The Back of the Bookstore: Chicanas & Chicanos in America’s Bookstores

Mexica Mural in Boyle Heights

Mexica Mural in Boyle Heights

The first Chicana/o Studies book I ever purchased was Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña for an introductory Chicana/o history class at East Los Angeles College.

Occupied America introduced me to my history, culture, and a legacy of Chicana/o resistance against oppression that had been purposely denied to me by the public school system.

Occupied America empowered me. Occupied America saved my life.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Occupied America would be the beginning of a literary quest I would undertake in collecting what I hoped would be the most extensive Chicana/o Studies library anyone could have outside of academia.

I did this for several reasons: 1) I decided to major in Chicana/o Studies so it was inevitable that a majority of the books I would need to purchase or seek out would be in Chicana/o Studies; 2) I began organizing with the Brown Berets and came to the conclusion that I could not organize without a background in the history of my people; 3) I was angry that I had never been taught my history by the public school system, especially since I attended a school that was one of the sites of the 1968 East Los Angeles High School Blowouts; 4) I set out to passionately advocate for Chicana/o Studies and dedicated my time to encouraging as many students as possible to consider majoring and/or minoring in Chicana/o Studies; and 5) I wanted at some point to create a community library in the barrio dedicated to our people’s self-determination through Chicana/o Studies literary offerings.

There are other reasons, of course, why I began collecting as many Chicana/o Studies books as possible. This passion for collecting Chicana/o Studies books eventually resulted in films by, for, and about Chicanas/os being added to my collection.

Part of my Chicana/o Studies book & film collection

Part of my Chicana/o Studies book & film collection

Recently, I purchased an app called Delicious Library, which allows me to catalog all my books and films onto my computer, while helping me create a comprehensive inventory of what I have in my collection. As of now, I have a library that consists of over 600 books, journals, pamphlets and over 100 films dedicated to the Chicana/o experience.

It’s a collection that began in earnest and one that I am definitely proud of. As I look into the future, I wonder what’s to become of my collection? I don’t have an answer for this yet, and I don’t want to even think about it.

But that is not the primary reason why I am writing this post. Yeah, I know, I have the short story long syndrome, and well that’s the nature of our Chicana/o-Mexicana/o story-telling technique.

Rather, what I wanted to do was set the stage by recognizing the significance literacy and books have in our communities. It also shows the critical need and demand for Chicana/o Studies books in our community, namely through local bookstores and libraries.

It’s been frequently said that knowledge is power, yet power is purposely denied to the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o community mainly because we don’t have the necessary knowledge reference points to disrupt unequal systems. Essentially, the intellectual arm of our community, Chicana/o Studies, is either banned, marginalized, or non-existent.

Thus, our access to books is limited and our access to our history in the public school system is downsized to the annual Cinco de Mayo school festivities and/or to the inclusion of a couple of paragraphs in several social studies books on César Chávez.

In recent years, there’s been a consolidation of bookstores that have seen many of them go out of business. Many folks tend to blame the loss of brick-and-mortar bookstores to the belief that people aren’t reading anymore or that with the rise of the digital tablet, people are now reading e-books. Others fault the rise of online superstores such as Amazon for undercutting traditional bookstores.

Perhaps there is a slight truth to all, but one thing is certain, and unfortunately it is never acknowledged publicly, but the fact remains that Chicana/o-Mexicana/o communities have been excluded when it comes to building and sustaining bookstores and equitable libraries that carry books on the Chicana/o experience or other “culturally-relevant” materials.

A few years ago, the only major bookstore in the East Los Angeles area was located in the community of Pico Rivera, and it was eventually closed. Once again, the Chicana/o community was left underserved in being able to access equitable reading materials.

You’d figure that the few remaining bookstores in the area would help foster the community’s literary heritage, nonetheless nobody has taken up the mantle.

Although Libros Schmibros Lending Library & Bookshop in Boyle Heights claims to offer “low-or no-cost literature and literary events to Latinos, Jews and everybody else east of the ocean,” the reality is that Chicanas/os-Mexicanas/os are not the primary audience. In reality, it’s the hipster/gentrifying folks that are being accommodated.

I mean, c’mon, how many “Jews and everybody else east of the ocean” live in Boyle Heights that Libros Schmibros feels compelled to go out of its way to cater to their literary needs?

There are a few remaining bookstores in Los Angeles to be sure: The Last Bookstore, Skylight Books, and Book Soup come to mind.

"Ethnic Studies" section at Vroman's

“Ethnic Studies” section at Vroman’s

One of the more important bookstores in the Los Angeles area is Vroman’s located in Pasadena. Vroman’s identifies itself as Southern California’s oldest and largest independent bookstore. Without a doubt, Vroman’s is an important literary institution whose “best practices” are emulated by other bookstores in the “market.”

According to the State Education Resource Center (SERC) in the State of Connecticut’s Department of Education, “best practices” are defined as “what works” in a particular situation or environment.

SERC adds that “when data support the success of a practice, it is referred to as a research-based practice or scientifically based practice. As good consumers of information, we must keep in mind that a particular practice that has worked for someone within a given set of variables may or may not yield the same results across educational environments.”

Vroman’s “best practices” in choosing what books will be made available to its customers must be scrutinized and questioned, especially considering that Pasadena has always been home to a large Chicana/o-Mexicana/o community. The 2010 census, for example, reported that “Latinas/os” made up a sizable numerical portion of Pasadena’s population at 33.7% of the 133,122 people living in the city.

Take a walk into Vroman’s bookstore and you’ll feel right at home in its immense and well-organized space filled with vast amounts of books on virtually every genre, that is until you find yourself in the poorly and haphazardly stocked “Ethnic Studies” section.

The “Ethnic Studies” section at Vroman’s is an insult to both the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o, Black, and Asian American community. We are not even at the back of the bookstore. Shamefully, it is obvious that even in a bookstore Chicanas and Chicanos don’t exist.

There are usually five or six “Latina/o” book titles found in the bookshelves and many of these “Ethnic Studies” titles are there because many book publishers have bought available shelf space since these books primarily cater to a Hispanic/Latino market rather than to a Chicana/o community struggling for self-determination.

You can’t even find Chicana/o Studies books in the general American history section, while the World History section only carries a couple of books on Mesoamerican cultures. And don’t even bother checking in the literature fiction section, as Chicanas/os are virtually non-existent in that area.

I was told that “Vroman’s won’t even acknowledge indie/self-published books unless they’re willing to pay Vroman’s a hefty fee for the privilege” of being on the shelves.

As a literary powerhouse in the Los Angeles area, Vroman’s gives the impression that Chicanas/os, and Blacks are not immersed in writing literary or scholarly material and worse, portray both communities as non-readers without a literary tradition.

If “Latinas/os” are 33.7% of the population in Pasadena, then why aren’t 33.7% of the books available inside the bookstore relevant to the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o community?

Of course, the argument will be made that as a business venture, Vroman’s can carry any book it wants, and it has the right to do as it pleases, but as a cultural and literary icon in the city, it speaks volumes when the largest “independent” bookstore in Southern California refuses to carry books on the Chicana/o experience.

Thus, Vroman’s “best practices” describe a “hidden curriculum” in which the “market” and an Eurocentric paradigm dictates what goes on the shelves, and eventually who enters to purchase books.

So if books on the Chicana/o experience are not readily available or if the bookstore’s literary environment is not inviting to the Chicana/o community, then, it should be no surprise that our community is not the primary customer base of Vroman’s.

This is not to say that Chicanas/os are only reading or demanding books on the Chicana/o experience, or that Vroman’s is engaged in racist practices or that it’s the only bookstore which refuses to fully stock books on Chicanas/os.

What I am saying is that we must question why there are more books on the Middle East or on Military History in many of these bookstores, especially within the context of Chicana/o Los Angeles?

I’m sure many of these bookstores would argue that “Ethnic Studies” books cater to specialized groups, yet the same can be said about Middle Eastern or Military History books, still though it goes without saying that Vroman’s and other bookstores have no qualms about stocking entire book aisles dedicated to these genres.

So the end point of all this is that if bookstores in Los Angeles are not carrying books on the Chicana/o experience, you can imagine that the majority of America’s last remaining bookstores are more than likely following the “best practices” of Vroman’s in relegating Chicana/o books to the back of the bookstore.

And this is one reason why the independent Broken Sword Publications was founded by Santino J. Rivera in the mid-2000s as a challenge to traditional corporate publishers and to start pressuring booksellers to carry Chicana/o books.

Our stories must be told from our perspective and should not be held hostage to the dictates of the “market.”

Thus, Broken Sword Publications recently published both ¡Ban This: The BSP Anthology of Xicana/o Literature and Lowriting: Shots, Rides & Stories from the Chicano Soul. This is only a start, but it’s one we must take. We must begin to think outside of the Eurocentric box.

Inevitably, the next step is to build our own bookstores. In the meantime, we have our local community libraries plus a couple of spaces, such as Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar and Librería Martínez, which found a new home at Chapman University to help bridge the literary divide.

Props to the friends at Cypress Park Library that has been at the forefront of Chicana/o Literacy for the last couple of years thanks to the hard work and dedication of Art Meza.

Notes From Aztlán has also begun listing Xicana/o Studies and Xicana/o literature books on its webpage for reference use by students, educators, parents, and communities so they can begin demanding these titles at their local bookstores and libraries.

Towards the end of the Chicano Movement (1963-1975), the Chicana/o Resource Center (CRC) was established in 1976 at the East Los Angeles County Library to serve the educational and knowledge needs of the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o community.

The CRC library and other surrounding local libraries whose main patrons are Chicanas/os-Mexicanas/os are to be applauded for making our histories accessible.

We must support our local libraries while pressuring bookstores to begin carrying Chicana/o-Mexicana/o authors.

Resistance through knowledge: One Book at a Time!!!

Mexica Mural in Boyle Heights!

Mexica Mural in Boyle Heights!

 

c/s

cultural sovereignty

D.Cid

This entry was posted in Aztlan, Chicana/o Books, Chicana/o Identity, Chicana/o Literature, Chicana/o Studies, Community, Cultura, Decolonization, East Los Angeles, Education, History, Knowledge, Library, Los Angeles, Movimiento, Palabra, Racism, Resistance. Bookmark the permalink.

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