Phoenix's Palabras Bilingual Bookstore Celebrates People Of Color

By Christina Estes
Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2019 - 11:37am

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bilingual book shelf
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Palabras has books in Spanish, English and both languages.

Palabras Bilingual Bookstore is believed to be Phoenix’s only store featuring books in English and Spanish. But the store’s founder wants to be known for more than selling books.

'POC It To Me: Open Mic'

It’s "POC it to Me: Open Mic Night."

POC is pronounced like "sock." It stands for "people of color."

“I just wanted to introduce everybody to the space,” said Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña. “If you haven’t been here before, this is Palabras Bilingual Bookstore.”

Chawa Magaña
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Chawa Magaña inside her store on April 6, 2019.

Magaña wants to provide a platform where people of color feel comfortable sharing their stories “and know that their stories and experiences have value.”

“It’s a really cool experience,” said Breanna Johnson. “Because the writers go up and the audience is just really receptive and encouraging to the writer.”

Standing before dozens of people, she shared a poem about growing up in south Phoenix.

“The street we grew up on was full of laughter with rough, neighborhood kids who had no common sense.”

Johnson remembers a church she said everyone knew could feed your soul, “Because Grandma always brought her delicious home cooking to the potluck and shared with those whose tummies rumbled—not just with hunger, but with anger and defeat.”

She described the church and other buildings being demolished, replaced by housing developments, “Long after new families with nicer windows and better schools finally moved in, our street still lives on.”

Every month, Magaña hosts an open mic night. While April’s event was filled with poets, she’s also had authors, musicians and comedians.

“Maybe somebody is questioning, ‘Well, why wouldn’t they think that their experiences have value?’” she said. “Because the overarching narrative in American culture is to become Americanized and it becomes this one homogeneous thing.”

How It Began

The idea for Palabras, which is Spanish for words, came after Magaña visited Librería Donceles, a traveling Spanish bookstore created by artist Pablo Helguera. She wondered why Phoenix didn’t have a bilingual bookstore and decided to open one. In the nation’s fifth largest city, she started with five books.

“There would be days that I would just walk up to the space, and I would see boxes of books that were donations and little by little, I started getting more books,” she said.

The original space on Grand Avenue in Phoenix lacked air conditioning and in 2017, Magaña moved to her current location at 1738 E. McDowell Road. Magaña estimates 30 percent of the store’s 20,000 titles have been donated, the others she has personally bought.

"The language gets lost second, third generation, but parents want to re-familiarize themselves and their children with the language."
— Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña, Palabras Bilingual Bookstore owner

Showcasing Diversity

Palabras has sections devoted to history, Chicano studies, LGBTQ, fiction, poetry and more. Magaña works with a group that hosts trips to Cuba to receive books published in Cuba. The most popular books in the children’s section are from a line called Lil’ Libros.

“The language gets lost second, third generation, but parents want to re-familiarize themselves and their children with the language,” Magaña said.

Being a first generation Mexican American influences what she sells beyond books.

“So, my mom was what you would call a curandera, or a healer, and she really loved working with plants, she knew a lot about how to heal with plants,” Magaña said. “I have that same type of interest … and I make the sage-based room-clearing spray, the creosote bundles, the all-natural vapor rub, the herbal blends, I do all of that.”

Jeff Slim
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Jeff Slim is a Diné artist whose work is featured throughout the store.

There’s a gallery area to showcase local artists like Jeff Slim, a member of the Diné tribe. His 120-foot mural in the parking lot welcomes customers and his colorful style captures the spirit of authors. When he’s not creating art, Slim is the store’s other employee.

“We’re kind of a couple running this bookstore. It’s very, very—the most independent of independent bookstores probably in the Valley. It’s just me and this guy running the show,” Magaña said with a laugh.

Liking your co-worker is especially valuable in a business with a tight profit.

“You have to contend with pretty horrible margins and hope that your business is gaining momentum and people are buying a lot of books and they’re buying them consistently,” Magaña said.

Outside the bookstore, she has a full-time job and admits it’s “kind of crazy” — but running a bilingual bookstore and promoting cultural representation and diversity is her passion.

Sydnie James recently visited Palabras for the first time to attend open mic night.

“Being in a community where there aren’t a lot of people of color, not a lot of gatherings for people of color, just being here because there’s more cultural backgrounds, I think that’s more appealing,” she said.

More events are being planned and so is a coffee shop. It’s another way Magaña hopes Palabras will become synonymous with the phrase "mi casa es su casa" — my house is your house.

audience listening
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Poet Anna Flores reads at "POC It To Me: Open Mic" on April 20, 2019.
cuban books
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Palabras has a section for books published in Cuba.
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