Hearts beat faster. Stomachs feel queasy. And nerves kick into overdrive the first time an aspiring writer stands in front of a crowd to share a poem aloud.
Breathe. Read. Breathe. Read.
Within the Resistencia Bookstore walls, nervous writers are comforted by knowing that after the last verse has been spoken, a community awaits. For more than 30 years, Resistencia has nurtured artists, writers and social justice activists by providing a safe place to exchange ideas, share concerns about issues or be comfortable in their skin.
Founded by the late poet Raúl Salinas, Resistencia, which means resistance, has become a treasured part of Austin’s Chicano/Latino community. But, at times, it hasn’t been clear if the bookstore could survive changes in the independent bookstore industry, financial struggles or the passing of its beloved founder.
Resistencia, one of the longest running Chicano/Latino/American Indian bookstores in the Southwest, now begins a new chapter. It recently moved from its longtime location on South First Street to its new home on East Cesar Chavez Street, where it will re-open its doors on April 11. Resistencia now sits among a cluster buildings occupied by other Latino organizations including Lupe Arte, PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) and Latinitas.
It’s also undergone an important leadership change that will help Salinas’ legacy live on. Since last fall, Austinites Tañia Rivera and Lilia Rosas have become the new caretakers of Resistencia. They also run Red Salmon Arts, the nonprofit that creates programming for the bookstore. Careful to honor Resistencia’s past while infusing fresh ideas, the duo has plans to create a library where visitors can access the bookstore’s extensive archives, provide writing workshops to formerly incarcerated women, and add more Latino/American Indian graphic novels and comics to Resistencia’s inventory. Cafe Libro, a popular open mike series, will continue to help writers shake the nerves and share their work.
While moving stuff around in the older space seemed intimidating because of its history, Rosas says, the move to the new space has freed them up to try changes and make it their own.
“We knew if we wanted to make this work, we needed new energy,” Rivera says. Already the move “has felt like a cleansing for the space,” she says.
After moving to its fifth location, Resistencia has now traveled full circle to East Austin, where it opened in 1981.
It began in Seattle
Resistencia’s roots actually go beyond Austin. During the 1970s, members of Seattle’s Chicano community occupied an abandoned school building to create a multipurpose social services center for programs such as English as a Second Language. Inside one of its classrooms, a small bookstore emerged — Resistencia. It was run by Salinas, who had recently been released from prison for drug possession convictions. It was in prison where Salinas’ social and political consciousness grew and his writings had garnered national attention.
During a visit to Austin, Salinas connected with Gilbert Rivera, who led the local Brown Berets, a community organization that grew out of the Chicano Movement. Rivera, a longtime activist and Tañia Rivera’s father, headed to the Pacific Northwest to learn more.
From American Indian fishing rights to African-American labor rights, Gilbert Rivera says the Centro de la Raza became “a place where different organizations could come and talk about their struggles … and the bookstore became a draw for the community. People would end up walking out with books they’d never seen. And here in Austin, it’s the same thing.”
When Salinas, who was a native Austinite, moved back to town, the first Resistencia location opened on East Sixth Street. As one of the first progressive bookstores in Austin, Gilbert Rivera says residents were curious about the space but also “accepting because people of all colors were welcome to share their work and ideas.” The neighborhood and community issues discussed brought people together despite race, he says, and people embraced Salinas.
Tañia Rivera remembers the first time she walked into the bookstore with her father when she was about 9 years old. “Which book would you like, mija?” she remembers Salinas asking. “I choose a book, was grateful and walked out.” She wouldn’t walk back into Resistencia until years later as an adult.
“The first bookstore wasn’t anything big,” Gilbert Rivera says. “If you didn’t know where it was, you probably couldn’t find it. But what happened there was much bigger than the physical place where it was.”
“Any day you could walk in and find someone from Nicaragua reading poetry or somebody from the Valley painting a mural,” Gilbert Rivera says. “It was unbelievable how many people from all over the world would come to the bookstore because Raúl had this charisma that attracted people.”
Over the years, writers and musicians from Sandra Cisneros to Quetzal have come through the doors. Salinas himself became a key figure in Chicano literature and often spoke at universities and organizations across the country about his involvement with several political movements and his poetry. (Salinas’ archives are now housed at Stanford University.)
He guided many aspiring writers as a mentor and inspired countless youth through Red Salmon Arts’ Save our Youth program, which offers writing clinics at middle and high schools and juvenile justice facilities. Salinas’ powerful jazz-influenced poetry shined a light on everything from human rights to East Austin barrio life.
After Salinas passed away from liver complications in 2008, he left the Latino community in mourning. Rosas, who had previously volunteered and interned at Red Salmon Arts and Resistencia, was asked to return by former Red Salmon Arts executive director Rene Valdez, who had been assuming more responsibilities since Salinas’ health declined.
Rosas came on board again about seven months after Salinas’ passing. “There had been enough time to mourn, but initially it was incredibly hard,” she says. “We realized we were elder-less, and that was painful. When you have an elder, you can turn to them to confirm or clarify, and without him, we were in survival mode.”
Rosas and Valdez turned to others in the community who had witnessed Resistencia’s place in Austin history. “The questions were: Should Red Salmon Arts continue? Was it worth it for Resistencia as a bookstore to stay open?,” Rosas says.
Gilbert Rivera, now Red Salmon Arts’ board president, was involved in those conversations. He remembers pointing to “the bookstore being one of few places where we can be ourselves, everyone from political activists, gay and lesbians, African-Americans, the space is open to everyone.”
Rosas and Valdez realized that keeping its doors open still mattered.
The spirit lives on
After a long absence, Tañia Rivera walked back into Resistencia in 2009 and felt like she had come full circle. Resistencia had hosted an event that explored Chicana experiences in the U.S. criminal justice system. Tañia Rivera, who had been incarcerated for multiple felonies because of her heroin addiction, joined the women at the reading. “It’s only by the grace of God that my life has been turned around,” she says.
As she started coming to more Resistencia events, she says she became more “in touch with the spirit of the space and my indigenous background. It was all coming back to me. It was coming at me like a flood. I finally got in touch with who I really was.” Resistencia felt like home to her, and she soon was invited to join Red Salmon Arts and Resistencia.
“Rene and Lilia said they were interested in what I had to say, my experiences and how that connected with Raúl and his experiences,” she says. Since then, she has served as a speaker for at-risk youth and has founded a Red Salmon Arts project called the Ex-Pinta Support Alliance, which organizes women who are ex-prisoners to overcome challenges they face reintegrating into society.
In 2013, Valdez moved to New York and left Red Salmon Arts and Resistencia in the care of Rosas and Tañia Rivera, whom he trusted to keep the spirit of Raúl alive.
‘A safe space’
Throughout the decades, Resistencia has awakened social and political consciousness and inspired others to take risks through writing. But almost every Resistencia regular will say it’s a “safe space.”
“We mean that despite all the oppression you may experience every single day out there, that here, at least, we’re working to say you are safe,” Rosas says. “We’re not perfect. We’re learning and working. But know that you are safe here, that you can be who you are.”
Resistencia leaves a lasting mark on practically everyone who comes through its doors. Michelle Mejia, 25, a Resistencia volunteer, first learned about the bookstore as a University of Texas freshman.
“It introduced me to an Austin you can’t find at UT,” she says. “An Austin that is often ignored, that is not part of the tech scene nor the festivals, it’s more like the underlying heartbeat of this city. So Resistencia means a lot of things — it means a home away from home, a space where my art and my voice are respected — an intergenerational space where I can learn from my elders and they can learn from me.”
For Tañia Rivera, it helped give her life a profound purpose that she hadn’t felt before. And Rosas credits Resistencia for grounding her.
“Resistencia isn’t about books,” Rosas says. “It’s about space — cultivating space and cultivating community.”
Resistencia Bookstore Opening Event
Poetry reading by Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos
When: 7 p.m. April 11
Where: 4926 E. Cesar Chavez St., Unit C1
Free, but donations accepted. For more information, visit salmonrojo.tumblr.com or call 512-389-9881.