Meet Your Neighbor, Marissa.
Once upon a time, I was born in Berwyn, where I grew up with my parents and younger brother. Both my Puerto Rican and Mexican sides of my huge extended family moved to Berwyn and Cicero from the city in the 80’s.
We were among the first Latinx families to move into the community, so seeing that change so rapidly over the course of my life has been really cool. I am a proud product of the Berwyn public school system. After attending Jefferson, Lincoln, and Morton West, I went on to earn a degree in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago before getting my Masters in Library and Information Science at Dominican University.
My family moved to the suburbs of Denver for two years when I was 13. You can’t walk anywhere in the suburbs of Denver, the houses are basically made of hollow cardboard, and there was no diversity to speak of. Though the Rocky Mountains were visible in the distance and I made a great group of friends, all I wanted was to move back to Berwyn. I think that experience was formative in me growing to place such value on diversity and culture.
We eventually moved right back onto my old block in Berwyn. After college, I got my first apartment in Berwyn, filled it up with books and memories both good and bad, and met my amazing superdork husband Jose after lots of frogs. We had a cool wedding at Proksa Park and Lavergne’s Tavern, and we made Berwyn our home together.
I love writing, books (especially picture books), my culture, my dog Penny, cooking with my tight knit family, I Love Lucy, retro fashion, bright colors, the Golden Girls, and eclectic design. I’m a nerd and have been since day one. Want proof? When I was little, I told my mother that I wanted to live at the library. And I suppose, in a way, I do now.
The Business Side
I started as a part-time Youth Services Library Assistant at the Berwyn Public Library during my last semester of undergrad – over 11 years ago. I worked my way up to my professional librarian position after getting my MLIS a couple of years later. In my time at BPL, it has been my mission to elevate what we offer families. This definitely means keeping up with trends, but more importantly, I sought to modernize and infuse diversity in anything I could, from the types of events we offer, to our collection of materials, toys, marketing imagery, and the books I showcase to children in storytime.
The concept of “mirrors and windows” is one I live by. Children should be able to both find books that reflect their experiences and books that provide a window into lives different than their own. The sense of validation in seeing yourself in a story is a potent kind of magic we can provide a child, and windows build empathy. I’m proud of the progress I’ve contributed to in my time here – it’s noticeable and seems to be really well received, especially when we have caregivers rave about our diverse collection. Another accomplishment that I’ve made is the creation of the library’s biggest annual event, the Fairy Tale Ball, which brings in an average of 500-600 attendees. What started off as a modest venture my first year at BPL has grown into our signature event – an extremely popular celebration of literacy, diversity, and children now dreamt up and managed by a whole committee that starts planning nine months in advance. It’s been a long and winding road, but magic has surely been present along the journey.
Describe yourself using 3 words and explain why you chose those words.
Empath: I feel what others are feeling so acutely it’s a little wild. This can be both a really good thing and a really bad thing. I consider it my superpower most of the time.
Writer: I write stories for children and am in the process of navigating the literary agent/publishing world. I want to contribute to the small but growing pool of Latinx children’s authors out there. There are more books written annually about talking animals and inanimate objects than there are about or by anyone Latinx or any other minority. That needs to change!
Dork: It’s my inheritance. My birthright. My destiny. I come from a long line of dorks.
What inspires you?
The other librarians out there that I learn with and from, particularly the ones focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. We have arrived at a point in history in which old, engrained, ugly biases are finally being confronted with the whole world looking on. Privilege and it’s far reaching impact is being discussed directly. How this affects librarianship and how we serve people is real, and so allies who are braving their own fears to look in the mirror, do the internal work, and improve their actions inspire me.
Tell us something that people might not know about you.
I won the Illinois Library Association’s Golden Ticket Award in 2018 for my work with the Fairy Tale Ball and my youth programming. It was a total surprise, as I didn’t even know I’d been nominated. I’m so humbled and grateful for the honor.
Why do you work in Berwyn?
I choose to work in Berwyn because I love my hometown, and I know I can contribute meaningfully to this community’s evolution. Berwyn has been leveling up into something especially exciting the past 10 years, the past couple of years in particular. Things like the opening of the Outtaspace, Flapjack Brewery, Lavergne’s, the Pride Walk, the Dia de los Muertos walk, what the Berwyn Public Art Initiative is doing – this is not the quiet place I grew up anymore, and I could not be happier. I want to be an active part of it, and I can do that through my platform at the library. Just as importantly, serving the Latinx community is close to my heart, and Berwyn’s demographic offers that chance.
What is one question you get asked repeatedly about your profession?
“I bet it’s so great that you can read books at work all day, huh?” I wish my work involved more reading, but aside from storytime, it involves almost none most of the time. Surprising, right? Librarians don’t have time or permission to read on site – we do that on our own time. These days, librarianship consists of a million and one things most people probably don’t realize, like immigration assistance, event planning, digital services, providing ESL and tech classes, social media content creation and management, running maker spaces, and SO many more tasks.
In youth services, things are even busier. I create and coordinate events for infants all the way through age 14, design graphics and marketing materials, capture photos and videos for social media, chair the Fairy Tale Ball committee, create circulating STEM kits and American Girl dolls, do storytimes at preschools, help take care of a guinea pig, select materials for our bilingual collection, and loads more. No time to kick back and read. But we’re all working our butts off to make sure you can!
What is your fondest memory?
“Camping” out in the living room of my family’s North Berwyn bungalow all summer as a child, because it was the only air-conditioned room in the house. Listening to Motown all night with them or hearing my father tell us stories about growing up in Little Village, the lights from car headlights passing in ribbons through the window blinds.
Which place would you most like to visit and why?
Machu Picchu! And Cuzco. And of course, Lima. My husband was born and raised in Peru, and has immersed me in the culture, food, and history. I’m in love. 10 out of 10 recommend marrying into Peruvian culture. However, my first hand education has not yet included actually visiting Peru just yet, so we are eager to make the trip as soon as we can manage it. Can you keep a secret? Peruvian ceviche is even better than Mexican ceviche. Don’t tell him I said that. He already tells me “You’re welcome, world!” anytime he sees someone eating a potato in any form. Potatoes originate from Peru, where they grow over 4,000 varieties. So you better be 4,000 times more thankful, world!
If you could collaborate with any person on a personal project, who would that be and why?
Yuyi Morales. She is this breathtaking, award-winning Mexican children’s book illustrator and author who dreams up these stunning, color-drenched dreamscapes that I would love nothing better to live in forever and ever. She takes ordinary subjects and charges them with whimsy and Mexican flavor in a way I continue to be astonished by. It is my greatest dream to have a picture book I write be illustrated by her!
What book impacted you the most?
This isn’t a fair question to ask of a librarian because there is no single book I can possibly answer with! However, I will say that the books I read in my youth that depicted Latinx children were poignant, special experiences, and far too few in number. One specific title was 1959’s by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida. It’s set in Mexico City. It’s the story of Ceci, a little girl who is allowed to stay up and participate in an important Mexican Christmas tradition, for the very first time. It won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for illustration in 1960. What is really cool is that Aurora Labastida was a librarian from Mexico City who collaborated with Ets. It’s not an era you would associate with quality, authentic depiction of anything “ethnic”, but because they chose a Mexican creator to be involved, this rare alignment of the stars produced something that felt, to little Marissa, like something honest and truly familiar – a mirror. That someone like me is worthy of being a main character. I think of this book often and smile.