Roughly 23 years ago, poet, critic, and activist Luis J. Rodriguez noticed a particular discrepancy between the northeast San Fernando Valley he calls home and other California regions of similar population size: his corner of the Valley lacked any significant art-and-culture center or community space. Rodriguez, who knew the impact art and writing can have on impoverished neighborhoods—he credits books with helping him out of a life of crime and gang violence—hoped to provide a creative outlet to locals.

The idea for an organization to cultivate an artistic community, provide mentors to younger generations within and outside the arts, and inspire imaginations in San Fernando was quickly born. Rodriguez teamed up with his wife, Trini, and brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez to launch Tía Chucha’s, a café and bookstore named after Rodriguez’s high-spirited and creative aunt, in 2001.

“We opened up a space where people could come out of the woodwork,” recalls Rodriguez. “The lady who sold tamales was a great singer, and she would come to our open mics. There was a waiter at this restaurant who, it turned out, was a great poet from Mexico.”

Throughout the years, Tía Chucha’s evolved to better meet the needs of the community, as any good cultural center is prone to do. The café was closed, and the bookstore was expanded and rolled into Tía Chucha’s nonprofit arm (established in 2003), which eventually landed in Sylmar.

Tucked into a corner of a bustling shopping center, the new space was designed by Sanchez and others to fulfill various functions on a day-to-day basis. The back half of the main room has been a stage for occasional open mic nights, the setting for author meet and greets, and a background for TikTok videos.

During one finals week, the area was even furnished with desks to give local students a peaceful environment to work in, recounts Sarahi Sepulveda, one of Tía Chucha’s bookstore assistants.

The rows of books for sale further reveal the ideals of the establishment. Information about social justice movements, Indigenous art, and Aztec patterns can be found in many of them, alongside work by local authors. Indigenous novels and poetry collections are prominent on the left side of the shop. To the right, a robust shelf bears the label “Luis J. Rodriguez” and features myriad works by the Tía Chucha’s cofounder. Another, branded with “Tía Chucha Press,” is laden with books from the center’s publishing wing.

For those looking to establish roots, Tía Chucha’s has an internship program that offers chosen applicants two paths: one focused on public programming and the other on bookstore operations. Karen M. Ugarte started at Tía Chucha’s as an intern; she is now the bookstore manager.

With a large gathering space, charismatic staff members, and a lot of innovative ideas, Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore is the space Rodriguez envisioned decades ago.

“We have a very poor community, and yet the people are rich in their language, in their culture, in their traditions—and I think we really need to build on that richness,” says Rodriguez. “It’s interesting that in many neighborhoods you can buy any gun, any liquor, any drug you want, but you can’t buy a book. You know what I’m saying? Cultural spaces are necessary. We need a Tía Chucha’s–like place in every neighborhood.”•

Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore

12677 Glenoaks Blvd., Sylmar,

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Elizabeth Casillas is Alta Journal’s editorial assistant.