The flood of heinous drug-related killings in Mexico since the early 2000s has hardened and eaten away at the country’s social fabric.
But it may be that the nation’s response to this current tragedy has produced a surprising cultural boon, suggests Alma Delia Murillo, author, screenwriter and columnist; it ignited an energetic new generation of women writers. Murillo will be among 30 guests at the annual LéaLA 2023 Spanish-language book festival, taking place this week at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles.
Over the past decade, Latina women have gained greater visibility as writers and leaders in the publishing industry, Murillo says. The voices of Fernanda Melchor, Valeria Luiselli, Brenda Navarro, Dolores Reyes and other women have shaped what Murillo calls “a distinctive narrative” across a wide variety of themes, including violence in Mexico that has “reached a new level dystopian.” This violence is at the center of Murillo’s recent audiobook “Diez Mujeres,” whose title refers to the appalling average of 10 feminicides per day in Mexico.
“It’s brutal, it’s very painful, it’s a theme that reaches indignation, rage,” says Murillo, speaking in Spanish via Zoom from his home in Mexico City. “And at the same time, it’s such a raucous theme that the whole world is interested in it. Certain nuances, included in the midst of so much violence, so much harshness, female voices introduce other ways of looking, where beauty also has its place, where the tone is appropriate, where there is hope.
The slow but persistent opening of greater space for Latin American female voices will be one of the motives of LéaLA, the largest Spanish-language literary festival in the United States. Sponsored by the University of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest public higher education institution, the free, nonprofit festival launched in 2011 and attracted approximately 36,000 participants to its programming of author readings, panel discussions, book signings, performances and other attractions.
By the early 2010s, it had expanded to dozens of authors and hundreds of trade booths and attracted more than 80,000 people to the LA Convention Center. Interrupted twice, first in 2014 by a shaky peso that caused a lack of funding, then by the COVID pandemic in 2020, LéaLA returned to Southern California in somewhat diminished form.
“It’s a little smaller but the spirit of the festival is the same,” said Marisol Schulz Manaut, director of LéaLA and the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the largest Spanish-language literary festival in the world.
LéaLA’s mission is also unchanged: to help serve a nearly 50% Latino city that relies on Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in Sylmar, Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, LA Children’s Bookstore librería in Mid-City and a limited offering of other locations to meet one’s Spanish reading needs.
“It is a little strange that when there is such a force of spoken Spanish, we do not find a match in the literary offering. It’s a paradox,” said Schulz, who honed his love of English literature by reading Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen.
Manaut, a leading publisher who has worked with writers of the caliber of Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arturo Pérez Reverte and Elena Poniatowska, belongs to a small but increasingly influential group of female literary entrepreneurs and leaders in the industry in Latin America. Over the past ten years, these women and these authors “have gradually begun to open paths towards each other,” said writer Murillo.
Murillo gradually moved away from her own fashion career when she began creating an online blog. Other emerging female writers have promoted their work on social media, eliminating the need for male gatekeepers.
“Something was also happening with female readers who started pushing and consuming more female narratives,” Murillo said.
Last year, after much “resistance and perseverance,” Murillo found a publisher for his first novel, “La cabeza de mi padre” (The Head of My Father). It centers on the road trip of a woman in her forties, grappling with her elusive father, as well as Pedro Páramo, the mystical patriarch who looms large over Juan Rulfo’s seminal 1955 novel of the same name.
Luis Gustavo Padilla Montes, professor and senior administrator at the University of Guadalajara, said Los Angeles’ “biculturalism and multiculturalism” make it an attractive partner for forging additional ties with Guadalajara institutions. He highlighted an existing collaboration between UCLA and the University of Guadalajara on Spanish and Portuguese literature programs.
One of Guadalajara’s long-term ambitions is to open a satellite campus in Los Angeles, specifically to accommodate immigrant children whose parents cannot afford U.S. tuition. More than a million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from Guadalajara and the surrounding state of Jalisco call Southern California home.
Partly in recognition of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s predominantly Latino student population, this year’s festival will focus on children’s literature and Mexican literature. folk art – handmade art. Authors for children and young adults will give readings and lead workshops. One, by writer Rodrigo Morlesin, titled “Corazón rapero” (Heart of the Rapper), will guide teams of four in composing freestyle hip-hop songs.
Speaking on Zoom and showing a T-shirt he bought in New York that reads “If you love me, read me a book,” Morlesin said he thinks his American readers, in especially fans from Latin America and Asia, wanted their children to read and converse. in other languages so that they can immerse themselves in foreign cultures and assimilate new perspectives. He embarked on this path with his own children’s book “Elvis nunca se equivoca” (Elvis is never wrong), about a stray puppy roaming a menacing city while trying to escape a street gang.
Having recently published his first book in English, “Luna Ranchera,” he hopes that American publishers will become increasingly receptive to foreign-language titles, whether in their original form or in translation.
“It’s very difficult to publish Latin American books in the United States,” he said. “You have to be Gabriel García Márquez, or the Nobel Prize winner, to access these markets. And it’s a challenge, because the stories that are born in Latin America are rich.”
This wealth includes indigenous languages and writing, he added. Indigenous Mixtec languages, for example, have at least 11 different words for “rain.”
“Indigenous languages are in danger not only in Mexico but throughout the world. Knowing these languages is not a luxury. It is a necessity.
Morlesin told the story of his own “bittersweet” experience as a drifter in a strange city – Los Angeles – when, at a previous LéaLA festival, he witnessed the panic that followed a shooting in the city center.
“I was shaking when I got back to my hotel,” he said.
Fortunately, this story had a sort of Hollywood ending: fellow Mexican author Benito Taibo took him out for a hamburger, “the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
LéaLA, La Feria del Libro en Español y Festival Literario de Los Ángeles, runs Thursday through Sunday at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, 501 N. Main St., Los Ángeles.