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El Gran Combo 2021 Wrap-Up

El Gran Combo 2021

By Aimé Casillas

El Gran Combo, originally conceived by Angie Cruz as a gathering in solidarity with Latinx authors and independent bookstores, has now been celebrated for a second year . The first time during the beginning weeks of a pandemic lockdown in April 2020, the event came together as a nod to perseverance. This time around, it was truly a celebration and an ode to community. 

¡Adiós, 2020! Welcome, 2021.

Adiós, 2020.

This year, we have lost friends and family, food resources, homes, jobs, time, and many of the small pleasures in our daily lives. But, if you are reading this, you are still here, we are still here. We are making it through. 

Nine and a half years ago, Word Up was born as a pop-up, out of a feeling of urgency and rare opportunity. We spent the following years developing ways to sustain and strengthen what we’d started, to deepen our commitment to our communities, all the while trying to remain as nimble as when we first sprung up.

When the pandemic led us to close our doors to in-store browsing, as a group we were readier than we realized: the years of organizing with others and among ourselves meant we could jump right in. 

  • We immediately began to process thousands of online orders for print books, audiobooks, and ebooks;

  • After a successful census kickoff event on March 12th, we moved all promotion and facilitation of the census to online teach-ins or through book and food distribution, to make sure the stories of our neighborhood are counted; 

  • In April, we quickly converted to virtual programming, including some of our most high-profile author events with Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Acevedo, Angie Cruz, Nic Stone, Ibi Zoboi, Maria Hinojosa, and more, and sometimes with Spanish, Haitian Kreyol, and ASL interpretation;

  • In May, we executed emergency food distribution to families enrolled with Dance Project of Washington Heights, with the help of I Love My Hood;
  • In June, we collaborated on marches and actions with neighborhood groups, including the Washington Heights Children's March in Defense of Black Lives;
  • In July, we co-organized from scratch, with a dozen other uptown arts organizations, a virtual summer camp for more than 200 kids, which included 4 Word Up–designed mini-camps that came with free books for kids; 
  • This summer, we cemented a new youth programs manager position, which grew out of our Uptown Kid Lit festival, and which included creation of an August virtual environmental summer camp and multiple book clubs, including the Lo’Mas Lit Book Club, all with free books for participants;

  • In September, we began to host a community fridge, organized by The People’s Fridge at Word Up, which is still regularly restocked;

  • We opened our sidewalk to resource distribution of all kinds—protest sign making, census and voter registration, food and coat drivesviolin performances—and one fantastical author event with Jeff Kinney;

  • We maintained our small staff on payroll—at a rate that exceeds an NYC living wage—and expanded it as our needs grew.

Looking ahead to 2021, Word Up has even more big plans, so that people in our communities can have better access to the things they need. Our mission is rooted in access to books; it’s the heart of what we do. And the longer we have been doing this work, the closer our work gets to addressing the root causes for why that access can be so limited: systemic racism, the lack of universal healthcare, income inequality, food insecurity, and more. Kids need food to have the presence of mind to absorb what they are learning, what they are reading. During this critical time in history, our holistic perspective of what needs to be done to make books accessible—and the information, knowledge, and joy within them—has become even more relevant. 

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