New York – On Friday evening, book lovers from all over the city gathered in East Harlem, better known as “El Barrio,” a neighborhood legendary for its vibrant Latino community. They came for the grand opening of what supporters hope will become a new neighborhood institution: La Casa Azul Bookstore.
The opening of La Casa Azul is the result of an eleven-year odyssey for its owner, Aurora Anaya-Cerda, a transplant from East Los Angeles with an academic background who slowly came to realize the bookstore was her destiny.
“I moved to New York seven years ago, and within my first year of moving here, I had this moment where I reflected back on my purpose in New York, and what I was doing to kind of contribute to East Harlem since I loved it so much,” Anaya-Cerda told Fi2W. She discovered a need in the community for access to Spanish-language books. “That’s when I started taking business classes, and learning about accounting, and really just learning the business aspect of running a bookstore,” Anaya-Cerda said.
It was not easy. Anaya-Cerda had trouble raising money, but was helped by a sizable anonymous donation about nine months ago.
“We need one bookstore here in the Barrio,” said Jose Lopez, 57, a Mexican immigrant and resident of East Harlem who came in hopes of finding books in Spanish. “We don’t have a bookstore here.”
As she attended book fairs and other community events to build support, Anaya-Cerda attracted a sizable group of volunteers who believed in her mission, many of whom were in attendance at the launch, wearing red cards around their necks saying “Staff.”
“Especially for this community, we need it,” said John Agosto, 42, who runs his own silk screening business, and volunteered to help remodel the space. “Not everybody here has laptops, you know, and what’s the other thing, the iPad. They don’t have none of that, you know. They can’t even afford to go to Barnes and Noble.”
Around 6 pm, a crowd gathered about a half a block from the 103rd Street stop on the 6 train. A ten-piece mariachi band took over the stoop of one of the street’s elegant brownstones as Anaya-Cerda spoke to the crowd and received congratulations from representatives of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“I hope you continue to dream with me,” Anaya-Cerda told the crowd, “and see the potential we’re able to build together.”
Named for artist Frida Kahlo’s “Blue House” in Mexico City, the store sells books in both Spanish and English, almost all of them written by Latinos. It will also be a café and a performance and teaching space with a focus on Latin American writing.
“For artists, it will mean a place where we can come, where we can obviously sell our wares, those of us who are writers,” said Rich Villar, a poet.
According to Anaya-Cerda, La Casa Azul also addresses a need for access to culturally relevant reading, especially for children in the neighborhood.
“To put books in a child’s hand is definitely something I’m looking forward to,” she said. “And not just any book, but a book that reflects their culture, where they come from, that has words in it that they recognize because it’s the language their parents speak.”
Anaya-Cerda, who is of Mexican heritage, said the bookstore is intended to appeal not only to the burgeoning Mexican population of East Harlem and its long-established Puerto Rican community, but to all neighborhood residents and visitors.
“It’s also the Dominicans, it’s the Colombians, it’s all the Latin American writers that are out there,” she said. “I really hope this a becomes a place, a destination for people in El Barrio.”