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At this Fresno museum, an immersion into the streets of Mexico City

Participants in the launch of Libreria Donceles on June 22, 2024, pick up books and speak with each other, enjoying the social scene of the art piece.
Arte America via Fresnoland
Participants in the launch of Libreria Donceles on June 22, 2024, pick up books and speak with each other, enjoying the social scene of the art piece.

Strolling through bookshelves, Arianna Paz Chavez straightens picture frames, runs her fingers along tables, and pauses to check that “Dr. Jekyll y Mr. Hyde” is in the right place.

Engulfed by over 8,000 books and soft Spanish music, Paz Chavez finally sits on a well-loved leather couch in Arte Americas’ biggest gallery space. She is no librarian, though – rather, Paz Chavez is the executive director of Arte Americas, a hub for latinx/chicano culture in Fresno and the Central Valley.

Librería Donceles, Arte Americas’ latest exhibit which Paz Chavez helped facilitate, is anything but what you would expect to find in a museum. “Instead of the typical ‘Oh no, please don’t touch, don’t mess it up,’ the invitation here is ‘Please come in, grab a book off the shelf, sit down, read a while, put your feet up, hang out; it’s about how we want people to feel in the space,’” Paz Chavez said in a recent interview with Fresnoland.

Librería Donceles, a social engagement art piece by Mexican artist Pablo Helguera, simulates a used book store (librería) inspired by Calle Donceles, a Mexico City street famously lined with bookstores serving the local university students and academics.

For many Spanish speakers in Fresno, the experience offered by Libreria Donceles is typically impossible to find in the Central Valley.

“[Librería Donceles] is always in a place with a large population of Spanish speaking individuals and no Spanish language used bookshops,” said Paz Chavez.

Over half of Fresno residents are of latinx/hispanic descent, and over one-third of residents speak Spanish at home. Yet the temporary Librería Donceles is the only Spanish bookstore in Fresno – permanent or temporary.

“The requirement inside the librería is that everything has to be in Spanish,” said Paz Chavez. “The goal is to transport people into a space that looks and feels like a used bookshop in Mexico City.”

Helguera said he wanted Librería Donceles to capture an authentic used book store experience in communities that otherwise don’t have that option.

“There’s something really exciting about the process of finding a book, of losing yourself in a bookstore physically and experiencing the smells, the textures, the quality of printing of the books, and the process becomes a multi-sensorial experience,” he told Fresnoland.

Lorena Marrón, Arte America’s director of Education and Programming, said the exhibit is also an opportunity to “get lost in a book, and feel the companionship of your own thoughts.”

“Those little nooks that you can literally hide away and just immerse yourself in the book,” she said, “that’s something we wanted to create and give the audience.”

Exhibit also highlights inequities in Fresno and the Central Valley

Despite Fresno’s large population of Spanish speakers and Latinx/Hispanic individuals, there has long been historic resistance to the widespread use of Spanish, orally or otherwise.

Joseph Rios, Fresno’s poet laureate and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, is one of three authors featured at the entrance of Librería Donceles. He discussed the history of resistance in a recent interview with Fresnoland.

“My grandparents… went to school in the 30s and 40s in Clovis when the schools were segregated,” Rios said. “If they spoke Spanish amongst each other, or they were heard speaking Spanish, they were hit with rulers, paddles, and slapped on the face… nuns, priests, teachers, didn’t matter.”

Helguera’s exhibit, though, turns resistance to Spanish language and culture into celebration. “There’s the whole spectrum of bilinguals or people who can say a few phrases,” said Paz Chavez, reflecting on those who have come to see Librería Donceles thus far. “I think there are more people with a very personal relationship to the language.”

“...I decided to take an interesting and unusual decision of printing a used book store for Spanish speakers, or for people who want to learn Spanish… it’s not about cookbooks or translations of Stephen King… it’s to show you the complexity and the richness of the world of the Spanish language,” Helguera said.

Counting Books

Librería Donceles is often highlighted by curators and artists not purely as a bookstore or library, but as a social experience. “[The library] doesn’t have the social element,” Rios said… “I think that what this exhibit creates is a place where you can be social amongst the books in a way that’s unique.”

However, Librería Donceles’ cozy atmosphere also rings warning bells about a crucial shortfall across the Central Valley: According to Data USA, 54.2% of Fresno’s population identifies as Hispanic, and yet Spanish speakers have limited options for accessing reading material.

Librería Donceles’ slogan, “Su única librería en espanol en el Valle Central,” makes clear the most obvious issue: the statement itself translates to “Your only bookstore in Spanish in the Central Valley.” However, there are struggles to access Spanish material even outside of commercial bookselling.

According to a statement given to Fresnoland by Fresno Public Library County Librarian Sally Gomez, about 10% of the library’s printed materials are in Spanish, with eBooks and databases not included in this number. The library itself faces challenges obtaining books in world languages, as large publishers carry a limited selection of them.

Gomez also said that localized vendors, such as Tomo Books, are “very helpful” in acquiring Spanish language materials. The Fresno Public Library is actively working to obtain more.

Additionally, the Fresno Public Library’s website lists limited upcoming bilingual English-Spanish events or Spanish-only events, primarily for adult conversation practice. This increases the difficulty for parents who only speak Spanish (or their children) to find free accessible events in languages they understand.

Gomez stated that the library system aims to have bilingual staff, especially at outreach events, in order to better facilitate community members. The library, which has had Spanish story times before, is looking at “ways to enhance [their] programming and outreach services with bilingual staff and hope to have additional good news to share soon,” said Gomez.

Looking Forward

Despite historic resistance towards Spanish language and Hispanic/Latinx culture, Arte Americas has served as a hub for these communities since its founding in 1987. The museum hosts fundraisers and cultural events, including Dia de Los Muertos festivities and an Arte Run, which included a walk and yoga at Arte Americas.

Librería Donceles will be on display until Dec. 22. Paz Chavez says that there are already plans to integrate the traveling exhibit into Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, as well as Christmas celebrations, including Las Posadas.

Librería Donceles is not the only thing that has adapted to changing seasons though.

“This is the first time ever that Arte has had an eight person full time professional staff– for about the first three decades of our history, most of the work was done by volunteers,” said Paz Chavez. Arte’s staff will also soon witness and facilitate a renovation to both Arte America’s main gallery and museum space, as well as its outdoor plaza.

Arte Americas is also enacting digital renovations. “Available on our newly renovated website in August will be a series of lesson plans for kindergarten through sixth grade,” said Marrón. “Teachers will be able to access them and integrate literature from other cultures into their lessons, and they follow the core curriculum.”

Arte Americas also hosts bilingual story time, which began during the COVID-19 pandemic and involves children and family time listening to a story in Spanish and English. “We added a craft time component too,” said Marron. “You see all the tíos [uncles] and parents and families getting into the crafting with their kids.”

Bilingual storytime is soon looking at potential expansions as well, with Arte looking into how to travel to five dual-immersion schools in the Fresno area.

“...I created this project to speak specifically in relation to immigrant communities, people who are detached by either choice or force from their places of origin… a place where you can connect with the past and that culture,” said Helguera.

Librería Donceles, for the next six months, will aim to create a space such as this in Fresno– expanding a mission Arte Americas has carried for decades.

Visiting the Librería Donceles exhibit

  • Librería Donceles will be on display at Arte Americas until Dec. 22. The piece can be seen Thursday from noon-8 pm, and Friday through Sunday 10 am - 4 pm. 

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.