A blog by Amanda Alcantara

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Black Latina Owned Bookstore in Brooklyn Challenges Gentrification & Stereotypes About Who Reads

By Amanda Alcantara

Cafe Con Libros. Photo by Amanda Alcantara

I recently wrote a profile over at BESE about Café Con Libros, a new feminist bookstore. With the bookstore owner's blessings, I wanted to share this follow up with other very important and key thoughts about the bookstore.

When Kalima DeSuze decided to open up Café con libros, she was taken aback by the amount of people who said a space like that wouldn’t make it. “Before I decided to make this move, people were telling me ‘no’ ‘no one reads books’, ‘no one is going to be reading feminist books.'" People told her that if she used the word “feminist” no one would come. And yet Kalima stood her ground and decided to push against all negativity and barriers to proceed with her mission to create the space.

Café Con Libros's inauguration was in December of 2017, in a location very close to where DeSuze grew up. It is painted in white, with large windows that give the small space a lot of light, creating a balance between intimacy and safety, yet openness. A nod to her Panamanian roots, the store’s name comes after a tradición that Latinx families know too well. 

“The purpose of the space is to build community and the way that I know my community builds is sitting around with a cup of coffee, and piece a bread and dipping it in the coffee—that can happen all day long” she says, adding that her intention was also to create a space that was family-oriented and open to children. 

DeSuze holds a full-time position at the Silberman School of Social Work at the City University of New York.  I wrote at BESE "She is also an activist who identifies as black feminist and likes to write. Café Con Libros is a reflection of all of that, building on DeSuze’s identification and politics as well as what she saw was missing for women like her". 

Café Con Libros also has a selection of children's books. Photos: Amanda Alcanatara

“I do identify as Afrolatina and I will say that, more so the African part plays into it". For DeSuze, there is a lack of narratives that center AfroLatinas, so she often gravitated towards black feminist thought, which was nonetheless powerful. Writers like bell hooks taught her about the importance of community and accountability. There is indeed a lack of narratives for AfroLatinas that are supported by the mainstream, many writers like Josefina Baez, Nelly Rosario, Mayra Santos Febres and others either choose to publish independently or are not given the wide recognition they deserve within Latinx communities. 

The bookstore is also reflective of DeSuze’s experiences as an army veteran. The U.S. army has waged wars worldwide, and also right within its own headquarters when it comes to the treatment of women. Her politics were shaped by her time being in the army and the struggles that she faced as a woman there. She says that while this time made her strong, it also emboldened her feminist resolute. 

 I became even more aware of the meaning and thereby the dangers of being a woman in a male/masculine dominated environment”, she says. “So much of my sexuality and femininity was stunted for quite a while out of fear for my safety and/or reputation which was easily damaged in such close quarters.” Having served seven years, JAG Corps, she said she had to toughen up in ways in which she didn’t need to prior to serving.

Over at BESE I wrote "As an AfroLatina, Kalima represents an intersection where many of us live: Black race and Latina ethnicity. And often times we are a bridge between these two communities, whether it is a chosen responsibility or not". Café Con Libros is a space where being AfroLatina is represented in its wholeness, as opposed to two identities that too many still cannot fathom actually exist as a whole. The selection of books is representative of the intersection between Black and Latinx, with children’s bilingual books as well as books by both Black and Latina feminists, like Zadie Smith and Gloria Anzaldúa. DeSuze also carefully curated a playlist that can quickly go from latest songs like Finesse by Bruno Mars ft. Cardi B, to Lauryn Hill’s 90s album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. 

Yet obtaining the tools to open the store itself was not easy. DeSuze co-runs the bookstore with her husband, as well as some other workers. Sometimes people believe that her husband, who is black, must be married to a white woman when he introduces the store to them and says that it was his wife who opened it.

DeSuze co-runs the bookstore with her husband, pictured here.

“It remains this prevalent stereotype that either black people don’t read” She told me with some frustration in her voice, “First of all they’re not even thinking AfroLatina—[it remains a stereotype] that black people don’t read, that black people can’t create beautiful things and beautiful spaces, and what they say is true sometimes, that black people don’t have enough money to do it, and yes we are red-lined from bank loans in terms of trying to do the things that we want to do.” 

For DeSuze the stereotype is hurtful. She has taken to decorating the space with thoughtfulness and an attention to detail that is a testament to our people’s creativity. The space is surrounded by bookshelves with carefully displayed diverse books. The walls that don’t have bookshelves, are decorated with temporary exhibits. 

Café con Libros is like a bigger version of the nooks that bookworms would love to have at home, though so many of us from low-income communities of color cannot afford it or aren’t able to access these kinds of spaces.  

These ideas that bookstores for black and brown people and by black and brown people can’t exist in our communities is often times not only an outcome of systemic oppression, but also a direct result of repression. Recently an article in The Atlantic highlighted how at the height of the Black Power movement, the FBI targeted black owned bookstores. The article states that FBI director Edward J Hoover sent the following order “locate and identify black extremist and/or African-type bookstores in its territory and open separate discreet investigations on each to determine if it is extremist in nature.” Recently, #BlackLivesMatter activists were also persecuted and deemed "extremists." DeSuze believes that in a capitalist society, survival of the fittest is promoted, and she is building an intentional space in a present time when communities of color are continuously under attack, and where an educational space that centers our stories is necessary.

For DeSuze, Café Con Libros is indeed a political space, one that is gives women of color writers a platform by centering them, and one where the community can connect and share thoughts. In a time when Brooklyn is being gentrified, DeSuze is hopeful that the space can connect local residents. 

In this day and time where folks need a space for conversation, I'm hoping that this space allows for those conversation” she says, “Not everyone moving in are bad people, a lot of activists [who are moving in] are my friends, organizing in the community for years, so I want people who are upset and mad to meet those white identified people."

The question of gentrification for DeSuze is a personal one, and to her, Café Con Libros is a result of her own love for the community and her own family’s traditions. When speaking about the building where she grew up, she says “The folks in that building were immigrants and just coming from their countries, and relied on one another” she passionately continued, “We fed each other, we shared clothes, and so this is me, coming back and creating a space in the community that made me…because my family owned restaurants and small bodegas in our community, our Panamanian community.”

Photo: Amanda Alcantara


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