In this presidential election year full of talk about building walls, five area libraries and Dominican University’s Rebecca Crown Library are diving into immigration issues through the NEA Big Read, a program designed to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.

A few years ago, the Oak Park Public Library realized that the NEA Big Read, which was started in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, was expanding beyond traditional American authors like Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain to include contemporary authors like Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican-American professor of creative writing at UIC and author of the novel Into the Beautiful North.

With the election scheduled for Nov. 8, we decided to cross our own village borders and invite the public libraries of Berwyn, which has a large Latino population, and Maywood, which has a growing Latino population, to join Forest Park, River Forest and Oak Park public libraries, along with Dominican University’s Rebecca Crown Library, in applying for an NEA Big Read matching grant for us all to host community book discussions and other activities to explore immigration issues.

In May, the library received a $9,000 matching grant for both Spanish and English readers in these communities to explore the immigration-related themes and issues described in Urrea’s novel, in which a 19-year-old woman named Nayeli sees the classic American western film, The Magnificent Seven, and is inspired to gather her friends and launch an illegal border-crossing quest to bring back her father and other men to repopulate her small Mexican village. Her only clue to where her father might be: a postcard of a cornfield from Kankakee, Illinois!

From mid-September to Nov. 2, our communities are invited to participate in more than 30 opportunities for cultural exchange. All events are free. Find all events and more information at oppl.org/bigread.

 Join film historian Doug Deuchler to see and discuss The Magnificent Seven and five other immigration-themed films, beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 1:30 p.m. at the Oak Park Public Library, and continuing through Oct. 19.

 Enjoy unique and rich regional styles of Mexican music and instruments with Sones de Mexico at a kickoff concert at Dominican University this Friday evening, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m. 

 Discuss the immigration and deportation of women and children with Dr. Lisa Petrov, PhD, and young adult immigrant students from Dominican University at River Forest Public Library on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 2 p.m.

 Meet and listen to the author, Luis Alberto Urrea, talk about his life on the border and the inspiration for his novel at Dominican University on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. 

 Explore local issues of immigration with local immigration attorneys Robert Ahlgren, Mony Ruiz-Velasco and Carlina Tapia-Ruano at Oak Park Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 1, at 2:30 p.m. 

 Watch 16th Street Theater founder and artistic director Ann Filmer and other actors share scenes from the theatrical version of Into the Beautiful North on Monday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m. The play was adapted by Karen Zacarias, who was born in Mexico and emigrated north as a young girl. 

 See immigration-themed art created by local artists who have written short essays about how their art is inspired by immigrants, often their own grandparents or parents who came from around the world, in the Oak Park Public Library Art Gallery through Oct. 30. Bilingual Oak Park artist Alex Velazquez Brightbill will exhibit her colorful art at the River Forest Public Library through Oct. 31. 

 Play Loteria, or Mexican Bingo, for all ages on Saturdays, Sept. 24 and Oct. 15, at 2 p.m. at Berwyn Public Library. Reservations are required.

 Discuss the novel in both English and Spanish in a series of library-led discussions between now and the end of October.

Debby Preiser is the community relations coordinator at the Oak Park Public Library.

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