How a Bookstore Is Connecting a Community in Crisis

Chawa Magaña, the founder and co-owner of Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, is responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
Chawa Magaña, the founder and co-owner of Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, is responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Jeff Kronenfeld
The coronavirus has forced people around the world to practice social distancing, but a group of volunteers in the Valley refuse to let that distance divide them. One of these is Chawa Magaña, the founder and co-owner of Palabras Bilingual Bookstore.

Magaña saw how volunteers in Seattle rallied together in response to the city’s large outbreak of COVID-19. If it worked for the Emerald City, Magaña thought it could work in Phoenix, too. She set up a public group on Facebook called COVID-19 Mutual Aid Phoenix Metro.

“I wanted to create a place where people could connect to provide resources for each other during this difficult time,” Magaña explains by email.

As is often the case, Magaña wasn’t the only Valley resident to have this idea. Parris Wallace, director of operations for the Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, quickly reached out to Magaña. Wallace and two other volunteers had established a similar page on Facebook. They decided to combine efforts and — in a ritual becoming familiar to all of us — hashed out plans via a Zoom meeting. This combined effort adopted the name COVID-19 Mutual Aid Group Phoenix Metro Area.

The group is all-volunteer and prioritizes help for those who are sick, disabled, elderly, undocumented, queer, black, indigenous, people of color, and quarantined without pay. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found the 2009 H1N1 pandemic more severely affected African-Americans and Hispanics, exacerbating existing inequalities. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, these populations are less likely to have health insurance. The CDC considers those who are immuno-compromised or 65 and older most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

The volunteers developed and are regularly updating a COVID-19 resource sheet. It includes information on how to access resources for food, utilities, medical services, mental health, financial assistance, and jobs,along with request forms for community members in need, and for volunteers and donors to register. The page includes a document explaining how to safely deliver donations as well.

“Our goal is to connect people with resources that already exist and also to help the community help each other,” says Magaña.

Over 4,100 members joined the group in less than two weeks. The moderators regularly curate and classify the page’s posts to make it as accessible as possible, including for the non-tech-savvy, and recently launched a website.

They have also added two new drop-off locations: Athoria Games in the east Valley and Azukar Coffee in south Phoenix. Palabras is still accepting drop-offs in central Phoenix as well, though Magaña stressed that Palabras is just one part of a much wider community effort. In addition to these many material efforts, the mutual aid group also serves as a forum for questions, advice, and even emotional support during this time when so many are physically isolated.

click to enlarge A set of posters and signs greeting those who enter Palabras Bilingual Bookstore. - JEFF KRONENFELD
A set of posters and signs greeting those who enter Palabras Bilingual Bookstore.
Jeff Kronenfeld
Magaña is also working to keep Palabras alive. Since its establishment in late 2016, the store has provided a venue for underrepresented voices, including hosting monthly events like POC It To Me, the Mujerx Book Club, and a Queer Poetry Salon.

The store is offering free shipping on all orders, with Magaña delivering many of the local ones herself. She is regularly updating what is in stock and sharing reading lists and playlists as another way for the community to feel connected as well.

“I hope that during this time, we can all find ways to be in solidarity with each other,” Magaña writes. “Whether it’s supporting a small local shop or picking up some groceries for a neighbor in need while maintaining a healthy distance and washing and sanitizing our hands. In whatever capacity we can, we need to be there for one another, now more than ever.”
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