METUCHEN – The love of the Spanish language, a good book and camaraderie brings members of the Spanish Book Club together every first Wednesday at the Metuchen Public Library.
In its fifth year, Perla Rotemberg, who leads the book club, said they are one of a few Spanish book clubs in New Jersey sponsored by a public library. She said prior to starting the club in Metuchen, she was part of a club at the Princeton Public Library, which ceased to sponsor the club.
“We are forever grateful to the Metuchen Public Library for accommodating the group with books on a monthly basis as well as movies in Spanish,” she said. “I believe our group has been successful because of the structure. We rotate on a monthly basis a person responsible for the biography of the author and another member to give us a detail of the characters. Each member is free to submit questions one week ahead of the meeting, so we can have a robust discussion. Only Spanish is allowed and we focus only on the discussion of the book and no personal conversation is permitted.”
The club has 32 members with 15 active participants.
The last meeting of the year is set for Dec. 4 where members can enjoy a film, discussion and food.
“Our readers are from all over Latin America, Spain and the Caribbean, as well as English speakers who are fluent in Spanish,” Rotemberg said. “Due to the diversity of the group, all members are reminded to speak slowly and clearly in order to be understood by all.”
Rotemberg said when she moved to Metuchen in 2000, the Metuchen Public Library did not have a Spanish collection. She said now with the support of Library Director Hsi Hsi Chung, there is a diverse Spanish collection of books and films the club can choose from.
“Metuchen Public Library is very pleased with the proposal years ago and delighted to see the group continues to grow and move on to its fifth year,” Chung said. “We are happy that we can continue offering the sponsorship to the group and working out with the group in getting the reading materials either through [an] interlibrary loan or purchase additional copies needed for the group.”
Chung said they are pleased to see the interest growing with the people fluent with Spanish participating in the Spanish book discussion group to promote reading in Spanish.
“We would like to increase the visibility and usage of the Spanish language collection and have more people check out our special language collection,” she said. “Special thanks to the great leadership of the group, Perla Van Chama, and its members, as well as the library staff to make the Spanish Book Club run successfully.”
Rotemberg was born in Acapulco, Mexico and considers her origins from Guatemala where she spent most of her time visiting her mother’s family. She moved to the U.S. with her father, who was from Argentina, when she was 10 years old after her mother’s death.
“I use my maiden name, Perla Rotemberg, in memory of my grandparents who immigrated from Eastern Europe to Argentina,” she said. “My married name is Perla Van Chama. My husband was born in Egypt of Lebanese descent and we speak French at home.”
Rotemberg said it has been a constant struggle to maintain her native language living in the U.S. for the past 50 years, but she made a commitment in memory of her parents to do so.
“Therefore, I have only spoken to our daughter, Carmen, in Spanish, and now that she is 31, thanks me for her language abilities,” she said.
Elena Hung-Shum, of Edison, was born in Venezuela and has lived in the U.S. for 33 years. She said her parents are Chinese and is fluent in Spanish.
“I joined the club this year to keep up with my Spanish,” she said.
Maria, who has a been a member of the club for about three years, was born in Colombia and has lived in the U.S. since 1969. She previously lived in Edison and currently lives in Somerset.
“This group gives us the opportunity to practice our mother language and to learn more about the literature, the different expressions, slangs and the vocabulary used in other Latin countries and how the poets and writers affected their culture,” she said.
Lorraine Perkins, who has been with the club since its inception, grew up in Bronx, New York and first studied Spanish in the sixth grade. She said she is part of a Spanish book club in New York, but with a club close to home, it is convenient.
“I was an exchange student in Spain during my sophomore year in high school,” she said. “I have lived in Metuchen for over 30 years. I like the cohesiveness and reliability of the group and the group members. I love to read and reading in Spanish forces me to focus more what is being said by the author.”
Cindy L. Salsbury, who has been a member of the club for one year, was born in Norfolk, Va. She has lived in Edison since 1992.
“I have loved the Spanish language from the time I began my studies of Spanish during my high school years,” she said. “I continued to study Spanish during my college years, and it seemed to come easier for me. I am sure I have been blessed with the gift of having an affinity for language, Spanish in particular. I also studied anthropology and archeology, and
lived in Mexico during my senior year in college. Thus my love for Spanish was also nurtured by my interest in Latin American culture.”
During her senior year of college, she lived with the Indigenous “Trique” culture in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.
“I was also fortunate to have been able to use my fluency in Spanish for helping others during my law practice in Texas from 1984 through 1992, and thereafter while practicing law in New Jersey,” she said.
Salsbury said she had met someone in my Yoga class, who is from Chile, and she invited me to join the group.
“I love speaking Spanish and attending the meetings helps me to retain my fluency,” she said. “Before that, my Spanish was becoming a bit ‘rusty’. I also am fascinated with reading books in Spanish.”
Salsbury said what she loves most about the Metuchen Spanish Book Club is being able to discuss the books and ideas with others from various Spanish-speaking cultures; the tremendous assistance from the Metuchen Public Library in obtaining access to the books; and being able to renew the books by phone, instead of having to go there in person.
“I also enjoy the opportunity to learn about other Spanish-speaking countries, and their various cultures,” she said.
Doug Groff, who has been a member of the club for about three years, was born in Pennsylvania and has lived in Edison for about 45 years.
“I first was exposed to Spanish during my Peace Corps service in Ecuador during the 1960s,” he said. “Since then I have practiced it with my Ecuadorian wife and on business trips to Latin America.”
Groff said he has found the club as a great source for friendship and practice of the Spanish language.
Teresa Tobin, who has been with the club since its inception, was born in Yonkers, New York. She currently lives in Metuchen.
“I have a [bachelor’s] degree in Spanish literature, so I enjoy reading books by writers from across the Spanish speaking world,” she said. “There is a variety of voices amongst the group which makes for interesting and lively discussions.”
Daniela Pesce, who has been a member of the club for two years, was born in Chile. She has lived in the U.S. for 12 years and currently lives in Edison.
Pesce said the club marries her two favorite things – Spanish and books.
“The book club is very well organized and directed, the group of people is varied and interesting,” she said. “I’ve made some wonderful friends and have learned a lot from [other] people’s views and opinions.”
Rosa Festa, who has been a member since its inception, was born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. She has lived in the U.S. since 1993 and currently lives in Metuchen.
She said the book club has a lot of camaraderie and gives members the opportunity to practice Spanish with people of different backgrounds and culture.
“I feel I can express my Latinx without being judged or scrutinized,” she said. “[The club] is a great way to keep my language skills sharp.”
Elaine Edgcomb of Metuchen said the club helped her revive her Spanish she learned while working in Mexico and the Caribbean in the 1970s and 1980s. She said she enjoys the challenging literary selections.
Edna Zalenski of Edison grew up in Honduras. A teacher by trade, she said she loves the richness of the Spanish language and enjoys sharing knowledge and listening to different opinions from members of the club, who are all from different countries.
Victor Cabala of Edison said the club allows him to refresh his Spanish and meet people with similar interests.
Lynda Mejias of Metuchen said her late husband was Dominican. She said after he passed, she didn’t have the opportunity to speak Spanish until joining the club. She added the club also introduces her to literature from other countries.
Yolanda Asturias of Metuchen who has been a member of the club since its inception, grew up in Spain. She said she enjoys reading and the discussions.