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A new page for Mexican book fair

Ten-day event opens its arms to L.A.'s Chicano writers and artists.

October 04, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Officially, it's called the Sixth Annual Mexico City Book Fair, but some participants in the upcoming bibliophiles blowout are toying with a more tongue-in-cheek sobriquet: "Chicanos vs. Chilangos." And don't forget the Cubanos.

On Friday, this kinetic metropolis will inaugurate its yearly celebration of the written word, from poetry to graffiti. About 120 publishing houses will take part, with hundreds of book titles available for browsing and buying, along with readings, panel discussions, art shows and performances. The fair, which runs through Oct. 15, is one of the Mexican capital's most conspicuous forms of cultural largesse, as all events are free and open to the public.

But two other Spanish-accented cities, Los Angeles and Havana, also will command the spotlight. Each year, the fair pays tribute to the literary culture of a pair of urban areas, and this fall some 50 writers and artists from the Cuban capital are converging here, along with an equal number from the City of Angels.

Though separated by 1,500 miles and some serious attitudinal differences, Los Angeles and Mexico City have begun to take more notice of each other recently. That mutual interest seems especially keen between Chicanos (as some, primarily second- and third-generation, Mexican Americans call themselves) and Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known.

Fittingly, many in the L.A. delegation arriving here this week are identified with the Chicano art scene, that flowering of Mexican American political and cultural life that sprouted from the civil rights and farmworker movements of the 1960s and '70s. Many younger L.A. artists have been nurtured by that movement while pursuing their own paths.

"This is like saying to the Mexican American community in Los Angeles that Mexico City is their space as well, not politically but culturally," says Marta Recasens, liaison for the secretary of culture for Mexico City, one of the fair's sponsors. "It's like saying, 'You are part of us, and we're trying to be part of you.' "

One participant, artist Ruben Ortiz-Torres, who was born and raised in Mexico City but now keeps his studio in Echo Park, thinks the event should be a valuable encounter for all three cultures, including two -- Chicano and Chilango -- that haven't always known what to make of each other. "Mexico City tends to see Los Angeles as a place where the gardeners go," he says, laughing. "And in Los Angeles, they think of Mexico City as a place where the gardeners come from."

While Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in border areas such as southern Texas and the L.A.-San Diego-Tijuana nexus have frequent contact, the cultural intelligentsia of the distant Mexican capital has tended to look more toward New York, South America and European cities than to Southern California. Chicano artists and writers, Ortiz-Torres says, are sometimes baffled and intimidated by Mexico City's labyrinthine cultural protocols.

The list of L.A. invitees reads like a partial Who's Who of Chicano cultural evolution: artist and writer Harry Gamboa Jr.; Lalo Alcaraz, cartoonist and co-host of the popular "Pocho Hour of Power" radio show on KPFK-FM (90.7); Judith F. Baca, artist and founder of the Venice-based SPARC community art center; writer-director Luis Valdez ("Zoot Suit"); and author Luis J. Rodriguez, the co-founder of Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural in Sylmar.

Los Angeles also will be represented by the venerable Latino arts center Self-Help Graphics & Art, which will host a retrospective on its 50-year history; El Nopal Press; and the punk/hip-hop/indigenous band Aztlan Underground. Books by L.A. authors will be sold, and short films, documentaries and feature films by L.A. moviemakers will be screened. Mexico City and L.A. DJs will mix sounds side by side, and graffiti artists from the two cities will collaborate on a project.

Most fair-related activities will take place in the city's historic center in and around the Zocalo. (More information on programming can be found at: www.cultura.df.gob.mx/culturama/cartelera/FeriaLibro2006/img1.html.)

The concentration of L.A. Latino artists arose through some unusual circumstances. Cultural officials here say they first attempted to contact L.A. city officials in February to formally advise them that Los Angeles was being invited to participate in the fair and seek their cooperation. But the Mexican officials "never got a direct answer" from their L.A. counterparts, Recasens says.

Finally, in June, Raquel Sosa, secretary of culture for Mexico City, flew to Los Angeles to meet with Margie Reese, then general manager of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs. But as it happened, Reese resigned that very day. L.A. officials subsequently determined that there wasn't enough time to organize an official fair delegation.

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