Meet Colombia's 'lord of books'

Mr Jose Alberto Gutierrez has spent the last 21 years trying to transform Colombia with the books he rescued daily from the garbage in Bogota. The first floor of his house, in Bogota's popular neighbourhood, La Nueva Gloria, is packed with thousands
Mr Jose Alberto Gutierrez has spent the last 21 years trying to transform Colombia with the books he rescued daily from the garbage in Bogota. The first floor of his house, in Bogota's popular neighbourhood, La Nueva Gloria, is packed with thousands of books.PHOTO: CESAR MELGAREJO
Mr Jose Alberto Gutierrez has spent the last 21 years trying to transform Colombia with the books he rescued daily from the garbage in Bogota. The first floor of his house, in Bogota's popular neighbourhood, La Nueva Gloria, is packed with thousands
Because of the large number of books stacked in the library, the foundation decided to start sending them to rural areas in Colombia two years ago, often in its own van.PHOTO: CESAR MELGAREJO

COLOMBIA • For the last 21 years, Mr Jose Alberto Gutierrez has dedicated his life to recovering discarded books from the garbage so that they can be reused by children and young people in the country's most vulnerable areas.

The books started showing up in his home from the end of 1997, when Mr Gutierrez began his job as a garbage truck driver for Bogota's waste management company.

While working his nightly route, he was struck by the potential of so many discarded books. With help from his wife, Mr Gutierrez decided to build a community library in his own home.

Ten years later, it became the Fundacion La Fuerza de las Palabras (Strength of Words Foundation), through which he has managed to fill over 450 reading centres and libraries around Colombia.

The "lord of books", as locals refer to him, has rescued some 50,000 books - spanning subjects such as science, literature, business and medicine - from the trash.

"The most valuable inheritance we can leave our children is education," said Mr Gutierrez, adding that - in a country where only four out of every 10 children will graduate from university - dozens have accessed higher education, thanks to the foundation.

Since he was let go in February by the recycling centre where he worked, Mr Gutierrez, 55, and his family have been working to build a library museum in Bogota, with the aim of continuing to bring reading to the most vulnerable sectors.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2018, with the headline 'Meet Colombia's 'lord of books''. Print Edition | Subscribe