It’s been 10 years since Mary Hope Whitehead Lee moved to Phoenix, inspired by fellow activists protesting Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 legislation. “There wasn’t a Spanish bookstore in Phoenix,” she recalls. “That was really disappointing.”
Today, Whitehead Lee is one of several supporters trying to save Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, a community space located in the Miracle Mile section of McDowell Road. Like myriad small businesses, it’s been temporarily shuttered since mid-March due to COVID-19 public health concerns.
Supporters are working to raise $10,000 to help owner Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña cover operating expenses like rent, utilities, and inventory — knowing that’s what it will take for the bookstore to survive the summer. They launched a GoFundMe campaign on May 12, and donations currently top $6,500.
“I’m trying to keep Palabras alive,” says Whitehead Lee. “I can’t imagine Phoenix without it.”
The 1,200-square-foot shop carries thousands of titles primarily written in Spanish or English, as well as zines, artisan wares, clothing, and works by local artists. “The most popular books are social justice, poetry, and bilingual children’s books,” says Magaña. “Since the focus of the store is cultural representation, I put a major focus on that.”
Magaña launched Palabras as an event space in 2015. At the time, it was located inside La Melgosa, a pastel-painted building on Grand Avenue where Magaña’s life partner, Jeff Slim, has an artist studio.
By 2016, she’d amassed enough books to transform the space into a bookstore she called Palabras Liberia/Bookstore. ("Palabras" translates as "words" in English, by way.) She relocated to 1738 East McDowell in 2017, changing the shop’s name to Palabras Bilingual Bookstore.
That’s when Claudia Belen discovered the creative space, where her first purchase was a Spanish-language cookbook. Belen grew up in Glendale, where her voracious appetite for reading coupled with no neighborhood bookstores meant frequent trips to the local library. “It was pretty revolutionary for me,” she recalls of finding Palabras. “I didn’t think such a thing existed in Phoenix.”
Today, Belen volunteers for Palabras, helping with social media and marketing so Magaña has more time to fill online orders, do one-on-one shopping appointments, and organize virtual events. Most recently, Palabras held a virtual version of its open mic night for people of color, with a lineup shared via Zoom that ranged from poetry to hip-hop.
Before the pandemic, Palabras hosted a steady stream of in-person events organized around a central theme of inclusion — including writer workshops, book releases, community organizing meetings, author conversations, and art exhibitions.
Phoenix poet Imogen Arate says the events help to center marginalized communities — including indigenous people, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ community members.
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“Creating a safe space is important to me personally because I have been in many spaces where I did not feel safe to share and I did not feel valued and respected,” says Magaña. “Creating a space where the community can express themselves openly and honestly provides opportunities for healing and growth.”
The approach inspired 22 people to sign a letter nominating Magaña for the Arizona Humanities 2020 Rising Star Award, which she’ll receive during a ceremony later this year if public health conditions allow. Miriam Antonieta Carpenter-Cosand, another supporter who’s working to help Palabras survive the challenges posed by COVID-19, also wrote a nomination letter.
Carpenter-Cosand discovered Palabras about three years ago, after a friend invited her to a bilingual workshop. She’s been a regular ever since, participating in bookmaking workshops, women’s writing groups, and open mic performances. “It’s the only space where I feel confident to be myself and express my identity,” says Carpenter-Cosand. “It’s really important that we keep this space open for everyone.”