East Side Freedom Library supports local authors and labor groups


When Beth Cleary, co-founding executive director of the East Side Freedom Library, was approached by Coffee House Press about hosting a visiting writer as part of its In the Stacks artist-in-residence program, she immediately thought of Victoria Blanco. The two had met at a writers' conference last year. Cleary had been impressed by Blanco's writing on the field work she had done in Mexico with the Raramuri, who have been forced off their land by loggers and multinational corporations and are now living in cities.

Originally from El Paso, Texas, Blanco holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota. Her residency with the Freedom Library culminates this evening, as she reads selections from her essays and discusses her experience with ESFL.

"That time was precious to me," Blanco says of the residency. A mother of a young toddler (she was also pregnant at the time of the residency, and now has a second child), she used the stipend for child care, and spent three hours at a time at the library working on the series of essays that makes up Borderlands, the title of her forthcoming book.

In addition to writing, Blanco also took in the bustling activity at the library, which she likens to a community center. Unlike many academic libraries, ESFL is open, with book shelves that surround, rather than cutting off, communal spaces.

Volunteers gathered near her desk as they catalogued, and Blanco also spent time with a group of Karen women who have been using space in the library to weave together. "It's a very vibrant place -- which is fine with me," she says. "I loved the activity going on around me."

The majority of Blanco's time was spent working on one particular essay, which explores her struggle to integrate herself into the community of indigenous women during her field research. At the time, she couldn't figure out why that was. "I didn't understand a lot of the history of genocide the indigenous group had suffered," she says. "I didn't have the emotional maturity to understand what I represented to them."

East Side Freedom Library

East Side Freedom Library

In her essay, Blanco talks about how the women's resistance to her had more to do with Blanco being a Mexican-American person coming in and taking things from the community. The piece fits in with larger themes in Borderlands of using the metaphor of bodies occupying space.

Since officially opening two years ago, ESFL has made significant investments to its historic building, including fixing the roof. They also commissioned artist Jackie Yang to create a series of murals that lead into the library's basement. The collection has expanded following a number of key donations, including the collection of renowned jazz composer and activist Fred Ho. Recent acquisitions from scholars such as David Roediger, Sal Salerno, David Montgomery, and others have supplemented co-founding executive director Peter Rachleff's own collection from his decades-spanning career researching labor, African American, and immigration history.

The library also hosts the largest collection of Hmong archives, which include everything from story collages to musical instruments, with dolls, screen prints, and other art objects making up the substantial collection.

The materials included in ESFL's collection include immigration history to books about indigenous people's rights, feminism, and race. It's especially known for its focus on labor issues, and it has become a destination for the labor movement community. "There was always a dream to have a space where labor people could convene," she says, "and ESFL fits that dream as it encompasses an intersectional approach of that history."

ESFL has also hosted a residency for artist/activist Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, who recently led a zine-making workshop where participants made books for the Floating Library on Lake Phalen. On top of that, the library is constantly abuzz with readings, performances, and community events.

Victoria Blanco reads from her work at In the Stacks
7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday
East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., St. Paul.