Notebook: Spanish Interlude, Part III

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Luis and Trini Rodriguez at the 18th Anniversary Celebration of the Tía Chucha Centro Cultural and Bookstore

[Continued from Part II, here]
Founder Luis J. Rodriguez told me in Madrid that without his bookstore, publisher, and cultural center, Tia Chucha in Los Angeles, its neighborhood of half a million souls, which holds housing projects and gangs and has nearly 50 percent unemployment, is 80 percent Mexican and Central American, would have no bookstore or cultural center. (I remembered Nicole Santos’s determination to open the only bookstore in the Bronx—population 1.4 million—and the evidence we found that “bookstore deserts” are a documented drag on communities’ well being and prospects.) The center’s events, which include mural projects, music, writing, spoken word, theater, Mexica (Aztec) dance, cosmology, language classes, and an annual arts and literacy festival—now in its fourteenth year—featuring the only free book giveaway for miles around (the event’s most popular feature), are never covered by the English-language press. Luis read his poem “Piece by Piece,” which includes the lines

In the squalor of their eyes
You are an outlaw.
Dressing you in a jacket of lies … 
Take it off!
Make your own mantle.

And he told the group tumbling out the doors at Desperate Literature that among his mother’s tribe, the Raramuri (also known as the Tarahumara) of Chihuahua, Mexico, the a greeting for hello and goodbye is a single phrase: “Kwira Va,” which means “we are one.”

For a country with more Spanish speakers than Spain, the US has a startling dearth of access to Spanish-language books. We’ve found a couple of bookshops that, like Tía Chucha, are also nonprofits or collectives serving as local centers of arts and education: Word Up Community Bookhop/Librería Comunitaria, in Washington Heights, began its life as a pop-up and was so beloved by its surrounding Dominican community that they fought to keep it going; the old-school Librairia Barco de Papel (“Paper Boat”) persists in Queens, read Javier M’s moving testimonial on Yelp. They go to intrepid lengths to obtain their books, getting many directly from supportive authors. Altamira in Miami, founded in 2016 by a couple from Venezuela with experience in retail, works directly with Latin American and Spanish publishers and occupies a gleaming modern space with an impressively wide selection. Some English-language independents, like McNally Jackson and Book Culture in New York and Books & Books in Miami, manage to stock Spanish-language books by writers their customers admire. You can support these efforts by ordering your Spanish-language books from them. The online retailer Mercado Libre, meanwhile, aims to supplant the competition in Seattle for the Latin American readership.

On my last day in Madrid I was able to squeeze in a trip to see Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofía Museum. The masterpiece, protesting the Nazi bombardment of the civilian town of Guernica on behalf of Spanish fascist forces, was, like the García Lorca family, stranded in America by civil war and Spain’s ensuing dictatorship. Picasso wrote into the terms of its sanctuary at the Museum of Modern Art that the painting remain in New York until democracy was restored to Spain; it was returned in 1981.

Travelling through Madrid it is impossible to not to see that it is a grand European city on an imperial scale—like all imperial cities, grown splendid on the abundance of its colonies. We English and Spanish speakers in the Americas are inheritors of this legacy—linguistic, cultural, material. Our fate is uniquely entwined with these soaring boulevards and shady gardens and breathtaking museums and palaces. It was nourishing—more than nourishing—to spend a week surrounded by passionate readers in Spanish and English, thinking about the written word as it has been refracted through these two familial languages and the remarkable people who have cultivated them. But gazing at Guernica, and in particular the anguished attention that Picasso gave, both in preparing the painting and, returning to it, in later images (all on view at the Reina Sofía), to the figure of the woman weeping over her dead child, the terrible costs of violence and intolerance that mark this history also were thrown into high relief. Picasso painted Guernica both as a response to atrocity and as a call to all nations to come to the defense of the innocent and the very refugees (and their children) who would later be singing on the lawns of Middlebury. The idea that moving through English and Spanish in the Americas is one long song, that has been lifting us all for a century and more, seems both to acknowledge the truth of our shared history and offer a path to a fuller, more humane realization of it than the one we find ourselves on now. One start: more books in Spanish.

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