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Latinos figured prominently at the 16th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival in downtown Washington, D.C., held September 24th at the city’s convention center – two enormous buildings the size of 35 football fields.
Among the more than 120 authors were Latino writers from the United States and a variety of Latin American countries, including some who specialize in “crossborder” themes.
Luis Alberto Urrea, a native of the Mexican border city of Tijuana and a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, entertained a packed room with stories of his family, including his Tía Flaca (Aunt Skinny), and a cousin who had a deep voice at 7 and a “Zapata mustache” at 11.
“I was deeply infected with storytelling from the get go and I truly love it. There is beauty in our roots. Sometimes we think our roots are shameful and people tell you that you’re no good or your ancestors are no good, or that you come from a neighborhood of no hope and terrible crime,” Urrea said. “But it’s about the beauty of those places, and I carry that with me. I became obsessed with capturing the daily lives. I would sit all morning and watch them sift through the pinto beans and I would tell them my newest poems and stories, and they would say ‘Ay Luisito, you talk so pretty.’ I feel responsible to the ancestors and people who are gone.”
Urrea had the audience in stitches with stories of the women who made tortillas for the whole village, of his aunt with the cat eye glasses who smoked cigarettes only out of the left side of her mouth and who burned incense to keep bad spirits away, and of a cousin who liked to go exploring and always seemed to find something bad, like a dead animal.
“So of course, yeah you gotta write!,” Urrea exclaimed, adding, “And let me tell you something since we’re here in DC in an election year. (Famous dog whisperer) César Millán is my cousin’s cousin. The man (César) is from Sinaloa (Mexico) and he came to the United States undocumented, no papers, and his only skill was talking to dogs and now he’s a millionaire and media star! So America, I don’t care what you hear about America not working. It’s working. It’s definitely working,” he said to roars of laughter.
Spanish-language authors were also a key part of the day’s programming, including writers whose works have been translated into English.
Mexican author Álvaro Enrique, whose best-selling Muerte Súbita (Sudden Death) and Hipotermia (Hypothermia), among others, are now available in English, offered an interesting take on translations, calling them original writings onto themselves.
“Some translations are like a war between the writer and the translator. But I don’t think anything is lost in the translation. I think a translation enriches the language. When a translation begins the book is already done, so the chances to improve the book are good. When one thing written in one language passes to another, the language moves, it doesn’t stay the same. It’s through translation that language renews and learns new ways of saying things.”
The gathering that attracted more than 200,000 attendees throughout the day-long event had something for everyone from every imaginable genre: fiction, non-fiction, travel, cooking, poetry, graphic novels, history, biography, and an entire pavilion devoted to books for children, teens, and young adults which was overflowing with younger readers.
Mexican-American writer Pam Muñoz Ryan has written more than 25 books for young people, including the award-winning Esperanza Rising, and her latest, Echo. She’s currently working on a book about a young adventurer set to be released next year, and she says the interest among younger readers is overwhelming and rewarding.
“When the kids ask me questions, I’m always amazed at what in-depth questions they are, and you know by what they ask you that they’ve read the book,” she tells NBC Latino. “It’s really gratifying and also gives me hope to be in a situation like this where everybody seems motivated and excited to learn and read, and read different things than just the standard and usual.”
Festival goer Antoniette Martínez from Maryland says she has been coming for years and bringing her son since before he could read. “I think it’s important to be here to motivate our children and serve as an example to them of how important it is to read. We always come here to see what new books are out and to pick some up.”
“I really enjoy books, especially history and fiction books,” says 10-year-old Antoine Martínez. “I just love, love, love books.”