At This Bilingual Bookstore, Phoenix’s Old And Young Latinx Communities Can Read And Build Together

credit: Facebook / Palabras Bilingual Bookstore

Palabras isn’t your ordinary bookstore. The first and only bilingual bookshop in Phoenix, Arizona, its shelves are stocked with a refreshingly wide collection of publications in English, Spanish and even some titles that mix both languages that are written by Latinxs and center our culture and experiences.

Owner Rosaura “Rosie” Magaña opened up the shop, currently located at 1738 East McDowell Road, in 2015, after attending Donceles, a traveling Spanish-language used bookstore and art installation that advocates for equity. It journeyed throughout U.S cities with large Spanish-speaking populations, and when it made its way to Phoenix, where there wasn’t a bookstore catering to bicultural and bilingual Latinxs, the concept resonated with her.

“I felt like that should change,” Rosaura told FIERCE. “I wanted to create a place that brought the community together and provided a space where marginalized communities could be valued, respected and have their stories heard.”

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Palabras Bilingual Bookstore)

As a first-generation Mexican-American, Rosaura witnessed firsthand how not having these spaces can present challenges for Latinxs, particularly her Spanish-speaking immigrant mother.

“She never really felt a sense of belonging and always jumped at the chance to make friends with moms at grocery stores and department stores. Hearing her native language spoken when she was out and about always gave her a certain comfort,” she recalls. “A place where her culture and other cultures are valued would have been a real blessing to her.”

For Rosaura, the bilingual scene also presents the opportunity for English-dominant patrons who might have forgotten much of their Spanish, or were never taught the language, to strengthen their proficiency through reading. It could similarly help recent Latin American immigrants who hope to better their English. Both allow for more conversation between older and newer generations that may have been unable to connect with one another because of linguistic barriers.

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Palabras Bilingual Bookstore)

“I liked the concept of having access to Spanish-language books, but from my own experience of losing some of my own Spanish language proficiency, I knew it was important to also have books in the English language as well,” she added.

Accessibility is certainly important to Rosaura. As a first-time customer, one might be surprised and then equally delighted to discover the free book section at Palabras. This part of the shop originally acted as a library, where customers could check out literature free of charge. But when she noticed that the books weren’t being returned, Rosaura decided to simply give them away.

Many of the thousands of titles that sit on her shelves, she says, were gifted to her, so it felt right to pass them along to someone else. This pay-it-forward practice does something truly great: it increases accessibility to literature for those in the community who may not necessarily be able to purchase a full-priced book, ensuring that the shortage of funds doesn’t mean a lack of education.

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Palabras Bilingual Bookstore)

For those who know Rosaura, her compassion for community and progress isn’t surprising. That’s because she always makes it a point to uplift Latinx voices, even beyond literature. In May, for instance, Palabras hosted an open-mic night called POC it to Me that focused on showcasing the creativity of people of color. The event was packed with attendees, the majority of them Latinx. For one Cuban-American woman, it was her first time ever reading her poetry aloud, and she felt both welcomed and seen.

To Rosaura, the impact Palabras has on the community means a lot.

“I know what it feels like to have your culture relegated to a few paragraphs in a history book. I know what it is like to read one narrative, one perspective and not identify with it. I understand the subtle and obvious ways in which that affects one’s sense of self-worth and self-respect. A space like Palabras is one small step to changing all of that,” she told us.

Of course, maintaining Palabras comes with challenges, especially as bookstore chains continue to close as readers increasingly order their paperbacks online. To keep her small business afloat, Rosaura works a full-time job, but she still largely depends on community support. Since opening her doors, Rosaura has seen visitors taking photos of items in the store and saying, “I’m getting that from Amazon.”

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Palabras Bilingual Bookstore)

“It crushes me that I work to curate this collection and that process, and the concept of the space is not valued,” Rosaura says, warning that “if the space is not supported, I won’t be able to keep it open.”

Despite the hurdles, Rosaura remains hopeful, trusting that as more people become acquainted with Palabras, more members of the community will support the business and its mission.

Read: Meet Angela Maria Spring, The Latina Creating Space For Book Lovers Of Color In Washington, DC

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