December 16, 2005

Fragments of the 2005 FIL: Cross-Border Politics, Literary Polemics and Peruvian Gods

By Kent Paterson
Editor, FNS

Where can one find the Holy Bible, lucha libre, Che Guevara, bracero stories, children’s fairy-tales, and narco-corridos all in one place? In Guadalajara, where books transcend borders of all kinds. An annual tradition, the Mexican city’s Latin American International Book Fair (FIL) is a mega-event, drawing publishers, distributors, readers, literary superstars, and even wrestlers for an 8-day celebration of the book and its varied offshoots.

According to press reports, half-a-million people attended this year’s fair which concluded on December 4. Public attendance was up 10 percent above last year’s number, conservatively netting the fair and the city of Guadalajara a positive economic balance of more than $2.5 million dollars. Book lovers were treated to an eclectic range of themes spanning everything from a special commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Miguel Cervantes’ classic Don Quijote de la Mancha to stunning exhibits and presentations focusing on this year’s country of honor, Peru.

Polemics enlivened the literary conclave, in one instance sparked by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s warning for Mexicans to not be seduced by “populism.” The South American literary star’s rejoinder was immediately interpreted as an attack on the Mexican presidential candidacy of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, prompting a sharp rebuke by Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, who declared that Vargas Llosa should mind his own business. More controversy permeated the FIL when the family of the late, famed Mexican author Juan Rulfo demanded that their relative’s name be removed from the fair’s presitigious literary award because of disagreement over how the prize is being awarded, which this year went to Spanish-born Mexican writer Tomas Segovia. Rulfo’s family also was miffed by negative comments Segovia reportedly made about Juan Rulfo. Countering that his words had been misunderstood, Segovia told television personality Carmen Arestegui he didn’t look for the award.

On a lighter note, thousands of wrestling fans were thrilled by a real lucha libre match match in celebration of photographer Lourdes Grobet’s new book on the decidedly Mexican sport/theater. A master-of-ceremonies dressed up as a lesbian nun/masked wrestler chanted slogans in support of Chiapas’ Zapatatistas and took potshots at Mexico’s First Lady Martha Sahagun, readying the crowd for rowdy cussing duels with bad ass wrestlers going by the names of “Brazo del Oro,” “Mephisto” and “Atlante.”

History of a Migrant People

Migration and the US-Mexico borderlands were among the countless subjects discussed and debated at the FIL. US Latin America scholar James Cockcroft presented a new edition of his classic work History of a Migrant People: The Workers of Michoacan. First published in 1982, the book delves into the agrarian and migrant history of the community of La Purisima in the state of Michoacan. Rich in oral history, Professor Cockcroft involved the residents of La Purisma in investigating and writing their own history. “This isn’t my book but that of the workers and campesinos of the ejido of La Purisima,” Professor Cockcroft said. Rector Jaime Hernandez Diaz of the University of Michoacan San Nicolas de Hidalgo in Morelia called the book a vital contribution in chronicling the history of a region that is sparsely studied.

Adding that Professor Cockcroft’s new edition contains a fresh tone, Rector Hernandez said the book documents how Michoacan “continues being a land of migrants.” In updating the book, Professor Cockcroft encountered a significant shift in migration patterns. While La Purisima’s men were the early migrants, nowadays almost everyone joins in to the trek up north.

“The difference between now and then is not only the high degree of women who emigrate, but almost all do, entire families,” Professor Cockcroft said. The North American labor researcher and activist defined La Purisima’s story as the story of the modern world, a place where almost every family has someone who migrates to find work, either within national boundaries or beyond. Regardless of nationality, all are members of “the new international working class,” now sharing cultural symbols and human rights struggles from south to north and vice versa, according to Professor Cockcroft.

Take for instance, Bolivian hip-hop: “Where does it come from? It doesn’t come from the coca fields of my friend Evo Morales, but from Chicago,” commented Professor Cockcroft.

Especially noteworthy about the book is the inclusion of the detailed, model questionairre that was developed by Professor Cockcroft and La Purisima’s residents to learn about the impact and different aspects of emigration on the rural community.

Life and Death in the US-Mexico Badlands

An especially lively exchange that centered on the literature of the US-Mexico borderlands was moderated by Spanish novelist Arturo Perez Reverte, the author of the acclaimed book about a narco-queen, La Reina del Sur. Perez Reverte gathered together a group of northern Mexican writers to dissect life, death, god, nature, politics, music, and more.

Joining their Spanish colleague were Elmer Mendoza (El Amante de Janis Joplin, Efecto Tequila), Eduardo Antonio Parra (Tierra de Nadie), Daniel Sada (Porque Parece Mentira la Verdad Nunca se Sabe ) and David Toscana (winner of the 2005 Antonin Artaud Award). Perez, who’s experienced long spells visiting the Mexico-US borderlands, set the tone for the round-table by laying out the commonalities in the literature of the writers who, in Perez’s words, craft a northern Mexican surrealism “more direct (and) singular” but nevertheless “marginalized in Mexican literary values for a long time.”

In a session punctuated by shots from a bottle of liquour, the five authors described writing about a landscape where a cloud can represent impossibility; where small towns with more tombs than people are the launching pads of conquest or defeat; and where a river, the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande, is another possible/impossible boundary between life or death, adventure or boredom and prosperity or poverty. According to Toscana, the constant theme of migration runs through everyday Mexican life. Contended Toscana, “Every Mexican asks: Do I stay or do I go? Do I live or do I die?”

In the course of the conversation, the authors tackled myths about their homeland, telling the audience, for instance, that the Day of the Dead celebration is not as big a celebration in the north as it is in the center or south of the country. Nor is a flippant attitude about death a basic Mexican cultural trait. “They say we laugh about death in Mexico, but I’ve never been to a wake where people are laughing.” Toscana added.

Another theme addressed was the contradiction between centralism and regionalism in Mexican history. Many of the panel particpants noted the historic and geographical disconnect between the north/borderlands and the Mexican interior, where power has long been centralized in Mexico City. Mexicali area-born author Daniel Sada said as a youngster he was connected more in some ways to other cultures than the Mexican one. He remembered eating Chinese food, and making phone calls to Mexico City which were first routed through Los Angeles. Sada made a distinction between border and northern literature, saying northern culture begins about 600 miles south of the border proper.

Perez Reverte posed a question to the panel about the historic connection between anti-government lyrics heard in corridos of one hundred years ago and similar lyrics contained in the so-called narco-corridos of today. For Sinaloan Elmer Mendoza, the government long has been “the bad ones... (who’ve) always betrayed us.” In the view of Eduardo Antonio Parra, northerners suffer a sense of historic betrayal and abandonment from Mexico City going back to at least the US invasion of the 1840s, fostering resentments that have provoked outbreaks of “social banditry.” According to Tos-cana, a huge disconnect exists between government discourse and public policy, resulting in perhaps not “a satanic government but something close to ineptitude.”

Paradoxically, the north often has been in the vanguard of trends and changes that shaped the face of modern Mexico, for better or worse. In the last century, northerners played a key role in the 1910 Mexican Revolution, hosted the first maquiladora plants, ushered in the guerrilla revolt of the 1960s and 1970s with the assault on the Madera army barracks in Chihuahua, and scored important political opposition victories over the long-dominant PRI party.

The Triumph of Quijote and the Written Word

In a time of global upheavel and questioning, it was perhaps fitting that the FIL was the last big event in the year-long commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Cer-vantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha held throughout the Spanish-speaking world. FIL staffer Silvia Camacho said many editorial houses published new editions and pro-duced audio recordings and DVDs for the huge year of Quijote in Guadalajara and elswhere. On display at the FIL were thumb-nail Quijote books, Quijote encyclopedias, Quijote paintings, and even a Quechea-language translation of the classic story. Camacho said Quijote enjoys a cross-generational transmission, with parents coming to the fair to fetch their children a copy of the old knight’s saga.

Giving his take on the meaning of Don Quijote, Cuban poet and writer Dr. Roberto Mendez said the enduring quest for truth, justice and freedom mark Cervantes’ great work. “There aren’t many books that can celebrate a 400th anniversary” Dr. Mendez said. “Quijote looks for truth and runs into the limitations that others put up to finding the truth.”

According to the Camaguey-born author, Quijote has had a very long history in Cuba. He noted that copies of the book passed through Cuba hundreds of years ago on their way to Mexico. And Jose Marti, for example, was a reader of Don Quijote. After the 1959 Revolution, it was the story of Don Quijote that was republished and widely distributed. Mendez contended that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro styled themselves somewhat after Don Quijote, the underdogs challenging the world. “Quijote is very embedded in Cuban culture,” Dr. Mendez said.

Dr. Mendez, who was the winner of the 2000 Nicolas Guillen Award among other prizes, has penned an essay about Cervantes’ epic titled “Philosophy and Spirtuality in Quijote.”

“Fundamental books like this one have been found few times in the history of the novel, in which a seemingly simple and recurrent story is filled with so many implications that are not only the reflectors of the time, but also a reflective model and life guide for those of us here now and those to come,” writes Dr. Mendez. “Cervantes doesn’t offer a final, discovered truth, but gives us the instruments to go look for it.”

Some foretell the demise of reading, books and literature. But if this year’s Quijotemania and the Guadalajara book bash were any indication, masses of people are still drawn to the magic and mystery of the written word. Juan Rulfo Prize winner Tomas Segovia summed up that the record crowds in Guadalajara came for “books not computers.” Said Segovia, “It is said a picture is worth 1,000 words, but just try saying that in images.”

Frontera NorteSur (FNS) is an on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University.

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