Suemi Guerra sat mesmerized listening to her favorite Latina writer, Michele Serros, recount how she forged a path to becoming a published author. In much of her work, Serros draws from life experiences and examines the complexities particular to adolescents straddling two cultures.
"She writes to the Mexican American," said Guerra, an aspiring author and graduate student studying English at USC. "But it's not just about the immigrant experience. It's about growing up here, and living in L.A. That's what I like about her."
Guerra was one of scores of people listening to a panel of distinguished authors, including Luis J. Rodriguez, Melinda Palacio and Daniel Olivas, discuss the merits of writing in multiple genres.
The workshop was part of the two-day Latino Book and Family Festival, which wrapped up Sunday and was presented by actor and community activist Edward James Olmos and the Carlsbad, Calif.-based nonprofit group Latino Literacy Now, which promotes reading as a means of self-improvement.
Showcasing about 150 award-winning and emerging Latino authors on the campus of Cal State L.A., the event was billed as the largest-ever gathering of such writers in the United States. It provided a forum for literary talents who might not otherwise have an opportunity to garner some media attention or present their work to a huge collective audience, said Jim Sullivan, executive director of Latino Literacy Now.
"By having it in East L.A. helps to elevate the community," said Reyna Grande, the festival's program director, adding that she wanted festival-goers to "go home with a sense of pride … especially children who may not be exposed to much Latino literature elsewhere."
Beatriz Mancia and her daughters Altagracia, 13, Maya, 10, and Megan, 7, braved the searing sun Saturday as they checked out the rows of vendors selling books, bags and crafts from stalls set up on the campus' Greenlee Plaza.
They eventually stopped to check out a stall displaying hundreds of "Los Libros Mas Pequeños del Mundo" (The World's Smallest Books).
Mancia, who lives in the City of Commerce, said she welcomed the fact that Latino literature was getting the spotlight. "I am from Mexico, and it's important that my girls know about my culture and background," Mancia said.
In an area designated for children's activities, dozens of youngsters sat under a canopy and listened attentively as author Linda Cortez read aloud from her children's picture book.
The book, titled both "When I Was Little" and "Cuando yo era niña," is written in both English and Spanish. Cortez read the English passages and displayed the pictures, and pal Isabel Aquino immediately followed with the Spanish translation.
At the central stage, a crowd watched in awe as young girl dancers from the Huntington Park Dance Company, dressed in cowboy hats and boots, tapped and stomped in a performance of traditional folklorico dance.
"I like how they move, and they show a different culture when they dance," said Leslie Martinez, 10, attending with her father, Manuel.
At Saturday's author sessions, there was standing room only at a panel focusing on the immigrant experience in literature. Some of the featured authors had launched book-writing careers after starting out as journalists and working in Latin America.
Catherine Martinez, regional coordinator for the Puente Project, an academic preparation program for educationally disadvantaged students, attended the session with her daughters Ariana 12, and Rachel, 15.
"These writers are telling our stories and our history," Martinez said. "It's important for my kids to hear that."
It's also important for non-Latinos to appreciate and share in the contributions of Latinos to literature, said Roberto Cantu, professor of English and Chicano studies at Cal State L.A.
" Los Angeles is a large metropolitan city that has people from all over the world," Cantu said. "We are influenced, shaped and enriched by other cultures. So when we celebrate the Latino Book and Family Festival, it's not just for Latinos. It's for everyone."