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Passion That Speaks Volumes

Santa Ana's Lion of Bilingual Literacy Has a Loud Roar

October 20, 2002|JENNIFER MENA

Rueben Martinez runs like a loco. A couple of days in the life of Santa Ana's community bookstore mastermind and bilingual literacy activist go something like this: Back in town after talking literature with college students in Fayetteville, Ark., Martinez heads to La Brea Head Start to inspire Spanish-speaking parents to read to their children. One evening later, he's urging students in the graduate teaching program at Cal State Long Beach to include Latino literature in their curriculums. Then it's back to Libreria Martinez Books and Art Gallery, his bilingual bookshop (and de facto community center) in Santa Ana, where Cheech Marin will sign his new art book. No sooner is the event over than Martinez cranks up a rented truck for a 25-hour drive to the Houston installment of this year's Latino Book & Family Festival, the annual event he helped establish. Along the way, of course, he'll squeeze in a few sales stops at schools and libraries and a pro-literacy event in San Antonio with actor Edward James Olmos, a friend and fellow activist.

That's not the half of it. Last year, Martinez opened a second store, Libreria Para Ninos, adjacent to his original store even as industry reports had many independent booksellers closing their doors. Come Nov. 2 and 3, he'll be at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the L.A. gathering of the multi-city book festival he developed in 1997 with Olmos and Kirk Whisler, founder of the National Assn. of Hispanic Publications. The event draws nearly 60,000 people a year in Los Angeles. "We are taking books to our gente [people]," Martinez says. "Latinos are cuentistas, storytellers. We need to get the word out that books can be the key for them to get ahead. They make you think, they keep you in school. I want to be the one to take that message out there."

Before his visit with the Cal State Long Beach grad students, Martinez quipped: "I don't know why they want me to speak to them. They have more education than I ever will." Well, maybe, if you measure education only in sheepskin. Martinez, 62, left the Arizona mining town where he grew up about 40 years ago for a life in California and stopped his formal schooling in his early 20s after attending barber school. During 27 years as a barber in Santa Ana, Martinez watched the Latino population grow in his community. He campaigned for John F. Kennedy. He organized pickets supporting Caesar Chavez's grape boycott and opposed Proposition 187, a ballot measure to deny myriad public services to illegal immigrants. There were always a few books on hand in the barbershop--and then Martinez read a Spanish-language Reader's Digest article stating that Latino families spent more on chewing gum than books. In 1993 he opened Libreria Martinez Books and Art Gallery (haircuts still offered) with then-business partner Diana Hernandez. The store has occupied its current 7,000-square-foot space since 1999.

"He ended up creating one of the great bookstores in Southern California," Olmos says. Today, the 2-year-old Libreria Para Ninos next door has one of the highest percentages of Spanish-language books (65%) of any children's bookstore in the country.

Martinez's brightly painted bilingual-stock stores are among the few institutions in Santa Ana to reflect the city's language demographics. According to the 2000 census, about 70% of Santa Ana's nearly 340,000 residents speak Spanish. But with more Latino authors in print and more books being released simultaneously in Spanish and English, Latino publishing is gradually coming into its own. These days, when Martinez talks about Carlos Fuentes, Sandra Cisneros and Jorge Ramos, he's not name-dropping authors, he's just telling you who is appearing at the bookstore this fall. Ramos, an anchor for Univision and author of several books, requested a signing at Martinez's store to promote his new autobiography this fall after switching from a Spanish-language publisher to HarperCollins, where publicists had not scheduled a Santa Ana stop. "There is not a bookstore in the United States that can attract more people for a book like mine," says Ramos, who drew about 3,000 people to Martinez Books in 2001.

Trim and almond-skinned, with a salty mustache, Martinez still gives the occasional haircut and greets all comers with small-town charm, often switching between English and Spanish in mid-sentence. He affectionately calls the kids who come in for books, free art classes and readings "mija [my daughter]" or "mijo [my son]."

That personal touch doesn't stop with the store. Aware that potential readers may not be able to patronize a retail bookstore, Martinez goes out of his way to include libraries and schools on his client list, packing his 1986 Volvo station wagon (odometer reading: 300,000 miles) for sales calls during literary road trips. "This is a passion business,'' he says. "Literature to me is numero uno en este mundo."

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For information about the Latino Book & Family Festival, see www.latinobookfestival.com

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