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Festivals Play Up Varied Aspects of Diverse City

Culture: Thousands flock to a Latino- oriented fiesta and a celebration of books.

April 29, 2002|GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly a quarter-million Los Angeles-area residents chose taquitos and ranchera music on Broadway downtown. Miles west, another large crowd, an estimated 150,000 over two days, feted the written word at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the lawns of UCLA.

The juxtaposition was enough to make writer Luis Rodriguez, an East L.A. native, a little uncomfortable as he prepared to speak at a panel at the book festival.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't be here," he said to fellow panelists Yxta Maya Murray, Gregory Rodriguez and Victor Villasenor. "But we should be over there too. There's no literary element to Fiesta Broadway at all."

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, the city that helped define ethnic and social division offered a glimpse of two fiestas.

With the sun hot off the asphalt and the overlapping sound of competing vendors, Luis Remache huffed on an Andean reed pipe in front of an appliance store below the old Cameo Theater marquee on Broadway.

A Dodgers game on a $99 television provided a backdrop for him, as he faced the line of vendors giving away everything from AARP sun visors to diapers, Listerine, Pepcid and Maggi bullion cubes.

On a once-grand boulevard brought back from the dead by bargain-basement, mom-and-pop businesses catering to Latino shoppers, Sunday's Fiesta Broadway was a carnival of commercialism.

Everyone, it seems, now realizes there is a Spanish-speaking market, Remache figured.

"Ten years ago, it wasn't something you talked about," the Ecuadoran immigrant said. "Now, you do."

Banks, remittance services, cell phone vendors, weight-loss schemes, make-up miracles and your-name-on-rice souvenirs (in Spanish) were all vying for attention and money. Even Remache paused to hawk his own CDs to a crowd that by midafternoon was ankle-deep in pamphlets and arm-weary with giveaways.

Broadway was redolent with the smells of carne asada and taquitos, while the bouncy rhythms of ranchera music battled with urban rap and old-school mariachis.

Some of the crowds that endured the long lines at merchants' booths complained that some of the emotion and flair of the festival, now in its 13th year, had vanished.

Though violence marred its early years, the fiesta has long since settled into family carnival fare, including a dollar-a-peek display of a "two-headed baby."

Police reported no serious problems Sunday.

"Before there was too much emotion; now there's too much promotion," said Mario Lopez, 32, a Canoga Park resident lending unintended poetry to his review.

Across town at UCLA, a more classical-music-and-Chardonnay crowd surrounded Caroline Navarro, an eighth-grader from South-Central who chose the book fair over Fiesta Broadway. The 14-year-old said she felt as if she stood out until she saw and heard Villasenor, her favorite Chicano author.

"He acted very Mexican," she said of Villasenor, who spiced his panel discussion with Spanish colloquialisms and swear words. "He's very proud of it," Navarro said. "When I was in there, I felt right at home."

Historian and state Librarian Kevin Starr said the two festivals speak more of the unity of Los Angeles than of its lingering differences.

"They're not two different worlds at all," Starr said before speaking at a separate book festival panel on inventing Los Angeles.

"I don't think it's contrasting at all. Like everything in L.A., come back in 15 years and you'll see how many Latino writers are here, especially as this generation gets its voice. The two worlds are helping each other come into being."

Novelist Murray said she found the city's thirst for Latino culture strong.

But when she writes, she said, "I feel like an archeologist. Any Latino or Latina writer is dealing with the past that has been in large part stolen or destroyed."

Outside at the vending booths--the element both festivals held most in common--Lilly Sunn searched for Spanish-language authors. She found them at Martinez Books and Art.

"I feel more comfortable here," Sunn, a native of Peru, said of the book fair.

"I guess it's because I'm melting into the American culture. I feel comfortable if I'm surrounded like this. If I go to a Mexican festival, I don't feel at home."

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