Ken and Deborah, owners
My friend and I arrived in Valencia a few days after we had landed in Madrid. In comparison, it felt itsy-bitsy, but we loved the vibe immediately. Without knowing much about the city, we lucked out and got a cute apartment in the historic centre, where it felt very walkable. Apart from talking to strangers, learning that Valenciano is not simply Catalan, and watching Colombia lose to England over some AMAZING patatas bravas, the memory that stands out is meeting Ken Province and Deborah Ekoka, owners of United Minds.
United Minds is a bookstore and cultural space in Valencia, just outside the walls of the old city. The owners, and consequently the space, is dedicated to African and African diasporic literature (and culture in general). Until recently, I had never thought of the African community in Spain. And to think, there was a BOOKSTORE in Valencia (not even Madrid, the capital)— I was intrigued.
An hour later, I felt that I had met a long lost cousin in Ken Province. Below is part of our conversation.
So far we’ve only seen Madrid and Valencia, and Valencia is a pretty city but it also feels isolating. It’s very quiet and Madrid seems more multicultural. What was it like growing up here?
It makes you realize very early that you’re Black. You realize you’re Black when you get to the first day of school because you don’t think about it at home, it’s something normal. So the first day you go to school they let you know that something is wrong with you, you got a problem.
But for me I think I always wanted to be different I never wanted to be like the kids in my school. And also something that I didn’t know back then was the value I had, because no one knew where Haiti was. They would tell me, “you’re Black, go back to Africa.” But I would be, like, well my father is from Haiti so if I have to go somewhere…
Around 10 or 12 you start feeling more of the jokes. Then you get older and the police start asking you for your documentation.
To prove that you’re from here?
Yeah, or just to harass me. So by the time I was 18 I was like, I’m out, let me go to some other place that is not Spain. I hated it here. I wanted to turn on the radio and listen to hip-hop; go on the street and not have people looking at me, like who is this?
But when I meet people from other places like France and Holland, they have the same feeling as people here. So everybody’s looking for someplace to feel good and comfortable, but we haven’t found it. Even New York — it’s a place where if you’re born in the hood, you’re trapped. It takes a lot for you to even travel.
You had mentioned that when you started going to school that’s when you realized there was “something wrong” with you, and you didn’t recognize your worth. At what point do you think that switch happened?
Well, I was proud from the beginning. They would tell me, “you’re Black” and I would say “yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” So I learned that those words were to hurt me, so I hurt them with words; I embarrassed them. I didn’t have to fight with my fists, I was very slick with my words. The words sent me to hip hop. Hip hop got me a bit of, you know…
Yeah, there was that, but I think it was also the first step to getting me confidence. It took care of me, but then I understood that I had to move onto self-confidence. Sometimes people just complain about the things that they hate, but that my models are the people I love, people that have no fear. Someone who was talking about race back then was Negro Che. He’s a producer, a musician, but this guy was the only one that was saying everything. He used to print flyers and go outside the schools to give things away. So how am I going to go out and complain when he set that example? I think we need to be way smarter than letting words affect us.
What type of events do you host at United Minds?
Screenings, book presentations, workshops. I call it a cocteleria. We the people are ingredients. Just put us in and shake it up.
The more I find, the more I know there’s a wider ocean of books that people are not aware of. You can find any of these books elsewhere in Spain, but you find them by themselves, alone.
You stumble upon one randomly somewhere…
Yeah. And when I put a stand up at an event, I see people walking by, then turning back really confused. They get surprised, but it’s a good surprise. I see in their faces like, damn there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know; I know of this book but what about all of these others? So I think it’s very powerful, I wish I had this when I was younger.
Are there other places like this in Spain? Can you think of a bookstore like this in Madrid or Barcelona?
No, I used to go book hunting and I couldn’t find any. I found some places that told me to go to some spot in Barcelona that had a section about Africa. So I went there and I bought two books or something, but they were packed with stereotypes.
It comes to me better in Spanish: escribir sobre y escribir desde. You know when you talk “about,” it’s not “from.” I was a little bit disappointed. I don’t think they can defend all of their books but I can back up any of these books.
What would you say is the best thing that has come from creating the space?
I did this workshop with kids ages 8 to 12 and they were all adopted; they were Ethiopian. There were two moms that were very concerned about their kids’ education and role models. After that I felt I could close; I’m going to be happy forever. Just to see how these kids changed—not changed, but grew up. Especially two of them, you could see their parents had no models for them. I tried to play like an MC with metaphors; use many positive images. And you could see them go from being a little shy to being excited and enthusiastic. I think we lack those types of images. You know like when your team wins? Like what happened with Black Panther? I’m hunting for those.
How does your mom feel about all of this?
She is very encouraging, she always encouraged me to do stuff. For the rest of the family, I think they they might be like why do you want to do something that’s not going to give me that much money? But it’s because I’m very spiritual so I’m already different in that sense from the rest of my family. So it’s something that people have to accept, especially now that it is three years in. People start understanding vision that sometimes you have to make sacrifices.
Have they never asked you what’s up with all the Black stuff?
No. I already introduced them to Mississippi to Madrid about the Civil War in Spain. I think that’s the book that started the library. It’s a crazy story, so I started to look for more books and I ended up here. It’s really not that complicated, it’s just following whatever you ask for. I had looked for all of this and I couldn’t find it so…
You created it.
Yeah. It’s very easy. There are two mantras I have: apply everything you know to everything you do, and do with what you have and things will come. That’s what I’m doing so far.
So what would you say to someone who walked in here asking for a starter kit for Black books?
I always talk about some Cheikh Anta Diop book—it doesn’t really matter which one. He just makes every Egyptologist rethink everything. I’d say Fanon. I’m talking about authors more than specific books. Fanon talks about the cultural stuff; the psyche after colonization. Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey. I mean all of these books are connected—you pull from the string and the whole thing comes down. The Black Jacobins is the book that everybody across the Atlantic needs to read. I always think about our history like twins that’ve been separated: One was sent to Haiti, and the other one goes to Bahia. Or one is sent to New Orleans and the other is sent to Colombia. But these twins had a grandfather that taught them a story and that survived and evolved differently.
That reminds me of the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, that’s basically the story.
I try to connect things as much as I can because sometimes it feels like things are too disconnected. Like even with Spain and Africa —historically, you see them like they’re about to kiss, and now it’s like they don’t know anything about each other. There’s something weird there, so I just try to pull everything I can and share it.