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Spanish book festival LéaLA aims to further cultural communication

The sponsors of the largest Spanish-language literary fest in the U.S. have ambitious plans to expand the ties between Southern California and Mexico.

May 17, 2013|By Reed Johnson
  • Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who died a year ago, will be honored at LéaLA Feria del Libro en Español de Los Ángeles.
Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who died a year ago, will be honored at… (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

When Carmen Cervantes was growing up in the 1960s in East Los Angeles, it would've been nearly as surprising to find a Spanish-language bookstore in her neighborhood as it would be to unearth an Aztec pyramid in the middle of Beverly Hills.

The problem persists today for local readers who are either Spanish-dominant or bilingual, said Cervantes, citing her mother, who lives in Montebello.

"She goes to these stores and finds very limited things," said Cervantes, director of cultural and special events for the University of Guadalajara Foundation USA. "We read, and we want to read in our language as well, but we just don't have the books."

Cervantes, along with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a large delegation of Mexican dignitaries, will be at the L.A. Convention Center on Friday morning to help launch the third annual "LéaLA Feria del Libro en Español de Los Ángeles." The literary festival, which extends through Sunday, showcases Spanish-language books across many genres and includes children's activities and theatrical and musical presentations as well as readings and discussions.

An audience that could reach 100,000 will be exposed to hundreds of authors (mostly Spanish-language, but a few English-language), and scores of publishers. Among the participating writers will be the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the Peruvian-Spanish political commentator Álvaro Vargas Llosa, Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa and Chilean rock superstar Beto Cuevas, who will present a book about his other artistic life as a painter.

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, an early festival supporter who died a year ago, will be honored, as will the city of Tijuana.

"When one thinks of Tijuana one thinks of immigration and crossing the border, and all the implications, and the thousands and thousands of stories that are given to us on both sides of the border," said Marisol Schulz Manaut, director of LéaLA and recently appointed director of the International Book Fair of Guadalajara, at a press conference this spring.

In three years the festival, free and open to the public, has emerged as the largest Spanish-language literary festival in the United States. LéaLA (pronounced lay-uh el-lay) supplies a partial palliative for Southern California's ongoing dearth of Spanish-language bookstores and literary events en español. It has also enhanced the efforts of places such as Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar to spread bilingual literacy.

But LéaLA has even bigger goals in mind. The book festival, primarily sponsored by the University of Guadalajara Foundation USA, is inspired by and modeled after the 28-year-old annual Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara, the world's largest Spanish-language book fair.

By establishing the L.A.-based foundation in 2008, the university began its ambitious plans for expanding cultural ties between Southern California and Mexico's second-largest city. More than 1 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the state of Jalisco, of which Guadalajara is the capital, make their homes in greater Los Angeles, more than from any other Mexican state.

Through sponsorship of events like LéaLA and a screening last year of selected films from the Guadalajara International Film Festival at Universal CityWalk, the foundation is seeking to provide educational and cultural support to Mexicans and other Latinos in Southern California. Eventually it hopes to open a satellite campus in Los Angeles that will serve the children of Mexican and other Latin American migrants who can’t afford U.S. college tuition.

Promoting literacy via LéaLA is an important step in that process, said Raúl Padilla López, chairman of the board of the University of Guadalajara Foundation, founder-president of the Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara and founder of LéaLA. "We believe that the best manner of opening a path to this project, a university center, is to generate cultural communication," he said by phone from Mexico.

Padilla López said that his foundation already has begun scouting out spaces that could be converted into a satellite campus as well as sites where a facility might be built. However, he estimates that the process will take several more years, during which the university will continue trying to obtain U.S. college accreditation.

Although some may associate Guadalajara mainly with tequila and mariachi music, the city is one of the hemisphere's most beautiful and cultured metropolises, as its literary festival attests.

Its cultural ties with Southern California were bolstered in 2009, when Los Angeles was chosen to be the honorary guest city at that year's Guadalajara book fair. A number of cross-border personal friendships and professional partnerships were forged during the nine-day event.

"It has had a great repercussion," Padilla López said.

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