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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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Pop-up Spanish-language bookstore tours the US in pursuit of a more inclusive country

Pop-up Spanish-language bookstore tours the US in pursuit of a more inclusive country
Pablo Helguera at Librería Donceles in San Francisco in 2014. All photos courtesy of Pablo



By Kara Newhouse

Kara Newhouse is the creator and host of the Women in STEM podcast and a 2015 ivoh summit attendee. You can follow her on Twitter at @KaraNewhouse.



Like a circus, for the last four years Librería Donceles has appeared in cities across the U.S., put on a good show, and then disappeared. Instead of acrobats and lion tamers, though, the main attractions are shelves brimming with books in Spanish.

The pop-up bookstore is a project of artist Pablo Helguera, designed to call attention the the lack of Spanish language literature available in the U.S., despite a fast-growing Latino population. Librería Donceles is currently operating in Boston, which will be its final stop.

Across eight cities, including Seattle, Chicago and Indianapolis responses to the bookstore have been “hugely positive,” said Helguera, who is also the Director of Adult and Academic programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Though some media coverage has referred to Librería Donceles as an installation or exhibit, Helguera rejects those descriptions. “The problem with those terms is that they refer to static things that are meant to be viewed, not interacted with,” he said in an interview with ivoh. “It is a bookstore; it doesn’t pretend to be a bookstore.”

That distinction relates to a key aspect of socially engaged art, a field for which Helguera wrote one of the first guidebooks. This form of creative practice, Helguera said, “breaks with the traditional representation paradigm in art history. It is no longer art that depicts something, it is not a representation. It is that something.”


Inside Librería Donceles in Phoenix in 2014. Courtesy of Pablo Helguera. 


At Librería Donceles, visitors can browse through thousands of donated used books or peruse a particular volume while resting on cozy furniture. Helguera said he emulated the look and feel of used bookstores he frequented in college: “I scavenged old lamps, tables, and brought family photos and other items of my personal collection.”

The design was also influenced by Helguera’s childhood home, “a place full of historic objects carried over from generations of the family.” The artist was born in Mexico City, and the bookstore’s name is drawn from the city’s Calle de Donceles, a street famed for its used bookstores.

Outside view of Librería Donceles in Red Hook, Brooklyn in 2015. Courtesy of Pablo Helguera. 

Although Librería Donceles functions similarly to any shop on its namesake street, it has some unusual rules: customers may only purchase one book per day, which is a way of emphasizing the cognitive and sensorial experiences of choosing a book. Customers also pick the price. In Boston, the money goes to art and social justice programs at Urbano, the nonprofit hosting the project.

Librería Donceles will close at the end of April, after four months in Boston. The store’s temporary existence in its various destinations underscores the theme of invisibility. Its current location makes it the only Spanish-language bookstore in New England, according to Publishers Weekly. In New York, where the project debuted in 2013, the last Spanish-language bookstore closed about a decade ago. That city’s Hispanic and Latino population is its second-largest racial group, comprising 28.6% of residents in 2010.

So it is not surprising that, despite its temporary nature, communities where Librería Donceles has popped up have embraced the project. The store has been a site for book clubs, music performances, readings and other events. It also inspired a Phoenix woman to open a permanent Spanish-language bookstore, Palabras Libreria.

“I see my mission, partially, as helping show what is possible,” said Helguera. “Socially engaged art has to operate to an extent in pilot proposals. And sometimes they get embraced by others and proliferate.”


Inside Librería Donceles in Phoenix in 2014. Courtesy of Pablo Helguera.


While Librería Donceles focuses on the physical spaces of bookstores, the issue of invisibility of the Spanish language and of Latino and Hispanic people extends to book publishing and other media industries in the U.S. For example, in 2016, only about 5 percent of children’s books published in this country 2016 featured Latino characters, while Latino or Hispanic Americans make up about 17 percent of the population.

Multilingualism is common in many parts of the world, but in some parts of the U.S., speaking another language is “seen as a crime,” said Helguera.

“Why? Because those who don’t speak it feel excluded. They don’t want to experience for a second that which some people — immigrants — feel their entire lives. Donceles is a project that very gently tries to show that another language is not a terrifying thing, but a rich and exciting world to be discovered.”


Related: International artist exhibit, ‘US IS THEM,’ spotlights social justice issues |Remembering ivoh fellow Alex Tizon, a storyteller for the ages | Barrel Stories oral history project captures the Caribbean migration experience | Celebrating black designers during Black History Month and beyond