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Focus on Hispanic Heritage Month: BBTL Employee Works for Justice at Our Library

September 30, 2020
Klem-Mari Cajigas, Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life

Klem-Marí Cajigas Serves as a Touchpoint for Families to Discover NPL

What is the role of a library?

Some might say it’s providing access to books that people couldn’t otherwise afford. Others would emphasize the literacy and education programs libraries offer. And others still might say it’s to bring a community together to engage in civil discourse.

But if you asked Klem-Marí Cajigas, the family literacy coordinator of Nashville Public Library’s (NPL) Bringing Books to Life (BBTL) program, the role of the library is something she considers hallowed: to do the work of justice.

As a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, with aspirations of being a professor on the subject, she would know.

“Vanderbilt prepares people for the work of justice. That’s something they excel at,” Klem-Marí said. “And when we look at what libraries are all about, it’s providing a space where everyone is equally welcome and able to access resources that improve their lives. It’s one of the last places left that practices true radical hospitality.”

When you view it in that context, it makes perfect sense why Klem-Marí considers her work a sacred mission. It also explains why she turned her path away from the academic toward something more embedded within our communities, especially the Latin American families who call Nashville home.

Coming to the Continental U.S.  

Born in Puerto Rico, in the city of Arecibo, Klem-Marí spent her early childhood immersed in the island’s rich culture and traditions.

When she moved  to the continental United States at age seven with her family, she found that she might have left her home, but not her heritage. Settling in Orlando, Florida, she discovered a thriving Puerto Rican community that continues to grow to this day.

It was also where she experienced something that, whether she knew it or not, would influence her professional career many years later.

“My first library card came from the Orange County Library System, on my father’s suggestion. Afterwards, my mother took me there during the summers,” Klem-Marí said. “There were just rows and rows of books, something I’d never seen before, and I was totally enchanted.”

But Klem-Marí is also a devoted Christian, and wanted to be about God’s work in the most direct way possible. And so, in 2003, she moved to Nashville to enroll in Vanderbilt Divinity School, with the goal of being a religious studies professor.

While at Vanderbilt, she would receive a Master of Divinity, and continue her studies at the PhD level in the University's Graduate Department of Religion in the Ethics and Society program. However, as she neared the end of the program, her course would change radically.

Finding Her True Calling

When Klem-Marí describes the last few months of her studies at Vanderbilt, the word she uses is “miserable.” It had become apparent to her that the road she was taking wasn’t the right one.

“I told my professor, ‘I’m tired of talking about the work of God. I want to go do it,’” Klem-Marí said.

Leaving Vanderbilt in the midst of qualifying doctoral exams, Klem-Marí found herself facing an extended period of unemployment.

She discovered the chance to pursue her true calling in 2012. NPL had posted a position for a Growing Right Onto Wellness (GROW) Bilingual Facilitator with BBTL, the library’s in-house early literacy experts. The job post emphasized the need for both a Spanish language and education background — a perfect fit for Klem-Marí.

And she was determined that the position would be hers.

“My last few job interviews hadn’t worked out so well, so I went to Vandy’s Career Center to get some coaching,” Klem-Marí said. “I was hungry to do it, and I did everything I could to ensure I’d have a fighting chance to get it.”

Her efforts paid off. In September 2012, Klem-Marí became a full-time employee of NPL and BBTL. Her first project would set the stage for the work she would do for years to come.

A Beacon in the Community

Even before she was hired at NPL, the BBTL program had been partnering with Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt to participate in the hospital’s GROW program. The program, which families would participate in for three consecutive years, studied how effective family interventions were at preventing obesity in children.

To give something back to the people who invested so much of their time to complete the study, Vanderbilt asked NPL to provide free literacy workshops to participating families, many of them predominantly Spanish-speaking. It was the kind of work Klem-Marí had spent most of her life preparing for.

“We spent about five years working with GROW. During that time, we served 4,535 people through 845 workshops, giving out 3,300 children’s books to the kids,” Klem said. “Our team worked on calendars, newsletters, and coordinated field trips to NPL. We signed up more than 600 people for their library card.

“It was a lot of work, but it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

That work continues to this day. Through BBTL, Klem-Marí and the other members of her team work with our library’s iconic Puppet Truck to produce literacy workshops for parents, teachers, daycare workers, and preschoolers. Through puppet shows and other activities centered around reading, singing, talking, writing, and playing, the BBTL crew shows their audience just how much fun reading can be.

For Latinx and Spanish-speaking families, these workshops are more than just an engaging activity — they’re a bridge into all that NPL can provide.

Working for Justice, Every Day

As Boricua living in the continental United States, Klem-Marí is in a perfect position to help the city’s Latinx community take advantage of the opportunities available to them at NPL.

“In Latin America, community libraries are not that common. Often, only colleges have them, and they’re geared towards study and academics,” Klem-Marí said. “Here, the library is available for so much more than study. It’s a community gathering place where Latinos can get up-to-date information, access technology, seek entertainment, and get free classes in English. It’s also one of those few places where they can bring their kids and let them behave like children in a safe environment. It costs nothing and all they need to access it is just to live here.”

Klem-Marí says that helping Latinx families, whether it’s through teaching early literacy skills, or guiding through all that NPL offers, is by far the most rewarding part of her role.

“At the end of every literacy workshop we do, kids and parents get a book they can take home with them. Seeing their eyes light up at having their very own book for free means so much to me,” Klem-Marí said. 

“I want to be the personal touchpoint for new library families to discover just what their library can do for them.”

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Ed Brown

Ed's a proud member of NPL's Marketing and Communications team. Some of his favorite books include Dracula, Once an EagleNeuromancerStarship TroopersThe Black CompanyBerserkBlade of the ImmortalBlame! and Vampire Hunter D. When not at the Library, you'll find him spending time with his wife and son, doing interval training, reading, or waiting for the next FromSoftware game.