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As the child of immigrant parents, Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña watched her folks struggle with language barriers and discrimination. “I think the injustices against communities of color were part of what ultimately brought me to create Palabras Bilingual Bookstore,” she says.
Magaña was inspired by Librería Donceles, a traveling art installation that does double duty as a Spanish-language bookseller. “I knew I wanted to create a bookstore and community space,” Magaña says. “At Librería Donceles, I saw poets read in Spanish, looked through books I had never seen before about different aspects of Latinx culture, and watched a musical performance in Spanish.”
She began imagining a similar space in Phoenix, one that embraced the culture and voices of people of color and could foster community connection and growth. A first-generation Mexican-American, Magaña understood that Latinx stories were rarely represented in the standard literary canon. “I thought it would be amazing to walk into a bookstore and see an intentionally diverse selection of books,” she explains. “It would have made all the difference in the world to me as a kid to experience that.”
Not everyone she knew thought it was a good idea. Most pointed out that the independent bookstore was part of a dying industry. “I didn’t let it discourage me,” Magaña says. When a friend mentioned an empty storefront on Grand Avenue, she jumped. “I started with just five books and big hopes,” she recalls of Palabras’ opening in 2015. Eventually, Palabras outgrew its space and moved to roomier digs in McDowell Road’s Miracle Mile district.
Palabras’s art gallery features mostly local artists, and Magaña hosts a monthly POC-specific open mic event and a monthly women’s book club there. She also offers space to workshops that include a queer writing group hosted by Trans Queer Pueblo; a book club focused on Puerto Rican authors; and a book-binding workshop with Cardboard House Press.
Palabras hosts readings, but Magaña believes in more than just selling books. “The most important thing is to foster a space that is community-driven,” she insists.
Magaña has maintained a second, full-time day job while running Palabras. “It has been difficult,” she admits, “but luckily, I have an amazing life partner, a talented artist named Jeff Slim, who has been there since the beginning.”
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That beginning stretches back to her own childhood. “My mother made friends with strangers, especially if they spoke Spanish,” she remembers. “She was always willing to help those in need, even though she didn’t have much herself. I like to think that spirit exists at Palabras. Actually, I know it does.”
Five Latinx Books Everyone Should ReadBy Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña
Honestly, it’s not possible to pick five books, because I could never dictate to anyone what they should be reading. But here are some that made an impact on me, and that I feel are worth reading.
1. The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
2. The Carrying by Ada Limón
3. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
4. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa
5. Sirena Selena by Myra Santos Febres