Although native to las Américas and with thousands of years of history on this continent, the increasing Latin@ population in the United States is undeniable and the influence that Latin@s have had on shaping the social, political, cultural, and literary fabric of this country is profound. Creating alternative and supplementary knowledge spaces for learning, and literacy learning in particular, is part of an enduring history of resistance within U.S. Latin@ communities. These include institutions ranging from Libreria México de Echo Park in Los Angeles, to the 1960s Berkeley-based Quinto Sol writers group, to New York City’s Nuyorican Poet’s Café, to most recently La Casa Azul Bookstore in El Barrio. Many Latin@s, children and elders alike, have long been part of a flourishing renaissance of events centered around literacy, such as spoken word/poetry events (sometimes combined with hip-hop, cumbia, bomba, son jarocho, or salsa music), children’s story time, writers’ collectives, film screenings, pláticas, and book clubs.
In this spirit, I interviewed Aurora Anaya-Cerda, my long-time friend and now owner of the renowned La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem/El Barrio, New York City. The bookstore was founded in 2012 and has since then served as a social, political and cultural center for folks interested in supporting the rich histories, literature, and linguistic repertoires of our increasing yet diverse Latin@ communities. As the Latin@ school-aged population increases with every year, the number of books published by and about Latin@s, especially children’s books, trails drastically behind. As a former volunteer at the bookstore, I am well aware that to many in the community, her librería (bookstore) is a form of public pedagogy. The bookstore engages the everyday pedagogies of familias, operates within a collective and grassroot space, is outside formal educational sites, and its pedagogical practices are themselves political strategies of resistance and struggle against the erasure of Latin@ histories in the U.S.
As I approach the brownstone storefront, a colorful mural painted by the prominent Latino artist, Manny Vega, greets me. The mural depicts the faces of Julia de Burgos, Pedro Pietri and Piri Thomas—literary icons whose works have helped to promote Puerto Rican history and culture. Raising awareness of these figures is part of Aurora’s mission to enrich the historical and cultural literacies of El Barrio’s Latin@ community. Inside the store is a large tile mosaic figure of 20th century Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo—Frida Kahlo’s blue house in Coyoacán, Mexico, is what the bookstore is named after—and other art by countless New York City-based Latin@ artists.
I sat down with Aurora to discuss the role of reading, teaching, learning, and service in her life.
Tell me about the role that literacy played in your life as a young person?
I have always been surrounded by books and stories.
My earliest memories of storytelling are from the cuentos that my grandmother would share with me. She would tell me these stories while cooking, knitting or at the park on Saturday afternoons.
My first language was Spanish, and that was the first language I learned to read in, I recently found the very first books I remember reading on my own!
I learned English in school and at home with the help of traditional American songs.
My mom bought me a cassette player and 6 cassettes by Disney that I played constantly. I learned songs like: “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain,” “Home On The Range,” “In the Good, Old Summertime,” and “The Blue-Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn),” while also listening to the songs that my tias would play on the radio by Los Bukis, Timbiriche, Menudo and Pedro Infante.
I always had books at home, and they were stored in a special child size cabinet, complete with double doors that no one else had access to. I would spend hours seated in front of that shelf – reading and rearranging my books.
I owned books that my mom would buy for me at school book fairs – she would let me choose any books I wanted, which was quite a luxury for an 8 year old.
I also had library books. Frequent visits to the public library meant that I never ran out of reading material.
Growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on, from cereal boxes, to magazines and comics, but reading work by Chican@ writers connected me to stories that I could relate to. When I discovered Chican@ writers like Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya, I connected to their stories and then began seeking out more books that reflected my identity and experience.
I know you were a middle school teacher for some time prior to moving to New York City, could you share some of those experiences with us?
After graduating from UCLA with my B.A., I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) at Belvedere Middle School in East Los Angeles. Before entering the classroom, I reflected on my own experience as a student – and I compared two former teachers:
Ms. Hurley – my 4th grade teacher… and my favorite! We took field trips, learned to read maps, created art projects, – I remember that my class recreated scenes from prehistoric times in the main hallway – murals and paper mache figures of saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths lined the walls, art done by our 4th grade class. There was something about Ms. Hurley’s teaching style that I admired, and later I realized it was her way of engaging students, allowing for questions and dialogue in the classroom, the organized and planned curriculum, experiential learning. I also felt very supported in her class, by her and fellow classmates – I never felt that same bond in any other grade or class.
I thought about a teacher that had an impact in my life, in a very different way. My 7th grade English teacher, who gave me my first “F” and sent me to a Literacy Specialist once a week. I was devastated – English became my least favorite subject, I didn’t want to read anymore, and I didn’t want to write. Mr. Perry made me question my ability as a student – and I was ashamed of my writing for a very long time.
As a teacher, I wanted to replicate Ms. Hurley’s model in my classroom and vowed to never make any student feel the way Mr. Perry made me feel. In my classroom the students read Jesse, by Gary Soto, and wrote to Gary – who then took the time to write back! The students could not believe that an author would take them time to them. As one student said that day, “We matter to him.”
Students learned about César Chávez, built an altar in his honor for Día de los Muertos, they participated in the UFW march, made posters, wrote a play and hosted Cesar’s granddaughter at the school wide assembly.
Can you explain some of the partnerships the bookstore has with local K-12 schools in the community?
La Casa Azul Bookstore partners with public schools in myriad ways.
In our quarterly Educators Nights we meet with local educators, present the latest books for K-12, and invite a publishing company or guest speaker to talk about a relevant topic (i.e. diversity in children’s literature).
We offer educators a discount for materials that will be used in the classroom and offer school field trips, book list recommendations, fundraiser event ideas, host an annual summer reading program, and an annual children’s book festival.
Most recently, you helped to organize a book drive for detained unaccompanied immigrant minors. What ignited that endeavor and what exactly did you do?
This past summer, my friend and colleague, Dr. Isabel Martinez, John Jay Professor of Latin American and Latin@ Studies, and I met over coffee to discuss the ways in which we could support the high number of unaccompanied immigrant minors in New York City. Neither one of us is an attorney but we knew that we wanted to help this very vulnerable community in some way. We decided to launch a book drive – encouraging authors, friends, and bookstore customers to donate culturally relevant books in Spanish. I provided a list of books for children and teens, that are from Mexican and Central American writers, and also listed books that are relevant in themes of migration/immigration, family, history.
In five weeks we collected over 1,500 book and $2,500 for new books. In September of 2014, we began the book distribution in a local detainment center and in federal courthouses, where children and youth were awaiting to see a judge.
Much of the literature about literacy has historically existed in the false binary of school and home. In our previous discussions, you and others have talked about how your bookstore serves as a “third space.” How does your book store function as a “third space”?
La Casa Azul Bookstore carries stories that are rarely ever seen in other bookstores, public library shelves or normative K-16 school curriculum. We carry hundreds of titles by Latin@ writers from across the continent – stories of migration, traditions, holidays, biographies and family. It’s a hybrid community space that brings together the practices and knowleges of our families, cultures, communities, and formal schooling. The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, holds a very special place in my heart. It was the first book I read that had a Latina protagonist, words in both English and Spanish, stories that were culturally and historically relevant to me – including Esperanza’s own personal struggle to accept her name. With La Casa Azul Bookstore, we have filled entire bookshelves with bilingual stories for families, young children, and teens – so that they can read a book, see their reflection, and be proud of their history, language and culture.
Thank you so much, hermana. This sentiment reminds me of an important quote by author, Junot Díaz:
You guys know about vampires?…You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
As the demographic compositions of our schools continue to shift, it’s crucial that educators think critically about the ways in which we are using literature and school curricula to emancipate or to further colonize.
Please make sure to check out La Casa Azul Bookstore’s website for upcoming book readings, inquiries on classroom field trips, or joining their email list. http://www.lacasaazulbookstore.com/
This post was written by Cati de los Ríos. Cati is a Ph.D. Candidate in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) in Harlem. She holds a B.A. in Chicana/o Studies and Spanish Literature from Loyola Marymount University, an M.T.S. in Theological Studies and Secondary Education from Harvard University and an Ed.M. in Curriculum & Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University. She taught high school Spanish, ELD, and Ethnic Studies courses in California and Massachusetts for six years, Adult ESL classes for four years, and has taught as an adjunct instructor at Mills College, City College New York, and Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include Latina/o youth’s multilingual and multiliterate repertoires, adolescent literacies, im/migration, emergent bilingual learners, critical pedagogy, youth activism, and high school Ethnic Studies. She is also a community organizer and Core member of New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE).
You can learn more about Aurora Anaya-Cerda’s work in the following two videos:
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