Palabras Bookstore: Promoting Cultural Representation and Diversity

With only five books on a shelf in an empty storefront and a heart full of literary and community empowerment dreams, Chawa Magaña launched Palabras, a bilingual bookstore and community events space in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2015.

“What I love most about Phoenix is the diversity that we have here and the strong sense of community, specifically in the downtown and south central part of Phoenix,” said Magaña, owner and founder of Palabras.

A snapshot of the bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

Magaña, a first-generation Mexican American born and raised in Arizona, was inspired to open a Latinx-woman owned bilingual bookstore because she was in part inspired by a traveling art installation, Librería Donceles. The installation was a Spanish language bookstore that made a powerful statement by making stops in towns with large Spanish-speaking populations, explained Magaña. “The statement was that these places should have access to books in the Spanish language.”

Magaña first visited the art installation while it was in Phoenix for a short time. The brief visit left a lasting impact on her. She was incredibly moved by the experience of seeing so many books in Spanish and also experiencing an inspiring poetry reading in Spanish, that she decided to do something to continue on with that mission.

“I agreed with the artist, Pablo Helguera [that] we should have better access to books in the Spanish language. I also thought we should have better access to more diverse books.”

Chawa and editors of Red Ink Journal of Indegenous Art and Literature. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

Growing up as a first-generation Mexican-American, Magaña saw how little was offered in the way of culturally representative literature and did not see herself represented culturally in the stories she was assigned to read in school, which was problematic.

“The literary canon lacks diversity and cultural representation… Not until college do we have the chance to delve into other cultures, and those classes are electives, not core curriculum classes.”

Magaña’s idea for a community bookstore continued to brew. She knew she wanted to create a space that was created by and for communities of color.

 “There are times that we can question the validity of what we are sharing based on our experiences of not having our culture or experiences acknowledged as valid by the mainstream media or even by our education in the public-school system. Or we can feel tokenized for the sake of an appearing diverse. At Palabras, you know you are valued and appreciated.”

After experiencing the art installation, Magaña became passionate about creating a space for bilingual books to thrive. She wanted create a visual, literary, and artistic platform where POC could see their stories come to life in a bookstore, and beyond the bookstore.

It was Magaña’s dream to create an inclusive community space with access to books in both English and Spanish to meet the needs of the diverse community. But beyond the storefront Palabras bookstore, there’s something beautiful happening, with community workshops, author talks, and open mic events to encourage diversity and cultural awareness.

The logo of the store. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

There are a variety of events at Palabras such as “POC it to Me,” which is a monthly open mic night featuring local POC artists including poets, musicians, storytellers and comedians. Other events include regular Sunday “Mindfulness Meditation sessions with Lavina Singh,” and a “Sexual Health Loteria” to spread awareness about reproductive and sexual health.

“‘POC it To Me is’ probably my favorite event because each one is so different and the feeling of love and support from the audience and vice versa is always so strong,” said Magaña, who says it’s always wonderful to see community members’ ideas come to life through workshops and events.

Although initially an event space, Magaña built the concept of the bookstore and word soon spread about what they were doing. The feedback was incredible, with people donating books and asking how to help, she said.

Shelves at Palabras Bookstore. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

“People started donating books in both English and Spanish and asking to use the space for events.” Magaña was elated and overwhelmed by the immense support from people in the community. It’s what kept her going throughout the years.

Today, the mission of Palabras is to provide a safe space and promote cultural representation and diversity through literature, language, and the arts.

“We do that through the books we carry and the events and workshops that we host.”

“Finding book donations at the front door of the bookstore when I was just starting out was really touching,” she added. She was also encouraged by the many people who came to visit the bookstore in its early stages, as well as those who volunteered their time and talents to help set everything up and keep the store running.

While most bookstores might have maybe a shelf of books in the Spanish language, Magaña says Palabras has much more than that. She acknowledges the difficulty of navigating and finding books that are bilingual, because most books are not typically in the format, because of how complicated they are to make, she says. She adds that most bookstores only carry a small shelf of books in the Spanish language, and that it is important to increase access to a variety of books in different languages.

“Kids books are much easier to find in bilingual format because the stories are short. Also poetry books because poems are usually short.” Palabras, does, however, feature books by a local bilingual publisher, Cardboard House Press. She explained that they take unpublished work from Latin American authors and translate the work into English to create bilingual poetry books.

According to Open Education Database, there are approximately 10,080 bookstores in the U.S and “independent bookstores may be making a comeback.”

Most recently, Palabras launched an Indiegogo campaign to expand community outreach and continue its mission to empower the community through artistic and literary expression access.

Palabras has become more than a bookstore, but also a safe space for POC. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

In the future, Magaña hopes to expand Palabras into other locations and help provide access to diverse books to other areas in the valley and beyond. She believes it’s important to dispel myths of false narratives and to help others see themselves represented in the stories they read.

“That is why a space like Palabras is so crucial to enriching the lives of the community, by creating a platform where underrepresented communities can feel comfortable to share their stories, speak their truth and know that they are valued,” Magaña wrote on her Indiegogo campaign page.  

She hopes Palabras will continue to be a powerful platform where people can create what they want to see in their community and uplift the voices of those whose stories go unheard.

-Written by Monica Luhar, for Mornings with Moni

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