Ben Ocón and Sarita Ocón

Recorded April 13, 2016 Archived April 12, 2016 39:21 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddb002037


Ben Ocón (65) and daughter Sarita Ocón (33) talk about the importance of reading, literacy, and libraries from their early lives to the present day. Ben talks about his long and prestigious career as a librarian and Sarita shares stories of how she incorporates reading the classroom as a teacher.

Subject Log / Time Code

B on the North Central neighborhood of San Mateo, which didn’t have easy library access; B implemented an idea to convert a large police/SWAT vehicle in to a bookmobile for the neighborhood.
S recalls working in Oakland, CA as a teacher/mentor 4th grade girls; she started read-a-thons to celebrate the value of literacy at her school, which the students loved.
S remembers how her students "exploded with excitement" when she would announce the next read-a-thon.
B on opening the new San Mateo Public Library building; "We had thousands of people outside" for the opening—it was "gratifying."
B says opening the doors of a library is "the greatest gift" one can give to a community.
B is most proud of his outreach work and going "out into the community" to promote the library.


  • Ben Ocón
  • Sarita Ocón

Recording Locations

San Mateo Public Library

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type

Fee for Service


StoryCorps uses Google Cloud Speech-to-Text and Natural Language API to provide machine-generated transcripts. Transcripts have not been checked for accuracy and may contain errors. Learn more about our FAQs through our Help Center or do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions.

00:02 My name is Ben ocu00f3n. I am 65 years of age. Today is April 13th 2016.

00:12 We are at the San Mateo Public Library in San Mateo, California, and I'm having a storycorps conversation with my daughter said he thought I'm 33. Today is April 13th, 2016. We're at the main library of the San Mateo Public Library system in downtown San Mateo and have the honor of having a conversation with my father then.

00:43 The storycorps project at the San Mateo Library has organized his revolves around the theme of National Library week, which is libraries transform the library wanted to collect the stories of individuals who had a role in building the main library and restoring the two branches as well as community members who want to share their story about using the library

01:16 We will be building an oral history and having it archived here at the library. So we're very honored to have storycorps here at the library. And this is one of the interviews so I'm really honored to be here Dad to talk with you and I just wanted to start off with what's kind of like your earliest memory of libraries are or visiting a library that you can recall.

01:46 My earliest memories of using a library was growing up in Boyle Heights. It's a community in East Los Angeles community in which our family emigrated from Mexico and recite it. You know when I was a young boy and a few blocks away from the the home was the Robert Louis Stevenson branch of the Los Angeles county is me Los Angeles Public Library to City library and

02:18 Our family was large we had six boys and two girls and in our community. It's a it was a great Community Lots the diversity of but there weren't too many destinations for youth the public library was one and the parks was another sometimes we would go to the boys club. So going to the library was just a very regular routine that we did my brothers and sisters would go and we use the library to to read and to spend time there. I think I recall that the library had space where you could lay out your books and do your homework where I say space was limited in the house.

03:07 So the Robert Louis Stevenson is my earliest memory of using the library and it was still being used by the community. You saw all ages using the references for like searching for jobs storytime. Lots of students doing their homework and things like that. So is really neat to kind of return back to Boyle Heights and be able to see the library. It was really great.

03:39 Do you have any early memories of using the library? Oh my gosh story time with you, you know all the different times that we would read the baby eggs are hatching or the wild things but I'm of that generation that watched technology and the internet come to life. So my earliest memories of libraries was using the card catalog system, you know, so we could go and in order to find a book, you know that the system's didn't have in place the computers. So I always enjoyed anytime getting a book report assignment going to the library and pulling out those brand-new encyclopedias and running my fingers to the pages and I

04:31 I just have fond memories of always.

04:34 Looking up different books and seen the books on cassette tapes and then I think as technology continue to Advanced. I remember working as a library aide at one of the branches when we were living in Salt Lake City, Utah and also remember being kind of at a digital media assistant, which was helping folks become more familiarized with the internet. So how has lots of transformative things happening in the library was that hub for the community to can I come in and an access that information so so they're kind of some of my early memories of libraries and I'm wondering can you share a no like there's so many different aspects that goes into Library services, but is there something that you enjoyed most?

05:34 About your library services for the community public library, and I think I really enjoyed serving the community and that would include Library users of all ages children and teens adults and my first professional assignment was actually working at the Belvidere branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library system. And that was located in East Los Angeles, which was not far from where I grew up. So that was a nice come come in if you will and the community was principally Spanish-speaking principally Mexican the Mexican heritage. However, there were other, you know, ethnic communities the East Los Angeles community had large Japanese American

06:34 Community as I was growing up more Central Americans were moving in in time but working at the Belvidere Library was a great experience I use my bilingual skills to develop the collection to serve the community and I think that sometimes makes a difference with Viber users that come from other countries or have other language proficiency to hear someone serving them and their native language. I think it really eases any apprehensions. Are you sore at all actually from the library perspective it optimizes the ability to reach out to communities and letting them know the value of libraries and the resources that are available to them.

07:27 So I think serving those kinds of communities was really a kind of highlights in my career. I was able to get involved professionally in a Library Association known as reforma that promotes libraries to Latinos in the Spanish-speaking and that actually was a great experience because it allowed me to connect with other Librarians. In other parts of the country who are also a committed and had a passion for making sure that this large demographic knew about libraries and could benefit because some important as we're talking about the transformative impact of libraries.

08:13 After serving at the Los Angeles County Library System. We relocated to Salt Lake City. You were in the second grade and even in Salt Lake City where there is a diversity there. It's a capital city and it was great to reach out to the different diverse communities in Salt Lake there. There was a an opportunity to again reconnect with the communities that weren't familiar with our library service. So all of this is kind of as a backdrop to a serving the general Community, which is obviously a very important and very gratifying to do and reaching out to folks letting them know about libraries registering them promoting Library Services. It's always been a passion of mine to go out into the community and to promote the library

09:09 Have really unique time. It was here in San Mateo and it's kind of talking about reaching out to communities and whatnot. Can you talk about the book mobile project that went to the north central San Mateo neighborhood while they were building the new library the library actually had temporary quarters. We were located at the Bay Meadows development and we were there for three years and during the first few months. We realize that there was a neighborhood that was far removed from that. There was a little bit further distance for the residents to use the library. This is the North Central San Mateo community.

09:56 Also during that time the community some parts of the neighborhood were under siege. If you will there was elements of gang violence. They were certainly the elements of drug abuse in and just really difficult challenging. For residents the city identified some apartment houses on North amphlett that were really at the core of this this troubled or challenging. And in North Central San Mateo and the different city departments got together the city attorney's office Community Development the police department and we all kind of made it a collaborative effort to help that neighborhood in some way and so an idea came to me. I had just toward the San Mateo police department and they were showing

10:56 Different resources in the captain the officer who is touring that showed me there come one vehicle, which is their SWAT vehicle. It's a large vehicle in which obviously they use for incidence. They use for emergencies and the officer mentioned to me that that the vehicle was available for City departments to take on Outreach and just have present in any project or event that they would like and I think I remember that because getting back to the issue of North Central San Mateo and one in the library to be involved. I presented it to the library staff and I mention to them.

11:41 What they like to venture into something unique and maybe borrow the calm one vehicle and use it as a bookmobile during the time that we would be at the temporary library. And that's one thing that I remembered that the staff was really enthusiastic about it. I spoke to the officer and arrange for some of us to learn how to drive it. Okay, and so the complement of Staffing that we went once a month to that neighborhood and to those apartment houses was once a month and it involves having a staff member who is trained to drive it having a circulation staff who was trained to sort of register people for library cards and telling them about the library rules and we had someone that has Spanish speaking. So those three people those three staff members was all that we had we would load up books in the vehicle. We would put the kind of banners that

12:41 Where it said Police Department, we would put library San Mateo Public Library until it was an it was an interesting. Yeah, and we drove it in there. We also stopped at the Martin Luther King Community Center. How do we have to stop? So once a month? We would do that and it was just a very gratifying to be a part of that effort. I'm very proud of staff that came through and we only did it for a couple of years because when the new library was open that was accessible to the residence and they were able to come and innocently closer for them to use the library. And so we stopped using that but it was an example. We're just City departments working together coming up with an idea and and just a rolling up your sleeves in and doing it. It was really fun. And when we open the new library, we invited the residents of those apartment houses to come to the library and we we had to kind of Refreshments. We we showed them the library

13:41 And that kind of has a nice segue into this is your library and the bookmobile that we had created was no longer going to be exist, but that they would welcome to come to the library and that we would be here. They would become familiar with the staff that would make those trips. So thank you for reminding me about that. I am a good memory my God. Yeah.

14:10 Do you know when you think of transformative impacts of libraries? Do you have an example or something that comes to mind? I'm the first.

14:24 I know you remember this which is that I was a sophomore at Stanford University in

14:33 And at the time I think it was almost finished with my third quarter of my sophomore year getting ready to head back to Salt Lake and I remember the

14:49 The controversy that had come up for the community surrounding the Rose Park Library branch, which was the library branch were working at in regards to the pride month book display and I remember being in in shock right because here I am at a

15:14 Prestigious, you know institution getting my education and they are going to the libraries green library and see the wealth of knowledge at my fingertips and yet back home there was

15:31 Hear this sad situation that was kind of ensuing in terms of questioning. This idea of one's intellectual freedom to access certain information and what I've always loved about my raise was those various displays throughout the year whether it was book hit away. There was a black skinny black history month or Latino history month, but we were highlighting and celebrating the works of prominent authors promoting diversity. And I remember like that that there was tension with this idea of having a pride display to celebrate our LGBT.

16:23 Authors of fiction and nonfiction writing and I think it was I was a little bit of disbelief, but I was

16:35 I was proud of you. I was proud of the staff. I was proud of the library board that supported the library in keeping the display up and an even proud of the support that the community that other community members not the not the members that were against the display, but those that rallied in support of the library this understanding of how

17:08 We have to kind of a fight against censorship that we have to ensure that any individual can be able to walk into a library and have that freedom intellectual freedom to learn or gather. Whatever researcher information is at their disposal. And so that was something that really struck me about the power vitality and

17:38 The importance of libraries and the services that they bring to communities. I mean I was at Stanford and if she was a little bit different being In the Heat of the Moment, but do you remember that? Right? Right that that was a good example of how libraries fulfill a very important role in society and you mentioned intellectual Freedom you mentioned in a fighting censorship access is very important. And yes that is that is a good example of how libraries have a transformative impact on their communities, even though the controversy tend to polarize a neighborhood in that some people were supportive of those that were concerned about the display. And then you had others that were supportive of what the library was promoting in terms of its collection. These were titles in the collection and and this was a

18:38 End of the month and it was kind of a important for the community to know about those books that have easier access to them and so forth. So but again as you mention the library board reviewed the concerns, they they very wet very respectful of the concerns and and viewpoints of those that spells trouble by the display yet. They felt that it was important for the library to keep the display through the end of the month at the end of the month, you know, the display came down but not any sooner because that was the intent of the library to have something that would be accessible during that month. And again, it was one of those dematic months that we had. I think the the next month was July and I recalled it the display was the pioneer days cuz so that's a very big culture celebrating the

19:38 Immigration and so it was just something how libraries fulfilled information and in this case through displays that are thematic at during the months and the importance of the Integrity of keeping up those displays as opposed to taking it down. If someone feels that the content is objectionable. So that's a good example. Do you have any other memories or or examples of how maybe literacy has been important in something you've done upholding at sense of Integrity that we can be able to access information and various like literature and in Fruit like yeah information, which is it leads me to a memory that I had with my students so fast forward years after graduating. I worked 4 5 6

20:38 There's an East Oakland and I was mentoring and teaching about 20 to 25 young females ages of 4th 5th grade and for me each year. I rewarded the class not with a pizza party in a movie but wanted to instill and Inspire the sense of that reading can be a celebration. And so I created what what were known at the school is the readathons and it took storm like after probably my second or third readathon. It was the talk of the school from first grade all the way up to 5th grade and even Beyond some of the name.

21:38 Junior High's were like what's MS City to doing over there? And and I remember I I I figured out a way to make this idea of going to the library reading at home more fun and kind of a Sacred Space that any student can access at any point in time. I as a teacher I have the privilege to to watch how impactful media is on our youth how impactful social media has become how things are so accessible via just a phone device. And so I wanted to

22:25 Continue that inspiration through books. So I remember a time when we had already done two or three Vita thongs and my students had excelled academically they were doing good. As far as I classroom behavior, and I remember I told the ladies okay, everybody settle down. I've got an announcement to make and I said well congratulations you guys did an amazing job with all your projects. You've just earned yourself a read-a-thon and they exploded with excitement and I remember recording it on my phone. They were screaming it was as if they had won tickets to a Justin Bieber concert or something like that and they were so ecstatic and I think it's because of the culture that I created in the classroom and for every read-a-thon students could bring their pajamas could bring a sleep.

23:25 Bag pillow a stuffed animal and they could bring I always ask him to bring three books order that was from the school library their classroom or the public library. And then I also because I am a firm believer in and not censored not censoring at a Young Person's learning I said that they could bring magazines. They could bring a graphic novel as long as they were reading. And so there was an agreement there could be no talking. It was 3 hours of bliss of them reading and I would ensure that there was a break right where they would get like maybe a slice of chocolate cake and strawberries and lemonade but it was this idea that that after they set up their Fort or their tent that reading could just feel

24:26 Delicious and luxurious and fun and that they could recreate this moment at home, you know, and and for a lot of these students they're facing tremendous hardships in East Oakland. They're coming from single-parent homes, many of them have family members that are incarcerated. They are the majority of them are young black and Latino Youth and for them to begin seeing themselves and their Futures through books and through the possibilities just kind of reinvigorated their imaginations again, so it's something that has always given me great joy and I find that every time I see my students are like this. I thought you remember redefines and I'm like, I sure do and that was definitely a moment that I think

25:22 Just I feel gratification liked it that I was able to leave that Mark there at that school in last little quick. Tidbit. I even learned that the other teachers and the other classrooms were also doing readathons. So I felt that I felt that that was a big win for for that school and that community in particular and I'm thinking about it. I'm curious dad like you got to open the new main library. What was that like

26:01 Well, you know, I think that that was a wonderful experience for myself and my staff and all of us that were involved with the project and I remember the day that we open the new library. It was August 27th 2006 and we have thousands of people outside. We closed 3rd Avenue from the police department and Public Works departments to close the the front of the library so that we could put chairs out there and we could have people kind of an opening ceremony out in the front and so we had literally thousands of people come and it was just a great gratifying experience being part of something like that and it are career Wise It's actually been something that I've experienced before. I've been involved in various Renovations or construction projects and each time.

27:01 Whether it's the Hawaiian Gardens neighborhood in Los Angeles County whether it's was the new main library in Salt Lake City that. Help with that developed the building program and then coming to San Mateo and being part of this. I think it's there's something about building a library that communities really get engaged and they really want to be a part of and that they really appreciate the new library provided more technology. It went from having about 10 public computers to over 100 from my God. It was amazing. It's a green building in which there's a lot of natural light. There's a lot of openness.

27:48 It's just a it's just a very dramatic architecture that people really enjoy the way that the the layouts are are configured. You have a lot of open space a lot of places where people can actually do research in addition to the information technology. We introduced a biotechnology Learning Center the children's

28:19 Department is a in the same footprint as the main library was saying it's almost five times as large as it was before we have a teen Lounge where I love and she's dedicated for Youth and just seeing the youth come in and they immediately went up to the teen Lounge area and and and and really felt that it was their space. In fact, as we were planning the main library, we invited some teens to help us select the furniture and they were part of that. They wanted to be part of the colors and the the the style of the tables and the lounge chairs. So that was great and I think opening the library and opening the doors. I think it's probably the greatest gift that you can give to do to a community because I I think

29:13 The community from all walks of life from all backgrounds. They will make use of the library to two goals that are relevant to their lives. And I think that's very gratifying. I I think it's just so important to provide access to to the community.

29:34 Inspired by that libraries do so much more than probably via stereotyped image of a librarian or a library scene that we might see on in the Fillmore on television or in the media that I find so much of the time I'm encouraging friends family colleagues to check out all the diverse programming that are libraries offer, right? I think even some memories of meeting some great Latino poets Latino authors from some of the programming that happened in Salt Lake and I and I know you guys have various programming here in San Mateo, but just as opportunities to hear a lecture or two.

30:29 Have learned about employment or receive like mentoring her or just research tools. I always found that that was there was always more being offered at libraries and had to kind of you know,

30:52 I guess that encourage friends and colleagues to see libraries is something of a greater vehicle of learning and access to information. I've always and that's something that's always truly been like it's the hub for me. You know, it's the Hub that I think unifies and bridges communities bridges that diversity of you know, and and then also Bridges the kind of generational differences between elders and youth and they all come together in this centralized location and there is an exchange of learning and understanding of one another and so that's something I've always just valued here at the main library and at libraries just across the country.

31:52 Describe them what the modern library in my modern Public Library is all about I think there are so many services and programs that public libraries provide and I think San Mateo is a good example. There is a wealth of resources. For example here at the San Mateo Library. We have a literacy program Project Read. It just celebrated his 30th year in existence. It provides the adult with a literacy instruction. They can learn to read or they can brush up on the reading if they feel that they need to improve their reading it provides resources for better writing. We have components of the Project Read program to teach English.

32:46 We have a set up in two locations in the community where it's focused on Mom's lining to speak English and the program actually provides child care for the moms while they go to class. So it really facilitates the opportunity for them to learn English and we have volunteer literacy tutors who conduct the classes and the literacy tutors also do the one-on-one teaching adults to read. So the literacy program is an example. I mentioned the biotechnology Learning Center, that's definitely something that was introduced here in San Mateo. It's a

33:36 At the time I think it's it was one of the or the only about technology Learning Center in the country. I think that there may now be more examples of that.

33:48 I mentioned the technology technology is very important. We have as an example. We've introduced a technology Lending Service here at the San Mateo Library that provides a MiFi hot spots for people that don't have access to the internet Chromebooks and iPads for literacy students. It's just important to not assume that everyone has access to computers and information technology. So other other examples like that a reminder that there is that there is a space in which despite one's economic background or despite whatever hardships they may be confronted with that the library is there as a tool and there's no discrimination, you know, there's this equal access.

34:48 To knowledge and learning and I just I just really inspiring Dad. I really want to give props to you and all the Librarians out there and and your staff and just this constant commitment that you've instilled in myself and my brother and our family to support our communities and support that diversity of learning and thank you for having us here. You know. I think this has been a great conversation. I went to appreciate that and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to have this conversation about libraries and this being National Library week and the theme libraries transform to share some of your memories and stories, and I think it's been an enjoyable conversation. So thank you. Thank you Dad.

35:44 We actually got like 5 minutes left all the things you've done clearly a lot of

36:03 Okay. Well, I think I think I'm most proud of of the passion that I have for.

36:13 Promoting the library in the community. So we we call that as Outreach Services and that means not to stay within your facility at your the walls that you have which are very important because they are the destination for the community but to go out into the community and to let the community know and promote with the library has to offer because many out there in the community may not be aware. They may have this perception that the library is not for them and there are many services that they can Avail themselves of that will benefit them and as we've talked about the library's transforming there is an incredible amount of

37:06 Positive benefits that can come from using the library and that's that applies to Children teens adults people from all walks of life here at the San Mateo Library. It's not uncommon that you have people coming to meet others in a business setting we have small rooms and you know, they may be discussing a startup. And then I think we've heard from some folks saying that this was their office we have folks that come in we talked about you they come in after school do their homework. They they do research but it's more of a connecting with others as well the programs that we have provides an opportunity for community members to engage with each other libraries build community. They really are

38:00 Kind of a destination for folks to know their neighbor know their community. So getting back to my passion of going out to the community. It's never assuming that everyone knows about the library. In fact that it's not uncommon for me to be talking to someone about the library and they'll share that they feel good about the library for the day you have heard about programs and then those ended by saying, you know, I haven't been to that library and that sort of makes me feel like you. There's a lot of work to do making sure that everyone is understand what that there's something for them. And then if you can imagine those that may not be familiar with a public library books that are new immigrants are folks that are not aware of the resources. They have been that underscores that even more and again, I think libraries that have a good outreach program. I think they're investing in stain.

39:00 11th and making sure that the the resources they have are being used and ended that are being used by everyone now just as an example of something that I'm very passionate about. That's great.