In Spanish, mil mundos means a thousand worlds. Maria Herron, founder of Mil Mundos Bookstore Cafe means to hold space for Spanish speaking communities.
Maria and I met a few years ago at Woodbine, an organizing space focused on ecological collapse we both frequent. There we hit it off through ongoing projects. To its credit, Woodbine has hosted community dinners every Sunday for the last five years. It was over Sunday Dinner sometime in late 2018 that Maria first illustrated her dream to open a bilingual community space in Bushwick. Immediately after meeting Maria, you can sense how much energy she holds for community organizing.
Her vision sounded to me then like a bold new intervention in struggles against gentrification, one I imagined would take a while for others to rally around. But, oh my god, did she pull it off. Mil Mundos opened their doors to the public in early March 2019. My girl did it all in like three months.
Maria's dream realized is Mil Mundos, a bilingual bookstore in Bushwick curated for Black and Latinx communities. Their book collection is evenly Spanish and English with dozens of new titles. The store is also an organizing space, language tutoring center, and a fresh experiment in anti-gentrification.
Maria wants Mil Mundos to challenge gentrification in the area by holding space in a Spanish speaking neighborhood exceedingly infiltrated by businesses designed solely for English patrons. Because the world is ending, yet gentrification persists.
From their website:
Mil Mundos Books’ primary mission is to remain dedicated to larger-scale anti-gentrification work in eastern Bushwick and beyond and to maintain a curation and space that celebrates Black and Latinx heritage and supports the narratives of these cultures. Our two strategies toward this end are:
Proactively engage with the community - especially with Black and Latinx communities adversely affected by incoming commerce - to maintain a two-way conversation about how best to encourage and support their autonomy and agency in their neighborhood and lives.
Maintain a culture of acceptance, inclusivity, and healthy communication both within the store and as an organization overall, serving as a model of our commitment to our values in any work environment.
Maria is already known around the neighborhood as a glowing powerful force and with a collective of active volunteers now organizing a thousand worlds together, I like to think she's unstoppable. To accomplish all that she does, she must be. Still, I was allowed to catch her for a little interview over spicy tacos and cold beer.
What’s your background?
I identify as Cuban American. That isn’t to say I claim to have the same experience as someone who is Cuban; I was born in NYC, I have never been to the island. For those born in Cuba of my parents’ age, visiting the island again would mean a permanent visit - unless you had an exit visa, or permission to leave again. Of course, everyone in the US Cuban diaspora is affected by the diplomatic relations between the two nations. There is an elephant in the room though that this kind of disenfranchisement - from one’s culture, from one’s language, from one’s heritage - creates a ‘bad Latina’ complex... as if there was a way to perform identity incorrectly. Opening Mil Mundos for me has been a way of sending out a memo to myself and other POC, letting us know: yes, you are qualified to call your experience, your neighborhood, and your home your own.
We know each other through local organizing. How did you come to this work?
My first job was as a page at my local library. I worked as a collective member at Bluestockings for several years and helped with their 2015 lease resigning and renovations. After thinking about how I defined my sense of "home" during Amazon’s attempted move-in on our city, I realized I needed to do more than critique. I wanted some sort of physical space in my neighborhood, with regular hours and managed accessibility, where I could talk about my experience as a New Yorker, as a second-generation Latinx whose first language was English, about the disenfranchisement one feels from their culture in neighborhoods getting taken over by the highest bidder. I felt the only way to respond appropriately to the urgency of these needs was to dig my nails into the ground and hold that space.
Could you describe what Mil Mundos is right now?
Mil Mundos is both a bilingual bookstore and community center for the eastern Bushwick community, curating to celebrate black and Latinx heritage and culture. We think of our work as a larger-scale anti-gentrification project, with a mission of illuminating the difference it makes when you support and invest in the community that is already there, versus one you are encouraged to move in because you feel they may be more profitable.
What does it take to open a bookstore like this? Especially in the digital age?
Funding, curating challenging and relevant material that speaks to the experience of the local community, and fast project management skills. In my experience, that’s what it takes to open a bookstore like this. To sustain a bookstore though… it takes a village. Whether you live your daily life in English in leftist radical circles, or you are a nearby parent of a toddler in love with the shop, living their life with no exposure to American (often white) leftist aesthetic, entirely in Spanish: it takes a deliberate, intentional community from all ends. I’m still not sure what it will take for us to feel secure about its longevity, but right now the only option we are entertaining is to keep trying.
Tell me about why you chose this neighborhood, why open a Spanish language community space here?
I think, when people say they have a "love-hate" relationship with NYC, what they often mean is that they have a "love-frustration" relationship with it. NYC is a city like no other, but its residents are hardly invited to think about living in one place anymore on any kind of longer-term scale. Nobody thinks about buying a home or apartment to raise a family in. Nobody thinks about renovations to an apartment they rent for their quality of life. Even if the way NYC daily life was organized for us to feel invited to, the toll of living here is so high, the vast majority of us are left without the resources to do so.
Additionally, few businesses in the Bushwick area east of Myrtle seem to take into consideration that the dominant language of the entire neighborhood zoned as "Bushwick" is Spanish, and not by a narrow margin. I have lived in the same apartment for over five years now, and have lived in other apartments in the Bushwick/Ridgewood area at other points in the last ten years as well. I love the area I live in, and yet there is a multi-story residential complex going up across from my front door, with a start-to-finish completion schedule set for 14 months. How can you expect folks to commit to the community in the face of that? You already know the condos going up aren’t for you. So I had to consider - what if revitalization of a neighborhood was for us; for the community that was already there? That is the core idea for me in resisting gentrification. What if we could make developers think twice about taking space away from us? What if we insisted on living not as either consumers or irrelevant to their endgame, but as ourselves, in our language, in our skin?
And what challenges are you facing?
Of course, we could run out of money sooner than later, and then close our doors like many new small businesses, and that, of course, is a major challenge. However, the other major challenge is normalizing for neighborhood folks even interacting with a bookstore at all. The area of Bushwick east of Myrtle has not had a general-purpose bookstore in at least 30-40 years. With all the market research done in preparation for this project, I still cannot seem to pin down the last bookshop that existed around here, let alone one that the community felt was for them. A fun fact: the word for bookstore in Spanish is librería, while the word for library in Spanish is biblioteca. And, most residents have not had a space to inhabit where they can interact with books outside of a Brooklyn Public Library branch, some for their whole lives so far. Many neighborhood folks still ask us: “Wow, is this a library?” I urge readers to consider what it could be like to grow up in a world where you have honestly never been inside a bookstore before that was designed or meant for you.
What do you want it to become? Or, how do you want it to evolve?
Regardless of what folks are working hard to publish, a bookstore chooses what they choose to show, to put on display, to talk about. Recently, we started carrying several books that are seldom found outside of their native Caribbean islands, one of which is calling Mil Mundos home for the first time in all of the mainland United States. Even this language - “mainland United States” - invites the listener to consider the experience of those living in what is technically the United States, but not the version of the US that "mainlanders" take for granted. I honestly could not find a single space in which I could have that kind of a conversation in all of NYC, where it would be prioritized - let alone Bushwick. One had to be made. The marginalization of experiences like these is an issue that needed to be immediately addressed, as soon as someone could.
In terms of our organization, ultimately the project needs to become autonomous and sustainable, able to be run by anyone involved. Our goal is to demonstrate how a bookstore can be a pillar of Community, and the gateway to a thousand other worlds and narratives that we can inhabit in one way or another.
What does space mean to you? radical spaces, bookstores, community, How do you think about radical spaces?
A comrade once asked me: "why do you do this work? This movement work that we all keep doing?" My answer was simply that, honestly, I just want to chill with my friends, but with all these oppressive systems that keep getting run on us, we can’t all do that. I want to address those challenges and go back to hanging out with those I love and having fun, for the rest of my life. How can we resist if we don’t have the space to do so? Bookstores have the potential to be inherently community spaces, where we can process, heal, and grow.
The introduction of serving Cuban cafecito for $1 a cup is an example of the need for holding space: a slow procedure in an accelerated world, that yields roughly 4oz of black coffee per cup, meant not to give you fuel to be a more efficient and productive worker, but as a medium in which folks can engage in the expression of culture. We have high schoolers that do regents prep that sprawl out on the floor and ask us for homework help. We have neighborhood toddlers who hang out in the doorframe just to say hi. If you are moving, and need somewhere to bring your plants to that you can’t take with you, we have somehow become that space. Who can point out which space that would be in their own neighborhood?
Alternative education and community support appear fundamental to the Mil Mundos model. Do you believe it is possible to overcome our dependence on city systems and generate new ways of learning?
There are many businesses out there that provide infrastructures that have become essential, that have privatized the efforts behind that infrastructure to profit off its indispensability. Some have been successful in this attempt, and some - like many civic efforts for public services - are all but forfeit, a highly technical relic left behind by a resigned previous generation, and not necessarily with a user guide for it. I see the NYC education system as an infrastructure in place that can be adopted and repurposed by the community if we choose to do so. The primary lesson is that we take the present to learn how to learn and learn how to challenge systems that don’t give us that choice.
Advice for those aspiring to follow your lead?
Take things one step at a time. Those close to me are always needing to remind me of this, and it helps every time to hear it. Also, if you have a handful of books that you love, that you want to share with others and introduce them to, make sure you carry them. Don’t be nervous about reaching out to the creator of those books. You are the one creating a space for others to inhabit, whether in the physical store or the curation of your titles, and you are choosing their voice to do so.
And how can people outside of your community help Mil Mundos thrive?
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