Shopping Cart Library Pushes Books and Heritage

Luis Ramos (bottom right), founder of the Mobile Indigenous Library.

Luis Ramos (bottom right), founder of the Mobile Indigenous Library.

Luis Ramos has a set of wheels that move with him from borough to borough. Wheels, that is, in the form of a shopping cart filled with books.

For the past four years, he’s been pushing it around and setting up a library known as the Mobile Indigenous Library, hoping to connect people of Native American descent – as in, native to the Americas, not just the U.S. – to their roots. The Manhattan Times‘ Robin Elisabeth Kilmer presents a profile on the roving librarian, who pushes around not just books, but a vehicle for triggering memories of family and heritage.

He keeps the books, most of them donated, in Inwood’s Manhattan Mini Storage, but would like to get a permanent spot one day so his collection can grow.

In the meantime, he takes them anywhere he can, to street corners in Inwood and East Harlem, as well as to Brooklyn and Queens.

People stop by and browse the collection, which, on any given day, consists of as many books as he can fit in his shopping cart. There are many books on Native American tribes, on the shamanistic rituals of the Celts, and on healing medicinal herbs.

“A lot of people know they have Native American ancestry,” he explained. “Or they’re exploring or curious.”

Ramos recalls a spiritual connection he encountered while manning his library – composed of a table with a statue on it representing the Taíno people. While in East Harlem, a shirtless, “shifty and troubled-looking” teenager went up to the table and to Ramos’ surprise started talking about his grandmother “who honored Native Caribbean spirits and kept statuettes in her apartment.”

The young man asked to touch Ramos’s statue, and said a prayer for his grandmother.

“He felt at peace at the table. It brought him back and zoned him in,” recalled Ramos.

Of Taíno descent himself, Ramos was raised by his great-grandmother, who taught him about Taíno spirituality.

(…) His great-grandmother was a midwife in Puerto Rico who performed spiritual cleansings, honoring the spirits of Taíno and African descent. His great-grandfather was a tobacco farmer and a cigar maker. Tobacco is considered sacred by many native cultures, and was used in rituals performed by Ramos’s great-grandmother.

Years later, when Ramos was working in home hospice care helping terminally ill patients, the idea of the Mobile Indigenous Library dawned on him. Through his work, Ramos had been gathering the stories of his patients, as well as catching glimpses of their spiritual items.

“I always try to collect stories on their family. A lot of them can’t pass it down. Someone will die and they take all of their stories with them,” he said, referencing those that are often without family or friends nearby.

In the homes of his patients, many of whom are Latino, religious and spiritual paraphernalia are brought to the forefront.

“Let me tell you something, there’s always a certain person (in each family) who will honor the Native American ways with a statue. When I go to houses and see a statue, I’m not leaving until I get some information,” said Ramos with a laugh. “It’s a thrill when people start sharing their stories.”

Luis Ramos' Mobile Indigenous Library, set up here outside Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. (Photo via Manhattan Times)

Luis Ramos’ Mobile Indigenous Library, set up here outside Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. (Photo via Manhattan Times)

Ramos can often be found on Saturdays at the Inwood farmers’ market. He, and his library, will be at Inwood Hill Park on August 8 at 6:30 p.m.

The event will mark the arrival of 200 indigenous rowers and friends at the park after a 13-day journey paddling along the Hudson River from Albany to bring light to the 400-year-old Two Row Wampum Treaty between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nations and Dutch settlers. The treaty was not honored, said Ramos, because of the environmental degradation that has followed the colonization of Manhattan by the Europeans. The Treaty was first forged at the site of Shorakapok Rock in Inwood Hill Park. The rowers’ arrival will be celebrated with a poetry and spoken word event.

To contribute to Ramos’s Indiegogo campaign, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/mobile-indigenous-library-and-cultural-center-in-nyc.

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