About one-third of Santa Cruz County’s population identifies as Latino, according to the latest Census Bureau figures. Yet there hasn’t been a single bookstore in the county that catered specifically to Spanish readers, until now.
On a Friday night at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, artist and educator Pablo Helguera took the stage in the lobby.
“Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here,” said Helguera.
Helguera created Librería Donceles. It’s a travelling exhibit that’s been in New York, Boston, Phoenix and now Santa Cruz. The exhibit is not only an art piece but also a pop-up bookstore. Shelves are lined with Spanish language books of different genres. Helguera performed songs and read stories for the crowd. He calls these gatherings “tertulias.”
“Which, in Spanish, means something like ‘soiree.’ And we will have a little bit of reading and a little bit of music,” explained Helguera.
The idea for Librería Donceles came to Helguera seven years ago when a Spanish language bookstore in New York City closed. He also noticed a lack of Spanish Language books in the remaining brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes and Noble.
“Normally, if you walk into one of those stores and you go into the Spanish language section, you will see Bibles, you'll see cooking books. You will see, perhaps, a Danielle Steele translation of a novel,” Helguera said.
He felt that this wasn’t a collection that really served the Latino community.
“In New York City, there's two million Latinos in the population. So to me there was a need that needed to be addressed.”
Helguera addressed it by creating the first Librería Donceles in a Manhattan art gallery.
“I told the [art] dealer, ‘I would like to transform your gallery into a failed business,’ and he thought it was an interesting idea.”
Helguera named the exhibit for a place he visited often as a child growing up in Mexico City. It was called Donceles Street and was lined with all kinds of warm and inviting mom-and-pop Spanish language bookshops.
“Si caminos para calle Donceles, eh, encuentras una, eh, juxtaposition de periodos de históricos en Mexico. What I just said is that entering through Donceles Street is like walking through the entire history…all the strata of the history of Mexico,” Helguera explained.
Librería Donceles is slightly different in each city that it travels to. In Santa Cruz, it’s a small room with warm yellow walls inside the Santa Cruz MAH. In one corner there’s a mound of mismatched soft pillows to lounge on. The walls are lined with thousands of books of different genres, with handwritten subject cards to organize them — ‘politica’ for the politics and government section, ‘novela’ for the fiction section.
People coming together around books is a big part of the Librería Donceles exhibit. And that’s what happened when dozens showed up to hear Helguera speak.
“To see Hispanic culture, Mexican culture being really embraced and especially around knowledge, yeah, I just felt it was a really powerful piece of work,” said attendee Jasmine Simone. She’s a feminist studies and arts major at UC Santa Cruz.
The exhibit was even powerful enough to inspire a wedding. When San Jose artist and educator Yethzéll Díaz heard Librería Donceles was coming to the Santa Cruz MAH, she decided to have her wedding there last fall. I reached Diaz by phone, where she described the atmosphere that the bookstore/installation helped to create for her ceremony.
“It feels like you’re in someone’s living room, like you’re hanging out in a place that you’ve been to, but it’s somehow still new. That influenced the whole vibe of the wedding...yeah, everybody walked through the installation on their way in,” explained Diaz.
Librería Donceles is on display at the Santa Cruz MAH through July.
“I simply just want this to be a welcoming space to generate community,” Helguera explained.
The exhibit heads to Los Angeles next.