'Biblioburro': PBS features hard-working librarian, donkey library

Published: Monday, July 18 2011 11:53 a.m. MDT

Luis Soriano is a teacher and librarian in Magdalena Province, Colombia, who rides a burro as he travels to villages to loan books to children.

Courtesy of Carlos Réndon Zipagauta

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Luis Soriano is a teacher with some donated books, two burros and a big mission.

"Biblioburro: The Donkey Library" airs Tuesday, July 19, at 11 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7 as part of PBS' 24th season of "POV" ("Point of View").

"Biblioburro" follows Soriano as he teaches his regular class of children on a Friday in the village of La Gloria, Magdalena Province, in northern Colombia, "in the heart of the conflict zone between leftist guerrillas and paramilitaries."

He asks the children to draw pictures of the bad things that have happened in their lives, then share their stories with the class. He asks them, "Where are we going to leave these bad things?" The answer is, "Behind us."

Soriano builds up the children by telling them they are the ones who will save the country. He is preaching the gospel of education as the way they will overcome the killing and poverty in the region, and his love and care for them shines through in the up-close-and-personal filmography directed by Carlos Rendon Zipagauta.

Zipagauta's award-winning film, in Spanish with English subtitles, has all the elements that make the viewer care: children who have faced terrible events, open-air classrooms where real learning takes place and Soriano himself, who has spent a decade living his faith in education.

On Friday night, Soriano has his children help him load two homemade containers with books for his Saturday "job." He rises at dawn, puts the books on Alpha, one of his burros, and climbs on Beto, the other burro. He sets out on a daylong journey, stopping to say a prayer that he and his burros will be safe.

He knows that safety is not guaranteed, because on one trip he was stopped by gunmen and tied up for a while before being let go. But he presses on through mud and woodlands and crosses a river with rising water.

When he reaches the designated spot, children are already arriving by foot and on horseback. They gather on wooden benches and listen intently as he asks the children for their homework from the previous Saturday: They were to write stories about bad things that had happened to them. The stories are of violence and killing. He asks this group, "Where are we going to put these bad stories?"

Again, the answer: "Behind us."

One by one, the children return the books they had borrowed the week before and get to choose others. One chooses "Aladdin." Another asks for a math book for her brother.

One child has brought a pineapple to pay Soriano for his help. Another offers a live chicken. Yet another gives him manioc. He tells them goodbye, folds up the table, loads Alpha and Beto and begins the long journey home.

He stops to give materials to a man who is teaching a group of adults outdoors how to write, then a little later gives a pep talk to children he hadn't seen in school for 15 days.

They have to help their father on the farm, they tell him.

You have to be in school, he replies.

Finally, he arrives home as the sun is setting. It has been another long day, but he did it for the children and the future of Colombia.

It's a quest that will resonate with viewers.

Sensitivity alert: One expletive, stories of violence

E-mail: rwalsh@desnews.com

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