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A Traveling Art Installation Brings Spanish-Language Books To Boston05:26

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Tovia Siegel, of Watertown, looks at an encyclopedia from the reference section of Librería Donceles. She just returned from Chile after working there for six months as a teacher.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)closemore
Tovia Siegel, of Watertown, looks at an encyclopedia from the reference section of Librería Donceles. She just returned from Chile after working there for six months as a teacher. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Read the Spanish version of this story here

Walk into Librería Donceles and you see a normal used bookstore, massive stacks of books and a cash register up front. But underneath the books, it's an interactive art display, a performance space that's as much about the books as it is about living Latino culture.

"Despite the fact that Latino communities throughout the United States are growing exponentially, we have less and less access to books in Spanish," said Pablo Helguera, the artist behind Librería Donceles. "In New York City, where I live, the last major bookstore that sold books in Spanish closed 10 years ago."

For Helguera, the project is a response on one hand to the disappearance of bookstores, and on the other, to the invisibility of the Spanish language.

New York-based artist and educator Pablo Helguera practices with a band for the opening of Librería Donceles. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
New York-based artist and educator Pablo Helguera practices with a band for the opening of Librería Donceles. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The project is named after Calle Donceles, a street in Mexico City famous for its many used bookstores. For Helguera, bringing the bookstore across the United States — Boston is the eighth and last city to host the installation — is like traveling with a portal into Latin America.

"If you actually are in the middle of Montevideo or Mexico City, you walk into these ancient stores that have been there forever, and they have these piles and piles of materials and you can get lost for hours looking for them, [books of] thoughts, of ideas of stories that you didn't know existed," Helguera said.

The bookstore has more than 10,000 Spanish language titles. The range is spellbinding: from art books to kids' books to cook books to books of poetry. And you can buy them, but only one at a time.

But Librería Donceles goes deeper than what's on the shelves. Helguera says he hopes visitors "are exposed not just to the ideas in the books, but to very physical and very sensorial experience of the book, which is really an object that must be touched, that must be smelled, that has a texture, that has water marks, that has these weird markings by some anonymous reader that preceded you."

The bookstore is housed at Project Urbano, a nonprofit focused on art education.

"We're taking advantage of the opportunity to have this bookstore as a place that is also a community where people come, sit down, read a book, listen to music," Stella Aguirre McGregor, founder and director of Project Urbano, told me in Spanish.

“It’s an interactive space," she added, switching to English. "We’re going to have music, talks, discussions, workshops, different programming to hopefully bring in everybody from the community."

Project Urbano Director Stella Aguirre McGregor standing in the middle of the exhibition. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Project Urbano Director Stella Aguirre McGregor standing in the middle of the exhibition. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

During a recent writing workshop at the bookstore, a group of young artists formed a circle to discuss the books that moved them in their childhood. Salvador Jiménez Flores, a native of Mexico, says he wasn't raised around books.

"I didn't grow up with this reading culture, like my parents reading to me, they were just making sure I had enough to eat, and dress," he said. "So I wasn't so into books. I was more about exploring the streets and playing with my friends and getting in trouble. I see that as a way of reading."

Later on, Flores took to writers like Eduardo Galeano and Nobel Prize-winner Octavio Paz, some of whose titles can be found at the bookstore.

Jamaica Plain-based artist Carolyn Lewenberg visited Librería Donceles in Project Urbano's gallery space to search for children's books in Spanish.

"The way the space is transformed is so awesome," she said. "It's so cozy in here. They painted the walls yellow. And the smell of the books!"

Lewenberg marveled at the intersection of bookstore and art installation.

"Having a bookstore in an art space kind of positions it in a way where you would think about it a little more, like 'Why would a bookstore be in an art space?' And then thinking, 'Well, are there a lot of Spanish bookstores around?'"

And that, Lewenberg said, led her to realize there aren't many places that sell books in Spanish. The Boston area has a few used bookstores that sell titles in Spanish, including Schoenhof's Foreign Books in Cambridge, but Librería Donceles is the only one dedicated strictly to the language.

Popular kids books in Spanish. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Popular kids books in Spanish. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Lina Maria Giraldo is an artist-in-residence for the city who teaches at Emerson College. Originally from Colombia, she's always on the hunt for books in Spanish — finding one in Boston is like stumbling on a treasure. Now, Giraldo says, standing in a bookstore specializing in her first language, she reconnects with her heritage.

"I'm an immigrant," she said. "And sometimes you've lost where you're coming from. And now that I have a family and I am an artist, having a space like [Librería Donceles], that is full of books in your own language, it really brings your roots, it brings history, something that sometimes you can explain to your daughter."

Giraldo says she struggles to get her 4-year-old daughter to speak Spanish.

"If I force her, she will speak Spanish, but she usually answers me in English and that kills me a little bit," she said. "And it's because there's not really a lot of places where we can talk in Spanish."

And that, Giraldo says, is why Librería Donceles matters.

The art installation will be up until the end of April, when the books will be distributed for new uses in other places.

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2/21 Update: The art installation was extended from the end of March to the end of April. We've updated the story.

This story aired on February 8, 2017.

Spanish Version:

Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is a reporter in WBUR's newsroom. He joined the station after two years at The Standard-Times in New Bedford, where he cut his teeth covering immigration and business.

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