Sarah Rafael García, a familiar writer/entrepreneur/celebrity in her hometown of Santa Ana, exudes radiance, energy and success. Yet she attributes her accomplishments in writing, teaching, publishing and recently becoming the owner of a bookstore to acknowledging discomfort in her life. She uses that discomfort — as an out-of-place Chicana — as a major source of motivation.
One of García’s most notable achievements was the creation of her nonprofit LibroMobile bookstore in 2016, from which she sells her own books of memoirs and fairy tales, along with low-cost Latino, bilingual and feminist volumes, and those dealing with mental health and LGBTQ issues. Her incentive to start the rolling bookstore was the closing of the Santa Ana bookstore, Librería Martínez, founded years ago by Chicano activist and MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner Rueben Martinez.
With little money to invest, García repurposed a planter cart and stacked it with books. Her LibroMobile soon became an itinerant venue that she moves from place to place in downtown Santa Ana. The cart attracts book lovers, librarians, bilingual children, curious local residents and los señores or elderly gentlemen. These gatherings of diverse residents and working people encourage her to continue her mission of selling books while spreading the power of the written word.
Shortly after its founding, LibroMobile became the LibroMobile Arts Co-op, evolving into a community of organizers, cultural producers and local artists. It is now aided by volunteers and others who receive small stipends.
Financed by a small grant, she initially rented a secure staircase and hallway in downtown Santa Ana where she stored and sold her books. Soon after, LibroMobile moved into a small warehouse in Santa Ana, where its books are now displayed, its repurposed planter cart is housed and the sale of new and used books pays the rent.
Since LibroMobile’s launch four years ago, it has had a continual inventory of more than 3,000 books, with many volumes donated to the bookstore on a regular basis. García and her assistants in turn often give books away to children and teenagers, encouraging them to read and express themselves through writing.
From its inception, García began rolling her cart of books to various Santa Ana locations, engaging in community events and hosting creative workshops and live readings. With the onset of the pandemic and the statewide lockdown, LibroMobile became less visible. But with her enterprising spirit, García started marketing and selling her books through social media, especially through Instagram. A $5,000 grant from the COVID-19 Small Business Incentive Program helped her to continue running the bookstore.
Chicano culture is more often seen through the lens of the visual arts than through writing, as many painters, sculptors and printmakers from that genre have emerged in the last 50 years, since the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War in August 1970.
Yet García is evolving into a writing avatar, promoting Chicano culture through words. “We launched a book review program, LibroMobile Voices, this past summer. And we have published reviews by local writers about local authors, which were favorably received.”
She adds, “There are many Orange County writers who contribute to Chicanx literature, with some of them published in LibroMobile Voices. Among them are poets Iuri M. Lara, Jesus Cortez, Gustavo Hernandez, Marilynn Montano and Anatalia Vallez. Award-winning O.C. Weekly journalist Gabriel San Roman spotlights diverse O.C. communities for LibroMobile’s newsletter. And there are playwright Elvia Susana Rubalcava of Chicanas Cholas y Chisme theater workshop, and Virginia Arce, O.C.’s only Chicana curator who mounted a Latino art exhibition that I reviewed.”
A perusal of LibroMobile’s staff reveals a nascent group of erudite youth building a Latino-based community of writers and editors. Among them are: Joel Lucas Medina, who has led workshops at UC Irvine and at the California Association of Teachers of English and directs her Barrio Writers Program; Manuel G. Galaviz, an archeologist and doctoral candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology, specializing in U.S./Mexico Borderlands Anthropology; and Erin Rubin, a law student and graduate in English and French from Boston University.
Writer of Fairy Tales
Before beginning her bookstore, the self-motivated García was expressing her artistry through short stories, often drawing on her Mexican American childhood in Santa Ana for content. Her several volumes of writings include “Las Niñas” (2008), a memoir about growing up with her two younger sisters.
The volume she is best known for, “SanTana’s Fairy Tales,” allegorically referencing the vibrant Mexican American culture she inhabited as a child, was published in English and Spanish in 2017. She was motivated to write this book after studying the Grimm brothers’ “Fairy Tales,” which she learned about during a semester abroad in Ireland, while working toward a master’s degree in creative writing. Soon after, she was granted an Artist-in-Residency at Grand Central Art Center, Santa Ana. This supportive arrangement gave her the time and freedom to write her haunting and sentimental “Fairy Tales.”
Merging the fairy tale model with stories of a California Mexicana childhood might seem an unusual mix. But the harsh plots of the Grimm brothers — including the story of “Hansel and Gretel” depicting two children who outwit a cannibalistic witch — are eloquent templates for García’s poignant collection.
Getting her “Fairy Tales” recognized and published was a significant accomplishment, as her unusual melding of narrative styles eclipses customary writing models, even those by people of color. Yet with fierce resolve, along with support by an Andy Warhol Foundation grant and her rent-free Artist-in-Residency, she contracted with Raspa Magazine to publish “SanTana’s Fairy Tales.”
García again displayed her fearlessness in October 2018 when she received an “Emerging Artist of the Year” award at a gala staged by Arts Orange County. In the presence of artists and arts entrepreneurs, she proclaimed, “I can’t tell you about the two white men in the arts industry who I’ve held accountable for racial and gender bias. They are gatekeepers. They are the norm in this industry. They have set the standard for centuries in this nation. I can’t tell you about them because I should be grateful to finally enter the realms of contemporary art, grateful to finally be accepted by my white male counterparts who seek legal counsel when I raise my voice.”
Later in her speech, she said, “All of this means I haven’t quite assimilated into your system. A system that prefers higher education and quid pro quo, rather than evolving with those who were never given the opportunity to evolve on their own terms. Quite honestly, I will never assimilate.”
Then she introduced her Barrio Writers workshop, an ongoing organization that she commenced in 2009 to empower teenagers through free creative writing workshops and the cultural arts. She told the audience, “I tell my teens, all thousands of them (in several chapters in California and Texas) that you have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
Where does Sarah Rafael García go from here? Last year, she was recognized as a 2019 Project Row Houses fellow. That honor led to more opportunities for her, including an adjunct position teaching Ethnofiction for Contemporary Narratives at Chapman University. This year, she became the Artist Grant Specialist for the California Arts Council. And with the $5,000 COVID-19 grant, LibroMobile has continued to pay its bills, even as the staff awaits more funds to finance operations through 2020.
“I also hope to get more involved with the digital humanities, to preserve and present cultural history through virtual archives and storytelling for my Chicanx gente,” García says. She adds that she strives to mentor, and to be in solidarity with Black, Indigenous and people of color communities (BIPOC).
Top Image: The LibroMobile bookstore at its home in a Santa Ana warehouse. | Courtesy of Sarah Rafael García