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L.A. shines at Mexican book fair

At last week's Guadalajara International Book Fair, two metropolises with growing cultural and intellectual ties discovered they have much in common.

December 07, 2009|By Reed Johnson

Reporting from Guadalajara, Mexico — Mexico's second-biggest city gets major touristic props for its tequila, baroque architecture and mariachi music. The United States' second-biggest city is famous (or infamous) as the world capital of cars, indolent pleasures and the film industry.

But in the course of last week's Guadalajara International Book Fair, two metropolises with growing cultural and intellectual ties discovered there was more to each other than Hollywood movies or agave-distilled spirits.

The 23-year-old Feria Internacional del Libro, to use the book fair's official title, needs no introduction in most Spanish-speaking parts of the hemisphere. An annual showcase of literary readings, panel discussions, publishing house trade events and book signings, the festival also hosts live theater, dance and music performances, epic feasts and legendarily robust after-hours parties.

This year, the nine-day fair, which wrapped up Sunday, named Los Angeles as its guest of honor, the first time that the recognition has been bestowed upon a single city. Participants from both sides of the border spoke of the event as a chance for two communities -- and countries -- with rich cultural traditions and much in common to deepen their mutual understanding and jettison a few cliches.

"I think that there is still sort of a monolithic perception of Latin America that is not very celebratory, and it's not very positive," said Olga Garay, the Cuban American general manager of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department.

Guadalajara's residents, known as tapatíos, pride themselves on their sophistication and the vibrancy of their city, which they regard as more authentically Mexican -- not to mention less polluted, crime-ridden and generally aggravating -- than the monster metropolis of Mexico City, about 300 miles to the southeast. Their book fair is regarded as the planet's second-largest, after the one in Frankfurt, Germany, and by far the most important in the Spanish-speaking world.

"We in Los Angeles need to, in my opinion, understand that Mexico is our largest tourist base and that there are people here who are learned and adventurous and have the ability to become cultural tourists in our own community," Garay said.

Attempting to live up to L.A.'s top-of-the-marquee billing, a large California delegation of writers, performers and political officials including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa descended on the city. Musical acts including Wayne Shorter, Ozomatli and the Phil Ranelin Jazz Ensemble played to packed crowds at an outdoor amphitheater. Screenings of L.A.-centric films ("Blade Runner," "Sunset Blvd.") depicted the city in its various glamorous, rakishly charming and dystopian guises. An installation of L.A. lowrider cars attracted swarms of young Mexicans wielding cellphone cameras.

The Los Angeles pavilion, designed by L.A.-based architects John Friedman and Alice Kimm, drew praise from the locals for its sleek, futuristic appearance. Splashed across one of the pavilion's walls, like a phantasmic billboard, a giant interactive digital screen projection allowed visitors to click and view profiles of authors ranging from Thomas Pynchon and Charles Bukowski to Philip K. Dick and M.F.K. Fisher. At an adjoining set of book stalls, browsers pored over scores of titles by L.A. authors.

Myriam Vidriales Chan, the fair's press manager, said Los Angeles was chosen over New York and Chicago as the event's star attraction for several reasons: its stature as a global pop-culture producer; its geographic proximity to Guadalajara; and its high concentration of Spanish-speaking residents, the most of any American city. Also, she said, L.A. is home to the largest number of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, of which Guadalajara is the capital.

"We're very conscious of the role that Los Angeles plays in the world in generating culture," Vidriales said, speaking in Spanish. "This was a very important link to create."

By all accounts, the genesis of L.A.'s honorary role began three years ago, when Dana Gioia, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, visited the fair and came away impressed with its scale and quality. Gioia entered into discussions with Raúl Padilla López, the fair's chairman, and eventually a deal was brokered partnering the U.S. and Mexico, with the NEA kicking in a $2.1-million support grant, most of it awarded directly to L.A. writers and artists, Garay said.

Guadalajara is in many ways a conservative place. Its population is estimated to be 95% Roman Catholic, and the city's main cultural treasure consists of a trove of museums, parks, plazas and exquisite buildings in the well-preserved historic center, mostly dating from its colonial and revolutionary-era past.

The book fair allows the population to cut loose; during the week, Guadalajara transforms into practically a different city, Vidriales said. "It's schizophrenic in many senses, but it's very impressive."

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