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Celebrating Latino Books and Culture with a Two-Day Festival


Founders of the Latino Book and Family Festival knew they had a hit on their hands when they had to turn the lights on and off to let people know it was over. That was in 1997. Now the free, two-day festival is an annual event. Produced by Emmy award-winning actor Edward James Olmos, it returns to the L.A. Convention Center on Saturday and Sunday.

Hundreds of exhibitors and dozens of authors, musicians, actors and other performers will be on hand for what is billed as the largest Latino consumer trade show in the United States--one designed to promote literacy, education and entertainment and to celebrate Latino multiculturalism.

"It's easy here in Southern California to think mariachi, which is great, but our community is so diverse," said festival director Katharine Diaz. "Our challenge every year is to come up with something new."

A Panamanian ballet, an Andean musical group and a Colombian poet are among the varied acts also designed to appeal to every age group.

For adults, the biggest attraction is the author panels, according to Diaz. This year there will be nine--including discussions on fiction, nonfiction, Spanish-language novels, children's literature and poetry. Dozens of authors, including Graciela Limon ("Song of the Hummingbird") and Victor Villasenor ("Rain of Gold"), will be on hand to read from their works and sign autographs. According to festival co-founder Kirk Whisler, the festival has more Latino authors than any other event in the country.

The Latino book market has exploded over the last decade, said Whisler, who also founded the National Assn. of Hispanic Publications. Six years ago, there were fewer than 100 publishers of books in Spanish or in English aimed at the Latino market. Today, there are more than 600. Ten years ago, there were four Latino bookstores in L.A. Today there are 24, he said. A study by Western Publication Research found that the average reader of a Spanish-language newspaper purchases an average of 25 books each year.

"The old myth that Latinos don't read is certainly a myth," said Whisler.

About 50 book publishers and 70 booksellers will have booths at the event. Most of them will be in a book "village"--the largest of six areas created on the convention floor. Other "villages" will focus on culture; recreation and travel; home; careers and education; and health.

Within each village there will also be educational panel discussions, including "Leaders and Achievers," where four Latino graduates of Harvard University will talk about their experiences.

"We're in a society where there are many avenues open to almost anybody, but quite often people don't know about them," Whisler said. "[We're] making information open to as many as possible rather than to just a few."

That message is reaching an even larger audience as the Latino Book and Family Festival grows and makes it way around the country. When it started in 1997, the festival had 174 exhibitors and 14,000 attendees. This year, its fourth, there will be 783 exhibitors and at least 50,000 visitors, Whisler estimates. This year, the festival is being held in three additional cities: San Diego in the spring, Chicago in November and San Bernardino in December.

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