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LéaLA celebrates Spanish-language books this weekend

May 12, 2012 |  3:12 pm

Leala2Here’s a trick question (at least for non-Spanish speakers): What’s North America’s most book-loving city? New York? Los Angeles? Toronto?

A good case could be made for awarding the bibliophiles’ prize to Guadalajara, a metropolis that many U.S. tourists associate only with mariachis and tequila.

The beautiful baroque-colonial city, Mexico’s second-largest, annually hosts what is reputed to be the largest book fair in the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. Formally known as La Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara, or FIL, the yearly convocation draws tens of thousands of visitors as well as hundreds of the world’s preeminent Spanish-language authors, from Barcelona to Buenos Aires.

This weekend, Angelenos will be flocking to the 2nd annual edition of  LéaLA, Feria del Libro en Español de Los Ángeles, a kind of scaled-down version of Guadalajara’s massive book festival, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Backed by the University of Guadalajara, and free and open to public, LéaLA aims to promote Spanish-language and Spanish-translated literature through book publishers’ sales-displays and readings and talks by distinguished authors.

Simultaneously, the festival is intended to bolster a growing cultural connection between Southern California’s enormous Mexican American/Latino population and Guadalajara, capital of Jalisco, the ancestral home of more L.A. Latinos than any other Mexican state.

Finally, LéaLA attempts to help make amends for a bizarre L.A. cultural phenomenon: the city’s near-absence of Spanish-language bookstores. Apart from public libraries, university bookstores (which stock course-related titles) and a handful of small shops like Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar and the Libros Schmibros bookstore/lending library in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles -- with the United States’ largest Spanish-speaking population -- has virtually no place to find and buy Spanish-language books.

In only its second year, LéaLA already has become one of the largest Spanish-language book-related events in the United States. Last year it drew 36,000 people to its inaugural edition. This year, with 200 individual exhibition stalls, up from 84 last year, and four times as much total floor space, festival organizers expect an even larger turnout.

Among the boldface names at this year’s festival, which runs through Sunday, are the best-selling Mexican-Spanish writer and novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, crime writer James Ellroy, the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and Mexican political analyst and intellectual Enrique Krauze.

The auxiliary programming includes a slate of children’s reading activities, performances by theatrical artists and Nokia Theatre concerts by Gloria Trevi, Los Tigres del Norte and Calle 13, the Puerto Rican pan-Latin/urban/hip-hop duo that swept last year’s Latin Grammy Awards. There also is a fascinating display of sketches by the great Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, whose drawings of anthropomorphic animals and half-human creatures evoke pre-Columbian mythology.

In an interview Friday, Marisol Schulz Manaut, the book festival’s director general, said that the festival hopes to promote reading in both Spanish and English among readers of all levels of literacy. At present, she said, L.A.’s large, well-read, bilingual Latino middle class “can’t find books in Spanish at all” in Los Angeles.

“Latinos are stereotyped,” she continued. “It is thought that Latinos have only one type of culture, which is popular culture: mariachi music, el mole, telenovelas. But it’s not only that.”

Although Mexican authors and publishers have the largest single presence, scores of other writers from throughout Latin America, such as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Cuban poet-journalist José Martí, are represented at the festival, in addition to dozens of authors in translation: Italo Calvino, Louise Erdrich, Vladimir Nabokov, Sam Shepard. This year the cultural departments of the governments of Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico are helping to support the festival financially, Schulz Manaut said.

Among the presenters on hand this weekend is Pilar del Rio, a Spanish journalist and widow of José Saramago, the late Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author of “Blindness” and other novels. In an interview, Del Rio discussed the new publication in Spanish of Saramago’s first novel, “Claraboya.” Written in 1953, the novel was rejected by Portuguese publishers who were wary of its potentially subversive content, which might’ve drawn down the wrath of censors working for the authoritarian right-wing regime of António de Oliveira Salazar.

“It seems to me it’s very important for Spanish to be given consideration as a literary idiom,” said Del Rio, who administers the fund established in her late husband’s name. “It’s a literary language with a great strength, a great force, that can be seen in a festival like this one.”

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Image: LeaLA

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