Huacales is the Spanish word for the wood crates used to transport fruits and vegetables to local farmers markets. But, in South Philly, the huacales are now also crafted as pieces of art, and, instead of produce, they are carrying free books in Spanish for community members to take and read.

“Philibros: Libros para Compartir” is an initiative to connect the Latino communities with literature in Spanish, produced by local authors and writers from throughout the Americas. The effort, launched March 31, is organized by Mexican community leaders Edgar Ramírez, Reyna Casarez, Dulce Ramirez, and Carlos José Pérez Sámano.

The group had been planning to promote Spanish reading in Latino Philly for years. But they did not know how to implement the idea until the pandemic quarantine gave them time to plan the project in October.

The program encourages customers and residents to pick up books from the huacalibreros — the wood crate bookshelves — located in Latino-owned local businesses in the Ninth Street Market and around South Philadelphia. People can leaf through the publications while they are eating in their local restaurants or seated at their hair salons. They can take home the ones they like most, and bring them back whenever they are done or pass them over to a friend or family member to keep the reading afloat.

“Our community works for long hours and they do not have time to go to the library to try to find a book in Spanish, even more so now that there are restricted schedules because of the pandemic,” said Edgar Ramírez, a community journalist and one of the four cofounders of the project. “If we are going to be the country with most Spanish speakers, then we should have more Spanish readers.”

Each huacalibrero is named after a Latino leader or a local organization recognized by community members for their impact in South Philly and the region.

The first huacalibrero was installed at Los Taquitos de Puebla, a restaurant located in the 1200 block of South Ninth Street. It was named after the late José Castillo, a physician and plastic surgeon who helped establish a free clinic in Kennett Square for Mexican migrant workers and was an active member in the Latino communities in the region.

It was so well received by community members that dozens more local businesses have reached out to organizers to ask for a bookshelf for their own location.

On Saturday, April 10, at Alma del Mar restaurant, organizers presented business owner Alma Romero with a bookshelf dedicated to Casa Monarca, a South Philly nonprofit with the mission to preserve Mexican culture and traditions in the city. It was the place where youths learned and practiced Spanish, before it closed its doors in 2016.

“Casa Monarca brings me a lot of pride and memories,” Romero said. “My daughters went there to not forget their culture, and for us, that place has always been and always will be very important.”

At Kala’s Estética Unisex on Passyunk Avenue, organizer Casarez introduced business owner Leticia de la Cruz González to the initiative and placed the bookshelf inside her beauty salon Saturday at noon.

Osvaldo Martínez, 25, was visiting Kala’s for a haircut. He seemed interested in the colorful bookshelf and was handed the book El general en su laberinto by Gabriel García Márquez. He said he has some books at home, but very few in Spanish. “It’s good that our people can start reading, again,” he said.

De la Cruz González, 38, said she had resorted to private Spanish teachers to improve her children’s language skills. She looks forward to sharing the publications with others who wish to do the same.

“I’ve been trying to preserve my kids’ language, but I can’t teach them the grammar,” she said.

The number of native Spanish speakers in the United States has more than doubled since 1990, yet movements like “English Only” have lobbied for limitations on Spanish use, which harms Hispanics and Latinos. (The U.S. does not have an official language.)

According to the U.S Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, 11.1% of Philadelphia residents age 5 and older speak Spanish at home, and 55.8% of that population also speaks English “very well.”

Edgar Ramírez explained that many immigrants do not feel comfortable venturing into a library to ask where the Spanish section is because it has a limited offering, and sometimes it is very expensive for them to buy new books in Spanish.

“One publishing house even told us that most books in Spanish are being bought by non-Latinos,” Edgar Ramírez said.

The Philibros founders also want the new generations of Latinos who were born in the United States to maintain their heritage by reading in Spanish, and to get to know Spanish classics from such authors as Gabriel García Márquez and Octavio Paz.

The huacalibreros were crafted by Philibros cofounders Dulce Ramirez, Reyna Casarez, and several local artists like César Viveros, José Lemus, and Antonio Arroniz. They are filled with about 25 books of all genres and for all ages. Each book has a sticker explaining the mission of Philibros, and each bookshelf comes with a QR code that explains the project’s concept.

Each huacalibrero is next to a hand sanitizer bottle for clients to use and each business owner is responsible for disinfecting each book after a client has looked at it, in addition to all the other COVID-19 prevention measures that the establishments have.

Edgar Ramírez said there are now five huacalibreros and there are plans to add three more this week. Depending on book donations, organizers look forward to placing 20 around South Philadelphia by the end of May. He said the initiative has also received attention from Latino residents in North Philadelphia. The group is looking into expanding the project to the entire city.

In addition to the book sharing, Philibros is also looking forward to producing interviews with local authors at community radio station Philatinos Radio, promoting read-alongs for children on Facebook Live, and doing prerecorded reading and writing workshops on their social media to promote literary habits in Latino communities.

“Most people cannot travel in times of COVID, but some members of our communities have not had the chance to travel for years because of their immigrant status and we can get them to travel with reading in a language they can understand,” said Carlos José Pérez Sámano, a cofounder and writer whose work is included in each huacalibrero.

Philibros is accepting donations of books in Spanish. For more information, email info.philibros@gmail.com. For those interested in volunteering with this initiative, please contact the organizers through direct messages on their Facebook and Instagram pages @Philibros.

Staff reporter Jesenia De Moya Correa contributed to this article.