Book by Book

Bilingual librarian encourages community

Story and photos by Drew Myron

Yelitza Vargas-Boots – a bilingual outreach librarian for Hood River County Library District – serves on the board of the State Library of Oregon.

A local librarian who climbed out of childhood poverty and worked her way to professional success has been chosen to serve on the board of the State Library of Oregon.

Yelitza Vargas-Boots—bilingual outreach librarian for Hood River County Library District—was recently appointed by Governor Kate Brown to serve a 3-year term.

Comprised of 9 members from throughout Oregon, the board is responsible for the statewide library mission, vision and policy.

The appointment is both a personal honor and professional affirmation, says Yelitza—or Yeli, for short.

“I have found my voice and passion working for libraries,” she says. “Libraries can be such a powerful place. Our job is just to purely give. No hidden agendas.”

The child of immigrant parents, Yeli, 35, grew up among strong women who worked hard.

“My mother and grandmothers are immigrants to this country, and I was raised by single mothers,” she says. “We only spoke Spanish at home and learned English at school. We come from low-income housing, hoods, ghettos. I am a self-educated, motivated woman of color. I am grateful for all of my experiences, good and bad. I used every moment in my life to learn. We make mistakes in life, but what I learned from the women who raised me was that we keep going and keep fighting.”

A student chooses a free book provided by Hood River County Library’s bilingual outreach program.

Yeli was born in the United States and spent her childhood in California. Raised by her Mexican grandmothers who did not read or write English, Yeli became the family translator for every need, from doctor appointments to school visits and everyday errands.

“It’s a big responsibility at a young age,” says Yeli, who made the honor roll throughout high school but did not have the financial means to attend college.

At 18, she moved to Portland, fell in love and married Brandon Boots, who lived in the Columbia Gorge. The couple live in Cascade Locks and have two children.

Yeli has worked at Hood River Library for 10 years, starting as a children’s service assistant. She now serves as bilingual outreach librarian with a focus on Spanish speakers.

Latinos make up 31% of Hood River County’s population, with a large concentration in Odell, a small industrial community 8 miles south of Hood River.

The Hood River County Library District has 3 locations: the main library in downtown Hood River and smaller sites in Parkdale (at the Parkdale Community Center) and Cascade Locks (at Cascade Locks Elementary School).

While the role of a librarian typically requires an advanced degree, Yeli proved her expertise through hands-on experience, says Rachael Fox, library director.

Yelitza Vargas-Boots helps a student choose a book at Mid Valley School in Odell.

“Yeli has gone above and beyond,” she says. “She’s amazing—a natural leader who is great at gathering people together. And she’s one of the most humble people I know. She’s a quiet leader.”

Though she loves books, Yeli spends most of her time outside the formal building. The world is her library: the park, the mobile home court, the school yard.

During the height of the pandemic, Yeli distributed thousands of books and craft supplies to students at their homes.

Even now, as students have returned to class, Yeli takes to the streets. Every Saturday, she loads her car with books and goes door to door in Odell, meeting youngsters and families who have limited transportation and limited library access.

“What works best is taking services to the community,” Yeli says.

In 2021, the Hood River Library District, with help from the community, raised more than $200,000 for a bookmobile that will travel the county. The vehicle has been ordered but is delayed due to production and supply chain issues.

Yeli partners with local schools, agencies and businesses so literary events are held in popular community spots. Books are often paired with coupons for free ice cream, burritos and other treats. For parents, Yeli offers food from the FISH Food Bank or fresh vegetables from Gorge Grown Food Network.

One by one, book by book, Yeli sees herself in nearly every child she meets.

Maria Jose bonds with Makaekla Flores over books and writing during a program offered through a library and school collaboration.

“I am a child of a migrant family,” she says. “I see myself in others in this community. I strongly believe in empowering community. Everyone is seen and heard and valued. It just takes that one adult to make an impact on a child. I had that one person, a teacher who told me I was smart and could be successful. Children are our future. They’re watching us.”

In her day-to-day work, Yeli is quietly working to make libraries safe and inviting for children, families, people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual), and those who struggle with mental illness and houselessness.

“We want everyone to feel welcome,” she says. “Working here has given me so much hope for humanity and has forever changed my life.

“I come from poverty. We were made to believe it’s shameful, but I say it’s beautiful. Culture is important. Little brown girls who come from the ghetto can make it, too.”