Immigrant at the Library: Finding home in Charlotte

Alex Ibarra, employee of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, shares her story on finding home at the Library.

“Would you like to live in the United States?” my fiancé asked me over the phone. I knew he had a job interview that morning and I didn't want to wait until our lunch date to hear how it had gone. But I was not expecting that question.

“Can they wait until after the wedding?” I inquired. 

Our wedding was less than 3 months away so, in my defense, it was the biggest thing on my mind at the time. We had already started renting the place we would eventually move into! But at that point, the question felt more like a dare than a life question. I’ve always loved a good challenge and traveling so I thought, why not?

In retrospect, when you face a question like that, it is easy to get carried away imagining all the opportunities you will get and skimp over the things that you will miss: your family, your job--not just your job, but being able to work and having people to talk to. Things that truly matter to you. 

I thought about that a lot my first November in the U.S., when the holiday blues took over me. As usual, it was my mom who presented a solution. “Is there a library over there? Maybe there’s a book club or something you could join,” she suggested. I looked into it and took it as a sign when I saw the one book I brought with me to the States was the next one that Main Library’s Book Club would discuss the following week. Again, I asked myself, “Why not?”

The day of the book club meeting, I jumped onto a bus and found myself surrounded by cheerful, welcoming people a few hours later. They were passionately sharing their thoughts about the book we’d been reading. This was what I’d been missing.

Over the next 18 months, I travelled around the States with my husband and his job. I collected eight different library cards along the way. I read everything I wanted that I initially thought I didn’t have time for. I read to learn which values are closest to this country’s heart. I read to have access to the stories of people I hadn’t yet encountered. I fell in love with the library and, to this day, it remains, in my opinion, one of the best things about America.

Eventually, we returned permanently to Charlotte. When it was time to find an apartment, we decided on one that had a Library within walking distance. I was able to join a new book club and return to my original book club as well.

Making friends as an adult isn’t easy, but I encourage anyone who is looking to try a library book club. There’s something about discussing the inner lives of fictional characters that brings out the truest of ourselves, and that’s when we really connect. What I learned about America while reading by myself I could now test. I could ask questions out loud and laugh about things with people that weren’t judgmental—as I was afraid they might be—but eager to teach me and welcome my “outsider” perspective. 

I began building confidence. It took some months, but I eventually received my employment authorization. I started applying for jobs, then applying arnica gel on my ego every time I didn’t get a callback. "It’s tricky when nobody recognizes the name of your college," I told myself. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” my mom told me. “If getting out of the house is what you need, then volunteer,” she added. So, I did.

I started volunteering in a Tech-Tutor position at the Sugar Creek Library branch. While I wasn’t making money from volunteering, I can’t describe what feeling useful outside the house again did for my emotional and mental wellbeing. I didn’t last long volunteering, though. Shortly after that, I finally received a call offering me a staff position with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. 

In a way, it’s come full-circle and, today, I get to give back a little of the plenty I’ve received from the Library. My favorite thing about working for the Library is, after helping people find the information they need, giving them a hand navigating a job or college application website, or connecting newcomers with an English conversation club where they can practice a new language without feeling ashamed of their accent, is telling them, “Yes, this is your Library. Come and make the best use of it -- it’s free and we’re here for you.”

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This blog was written by and posted with permission by Alex Ibarra, library services specialist, of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library's Mountain Island branch.​