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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.
You know what Paquita la del Barrio is to your grandmother or perhaps what Jenni Rivera was to your tía? Well, that’s what Victoria La Mala is for our generation: a singer whose inner power is the only thing more forceful than the strong vocal pipes she uses to remind you that you are that bitch.
Born Victoria Ortiz in Mexico City, the singer-songwriter jumped into the music scene in 2015, bringing a refreshing sound and style to regional Mexican music with all the same girl power of her barrier-breaking female predecessors. Describing herself as the musical offspring of Tupac and Selena, the now Los Angeles-based singer places her soulful vox over traditional banda and ranchera rhythms to deliver treats for your ears and soul. Her songs, like last year’s chart-making “Merezco Mucho Más,” call out male fuckery and empower girls to know their strength, worth and beauty and leave toxic romances behind.
On the block, Victoria, who’s also the first Mexican artist to be signed to Roc Nation Latin, continues to be inspirational. On Monday, the 30-year-old launched her fifth annual #TeamMalaPromGiveaway, a campaign providing low-income teenage girls in Los Angeles with dresses, accessories and makeup and hair tutorials. This year, she will help 50 girls, who must submit their applications before March 29, become the prom princesses she knows they already are.
We chatted with Victoria all about the giveaway, making banda bops for millennials, her anticipated new, and sonically different, music, as well as why she wants to empower women and girls in everything she does, among so much more.
FIERCE: You were born and raised in Mexico but also spent much of your time growing up taking extended trips with relatives in Los Angeles. What genres of music were you listening to here and there, and how do you think this has influenced your pop-urbano-banda style today?
Victoria La Mala: I used to listen to a lot of regional Mexican music in Mexico because of my parents. They love banda and mariachi. I spent a lot of summers in LA, and I had some aunts who listened to hip-hop, ‘90s R&B, and I loved soul. I think all of those styles of music influenced me, and I think you can hear them in me.
FIERCE: Absolutely. While you sing mostly regional Mexican genres, you have a very soulful voice. Talking about your voice, it’s very strong and powerful. No one can deny your vocal talent. When did you realize you could sing and that music was something you wanted to pursue?
Victoria La Mala: I literally cannot remember a time in my life without singing. When I look back on my childhood, I was that one little girl always singing. I loved music. I sang in class and school. But when I was 15, I started getting a little more confidence in myself. I’d be out at parties and people would say, “sing for us.” That’s when I realized this is something I love and have a big passion for. I started singing in a couple bands. I sang at family functions and school functions. So I think when I was around 15 is the time I was like, I love this and I think this is what I want to do.
FIERCE: Why banda? This isn’t exactly a genre that’s expected from young millennial women?
Victoria La Mala: For me, it was always important to represent my culture and tell my story as a woman. Some of the first memories I had listening to live music was banda. My first album in 2013 was full banda. It was just important for me to represent. My dad had passed away a few years before then, and he loved banda. When I moved to the States from Mexico, I wanted to represent from the beginning, and from there I started evolving as an artist as well. I tried different regional sounds and more fusions, because it’s all a part of my story and who I am. I was exposed to more types of music. Being a girl raised in Mexico City, I listened to everything in the streets, Spanish rock, cumbia, so I think it’s important to represent my culture and my story.
FIERCE: I love that and definitely see that. While artists like Paquita la del Barrio and Jenni Rivera made waves for women in traditional Mexican music, these genres continue to be male-dominated. Honestly, most Latin genres do. How has your experience been trying to navigate this industry as a woman, and as one who is very vocal about her opinions on men and proud of her identity.
Victoria La Mala: You know, they always say, “Victoria hates men.” But I don’t, just a couple that have been bad, but some are great. But it’s definitely difficult being a woman, not just in music, in a world that has been male-dominated. The roles of women have slowly been changing: women started working, started going to school and now they’re doing basically anything that we want. But because it hasn’t been many years to do these things, it’s still a struggle. And in music, it’s reflected. Music, I think, reflects what’s happening in society. Now girls are starting to take power in music. Girls want to listen to other girls. They want to feel identified and want our stories told. It’s definitely still difficult. It’s definitely still a struggle, especially on the industry side. There’s this idea that girls dont like girls, girls don’t like to listen to girls. This is also an idea that has been changing, though. I grew up listening to women I love, playing my CDs and singing along to them. I think women nowadays are the same: we want to hear our stories.
FIERCE: I think you’re right. Not only are many of the rising acts in Latin music women, but they are sharing their stories through their music.
Victoria La Mala: Right, exactly. Thank you.
FIERCE: Making a space for yourself where others might be uncomfortable, though, isn’t something you seem to ever shy away from. Another example: you’re the first Mexican artist signed to Roc Nation. How has this been for you?
Victoria La Mala: It has been an amazing experience. I’ve been able to learn so much from people in the industry who have been doing this for years. I’ve met legends, people I looked up to as a little girl, people I still look up to.
FIERCE: Like who?
Victoria La Mala: Like Beyoncé and Rihanna. I got to sing with Paquita la del Barrio. Olga Tañón invited me to sing with her at Premio Lo Nuestro. It’s been an incredible couple of years, learning and growing so much. It’s been really amazing for me. This is part of what I always wanted to do: represent my culture and what I come from as Latinos and Mexicans in a more general-market kind of way. People never really listen to Mexican music, so for them to say, “let me see this Mexican artist signed to Roc Nation,” that’s an amazing experience. As you mentioned before, part of me always feels like I have to fight for what I want. I grew up seeing that. I grew up around strong women that will make a way.
FIERCE: And that’s clear in your music. As I stated earlier, your songs are very bold and empowering. They often validate women’s experiences in relationships and remind them of their own strength, beauty and power. Why?
Victoria La Mala: It’s so important for me because I think music literally is the soundtrack to our lives. We have songs we play when we are feeling so sad and want to cry. We have songs we want to play that cause us to feel strong, like you could do whatever you want to do. I grew up listening to strong women that made me feel powerful, and it’s important for me to give that back to other girls. Sometimes, I play my own songs when I’m going through it, like, “yes, girl!”
FIERCE: Haha! I love that. I can honestly say that “Si Va A Doler Que Duela” was one of the songs that helped get me through my last breakup, so I completely get it.
Victoria La Mala: Thank you. I really appreciate that.
FIERCE: You’re also inspiring outside of your music, though. I know you have a prom dress giveaway each year, where you provide dresses, makeup and accessories to underserved teens so they can attend prom and feel like a princess for an evening. Talk to me about this. Why do this?
Victoria La Mala: To me, this is one of my favorite times of the year. I love being able to connect with young girls. When I was in high school, my dad wasn’t there anymore, and my mom, by herself, had to make sacrifices for my siblings and myself. For my high school graduation, I had to figure out dresses, which was so expensive, and I thought, maybe I should come up with a giveaway for girls doing their prom and can’t afford it. There are so many circumstances as to why they might need help. I started this five years ago. I had people, whoever I knew, give me dresses. I said, “anyone who wants to donate, I will give you a CD.” That’s all I had. People donated dresses, and I think we dressed 10 girls that year. I did it all on my own. I had no clue what I was doing, but it was an amazing experience to see girls have the dress they wanted. I knew I needed to do it again. Here we are now in our fifth year. Last year, we dressed more than 60 girls. This year, I’m hoping that doubles. Now we also have sponsors.
FIERCE: What do you think is your overall goal with this giveaway?
Victoria La Mala: My goal is for girls to enjoy their prom. I want them to feel like all their efforts were worth this moment, that all their hard work does pay off. I just want them to be happy that day. I’m also really hoping every year we can double the amount of dresses we give. I also hope that we can take it out of LA. This is my home and community, so this is where I’ve been doing it, but I hope to take it to other cities and one day everywhere.
FIERCE: Love that! I want to get back into music. You haven’t released a new song in a little while, and there’s a lot of anticipation around Victoria La Mala and demand for new music. What do you have in store for this year that you can tell us about?
Victoria La Mala: Well, last year, I put out only two songs. One did amazing and was on the charts, “Merezco Mucho Más,” and the other I put out during the end of the summer, “Corazón valiente,” which was for immigrants. But after that, I had a couple changes within my team. I took time for me to get in the studio, work on music, write my stuff, get involved in everything, from production and sound to writing new songs. We are almost there. It’s just been a process. I’ve just been waiting and writing and making sure everything sounds and is how I creatively see it. Again, we’re almost there. I think it’s going to be something new and different from what I put out in the past and reflects who I am, a mix of Mexican culture and me living in New York, LA, Mexico City, more of the urban side. So it’ll be something new and something I’ve been wanting to work on for a while, so I’m excited.
FIERCE: You’re 30 years old, at the earlier stages of your career, what do you hope people can say about Victoria La Mala in 10 to 15 years?
I hope people can say that I’ve helped them feel empowered, that my music has been a big part of their life. I dont think a lot about this. I think about things I want to accomplish more than things people say about me. I hope my music can empower them and be a part of their life and touch them the way other artists have inspired me.
Another day, another Latina’s shopping experience ending in Donald Trump-inspired xenophobia.
On Friday, while Dulce Nereyda, her daughter and mother were looking for baby shower gifts at an Arizona Walmart, they were interrupted by a bearded white man who didn’t like that she and her mom were speaking to each other in Spanish.
“This ⬇️ man starts yelling, ‘I can’t wait until Trump does away with you all!’ I was like, ‘Excuse me.’ He yelled ‘Leave, just leave. YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!’ All because I was speaking Spanish to my mom,” she wrote of the unnamed man.
Dulce was stunned by the sudden display of racism and was unsure what to do. After seeing her daughter’s face, she felt like she couldn’t remain quiet, pulling out her phone to record the man harassing her and reminding him that she, too, belonged in the country.
“So do you want to tell me to get out again? Because this is my country, too,” she said as the camera faced the man.
While the man initially ignored her, it didn’t take long for him to continue with his bigoted, pro-Trump rant, saying, “I wish you guys would leave, and I can’t wait till we build the wall.”
Making no indication that she had any intentions on leaving her country, Dulce once more asserted that she is American and that English is not the official language of the United States.
She says she posted the encounter on Facebook to both expose the man for the “racist he is” and also send an important message to her daughter.
“I assured my little queen that this is her home and we do belong,” she said.