish speakers born here and in Puerto Rico who learned the language in school. Most are professionals, borrowing time from business and family life to indulge in the pleasure of leisure reading and the intellectual challenges of textual analysis. All share a love of Spanish and its rich literary tradition.

Cecilia Castillo, who emigrated here from El Salvador 25 years ago, reads about two books a month, including the book club's assignment. Friends traveling to Latin America know what type of souvenirs she likes: Spanish-language novels.

"When I was growing up, I didn't have access to many books," says Castillo, 49, a social worker with the Nassau County Department of Health. "If I am going to read for pleasure, I am going to read in my own language."

Growing up in Ecuador, Velazquez, one of the club's original members, harbored ambitions of being a writer, but her father convinced her to study accounting, instead. As a Freeport library clerk, she promotes the club from her post at the front desk. "Literature is a common bond" for club members, she says.


Reading a variety of genres

The club's leader, Rose Luna, and Velasquez choose titles and get copies of the books via inter-

library loan. The club has read and discussed books by the Colombian author Laura Restrepo, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru and Carlos Ruiz Zafón of Spain. They have devoured mysteries, memoirs and romances - some originally written in Spanish, others that have been translated into the language.

Luna, a part-time Freeport bilingual reference librarian and full-time media specialist at Freeport High School, often reads aloud from critical essays or shows video interviews with authors. Just as valuable are the life experiences of the club members. "The older people in the group bring the history and perspective," she says. (The group is open to everyone who can read and speak Spanish. For details, call 516-379-3274.)

Dirk Wojtczack, 46, of Baldwin, a civil engineer, has a specific motive for attending: "I did it to improve my Spanish as a poet. I figured the more I read, the more I would learn."

Wojtczack, who was born in Bogota, Colombia, grew up in Ecuador and moved here in the 1970s with his family. He has published five books of his poetry. One of his books was published in Granada, Spain, where his hero, the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, lived.

Wojtczack chose not to read "Tan Veloz" because, he says, "I thought, this is probably one of those cheesy sensual Spanish books." But after the book club discussion, he realized he'd "judged the book by its cover."

The next assignment, "Brida" by Paulo Coelho of Brazil, is a Portuguese novel translated into Spanish. "I am actually going to read the next book," Wojtczack says.


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