Op-Ed: Dear Texas Book Festival—Where Have All the Latino Writers Gone?

by Published on
Ito Romo
San Antonio author Ito Romo's The Border Is Burning is one of several prominent new books by Latino and Latina authors unrepresented at this year's Texas Book Festival.

See Texas Book Festival Literary Director Steph Opitz’s response to the following op-ed here.

Over the past few years I’ve been losing my faith in the Texas Book Festival as a vehicle for bringing Tejanos and Texans together for a culturally inclusive literary experience. Yet each year I optimistically ask myself: Will this year’s festival better represent Latina and Latino writers? Will a Latino or Latina be honored with the Texas Writer Award? Will Texas’ independent publishers and bookstores have a more equitable presence? Will poetry be restored to its rightful place among the festivities?

The website for the festival’s 2013 edition features teaser text that reads: “Recognize these faces? They are all appearing at this year’s Festival!” Pictured are 10 authors—five men and five women. Only three are writers of color, and nary a Latina or Latino in the bunch.

When former Texas first lady Laura Bush envisioned the inaugural event in 1995, the goal was to have “a book festival to honor Texas authors, promote the joys of reading and serve to benefit the state’s public libraries.”

The festival’s definition of “Texas authors,” then and now, meant mostly white writers. Recent changes have resulted in the inclusion of more non-Texas authors, but fewer Latina/o writers. Of the 250 writers featured at the 2012 festival, less than 10 percent were Latinos. This year’s lineup features only 15 Latina and Latino writers out of 230 invited writers.

To allow this egregious marginalization to continue into the second decade of the 21st century is not only reprehensible but unacceptable.

Why hasn’t the festival’s overwhelmingly white board of directors and advisory committee bothered to ensure that the state’s fastest-growing demographic group (now accounting for 37 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census, and 50.3 percent of the state’s school children, according to the Texas Education Agency) is adequately represented?

Pardon my Tex-Mex roots, but are the festival gatekeepers even aware of the boom in Latina/o literature and its growing place in American literature? We are everywhere: on national bestsellers lists, as finalists and winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and more.

As I scrolled through the festival website’s 2013 list of authors and panelists, I searched for the names of Latina and Latino writers with new books, whose presence would have made for a more inclusive festival.

Former Texas Book Festival Bookend Award winner Sandra Cisneros has a new book out, but she won’t be at this year’s Texas Book Festival.
Former Texas Book Festival Bookend Award winner Sandra Cisneros has a new book out, but she won’t be at this year’s Texas Book Festival.

Where was Tim Z. Hernandez’s Mañana Means Heaven, a fictionalized account of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road romance with Bea Franco, a young Mexican-American farm worker? Where was The Border is Burning, San Antonio writer Ito Romo’s new collection of borderland short stories? Where is Richard Rodriguez and his first book in ten years, Darling, A Spiritual Autobiography? Or Bolivar: An American Liberator, Marie Arana’s critically acclaimed biography of Simón de Bolivar?

Where is the new deluxe edition of Junot Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her, with illustrations by Chicano artist Jaime Hernandez? Or his brother Gilbert Hernandez’s young-adult graphic novel, Marble Season? And why isn’t the festival’s former Bookend Award (later renamed the Texas Writer Award) honoree Sandra Cisneros’ latest book, Have You Seen Marie?, at this year’s festival?

Granted, some of these authors are non-Texans, but so are several of this year’s festival headliners.

Another shocker is the virtual elimination of poetry from the Texas Book Festival. This flies in the face of the festival’s mission to serve all writers, including poets and lovers of verse. Many Latinos begin their journeys in writing with poetry. Does the fact that Latinos have gained prominence in a literary genre once reserved for a largely white audience have anything to do with poetry’s new absence at the festival?

Why wasn’t Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos invited to kick off the festival with a poem about Texas literature? Or San Antonio Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla, or Houston Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda? And just as important, why wasn’t Richard Blanco, the country’s first Latino and gay inaugural poet, invited? Blanco’s forthcoming memoir, For All of Us, One Today, centers on his journey as an inaugural poet. What a missed opportunity!

Years ago the festival hosted a lively and exciting poetry scene centered at the Poetry Tent. Poets of all ages and styles took to the mic and generated passionate response. Poets sold their self-published books, Xeroxed chapbooks and CDs. Many wonderful poets made their debut there. Not anymore. The poetry tent has been dismantled and poetry has been relegated this year to an hour-long panel featuring four poets. None are Latinos.

Small presses and independent bookstores are also getting little respect at the festival. One proprietor of a small Texas press told me, “they seem to put us in a corner.” For small presses, the publishing and nourishing of homegrown Texas writers is a labor of love that should be right in line with the festival’s goals. Yet when they submit books for festival consideration, they are often turned down.

This year, San Antonio’s Wings Press and Houston’s Arte Público, each of which publishes many Latino writers, submitted a stellar roster of their newest releases. The festival’s selection committee chose none of them. In contrast, the University of Texas Press is represented with 15 authors at this year’s festival.

El Paso’s Benjamin Alire Saenz became the first Latino to win the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction with <i>Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club</i>, but he won’t be present at this year’s Texas Book Festival.
El Paso’s Benjamin Alire Saenz became the first Latino to win the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction with Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, but he won’t be present at this year’s Texas Book Festival.

The Texas Writer Award is usually given to a writer with a long and distinguished career. It isn’t unusual for the award to be shared by two Texas writers (Sandra Cisneros and Cormac McCarthy; Bill Wittliff and Edwin “Bud” Shrake), but this year’s award will go to only one. How sweet it would have been to have also given a nod to two worthy El Paso writers, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and John Rechy.

Sáenz became the first Latino to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction this year for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. He also won two Lambda Literary Awards, one for Kentucky Club and another for his young-adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Rechy’s first novel, City of Night, was published 50 years ago, and made him the first Mexican-American author to occupy the New York Times bestseller list. The book has remained in print for half a century. His body of work ranks as a major achievement in American, Latino and LGBT literature.

The Texas Book Festival’s bottom line is the money it raises to support libraries and literacy in Texas. Yet one might ask if the books featured at the festival and the grants dispensed to libraries adequately reflect the state’s increasingly diverse population. Will children and young adults of color see themselves and their families in these books? The real issue here isn’t Latino-authored books for Latinos, but diversity writ large—books and writers through which all readers can experience the richness of all Texans’ stories and cultures.

If books can bridge cultural divides—and they can—then let this spirit be reflected in the way the festival provides access and representation for all Texans.

Make this feria de libros a literary celebration we can all take pride in.

  • Bryce Milligan

    Well said! As I once wrote of a lily-white book seeking to encapsulate Texas literature, “the battlefield is littered with the missing.”

  • Ellen Riojas Clark

    Let’s hope the SA BookFair will even things out. We are again sending the local organizers listings of Latino authors to feature as that was the only way to affect the writer selections. Let’s bombard book festival organizers with Latino writers’ names. There is no excuse for there are many of us with knowledge of the booming Latino contemporary literary scene.

    • Maria Ellen Bustos

      We’ve bombarded them with suggestions over the past decade and you can see it has had little effect. What we need is Latina/o critics and writers on these boards and selection committees.
      Send those names to these book festivals. And let’s have our liberal friends do the same and voice their concern over this inequitable way these festivals are organized.

  • Ire’ne Lara Silva

    I went to my first TBF in ’98, shortly after I moved to Austin. As far as I was concerned, it was heaven. Poets on panels, poets in the Poetry Tent, enough Latina/o or people of color writers that I could fill my schedule both days, and extraordinarily, the opportunity to meet small press publishers and talk to them about their books. In the 15 years since, everything has changed. No poetry, no poetry panels, what feels like a handful of Latina/o/POC writers, and the indie presses have been relegated to a single, faraway tent.

    I was excited at the possibily of being part of TBF when my first book of poetry came out–I tried twice. Both times they told me there was ‘no place for my work’. Reviewing the schedule, I saw that there was apparently no place for poetry, much less poetry by Latin@s….When I posted about this on FB, a lot of Texas poets of different races/ethnicities brought it to my attention that they’d also been excluded.

    TBF has moved so far from where it started and its original intent that I don’t know if it’s possible to ‘fix’ it. It may be time to begin planning a counter-festival. One that truly embraces the diversity of Texas writers–different genres, different backgrounds, indie presses, etc–one that celebrates the love of literature and not the love of its corporate facade…

  • Ire’ne Lara Silva

    For those who are in Austin for the Texas Book Festival who would like to listen to Latin@ authors/poets, I’d like to invite you to attend a reading on Friday, October 25th at 7pm. Flor De Nopal Literary Festival is hosting a reading celebrating the release of the third issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature (founded by Dagoberto Gilb, edited by Diana Lopez) at the ESB-Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St., Austin, TX. Fourteen poets from across the country will be reading from their work published in Huizache. Free.

  • Vicente Lozano

    Thank you, Gregg, for stating the obvious. The Book Festival can do better than defaulting to whatever roster major publishers are putting on the road in a given season. It takes energy and imagination to reach out, and I am willing to believe TFB is ready to grow.

  • bimbo

    they moved to mexifornia

  • Vicente Lozano

    It’s more than “fostering diversity,” as the good Book Festival Director explains. For “fostering diversity” I can turn on NPR. This is something different: the simple reflection of a changing state. Texas is it’s richest and most interesting when engaging with, defending, denying, accepting, arguing with, and re-defining its cowboy myth. And nothing is going to bring that on like the Latino demographic change over happening right now. Whether Texas is afraid of its shadow or not is what will make next generation’s great stories.

  • texas_ed

    While I agree with several Gregg’s observations and generally think most anything to do with Austin in regard to either culture or politics is too “white” to truly represent the reality of Texas, I want to defend the new TBF literary director Steph Opitz on this particular matter. Steph assumed her job sometime just before May (if memory serves), which means she had little more than five months to arrange a full roster of speakers. Having served as the festival literary director (under a less auspicious title) in 2004 — a particularly contentious year, with the election taking place just four days after the event — and also having endured a short period in which to organize the authors, I can say that out of necessity I relied almost entirely my personal contacts, favors and authors presently on book tour to fill the roster of 200+ participants that year. I can only assume the Steph had to resort to the same tactics to fill this year’s roster. I highly doubt any omission was intentional or deliberate, but more than likely a symptom of reacting to the urgency of being faced with the fact that a mere 150 days ago, she had NO authors coming, So it goes with organizing events, which is all too often a thankless job. (Just ask Steph next week when authors don’t show up because they missed their flights or else complain they were assigned to read in a venue that they deem too small…). I suspect that with five months to prepare she likely did the best she could and in this could and she really should be commended. This is one case where we should look at who is coming, rather than who is not. It’s an impressive list of writers, one that would be the envy of any book festival in the country. — Edward Nawotka, Houston

    • Bryce Milligan

      Well, I suggested to Steph back in May that it would be a good thing to showcase Rosemary Catacalos as the first ever Latina Poet Laureate of Texas. So it is not as if they were unaware of this and the other Latino/a books published by Wings Press this year.

  • Cristina Reyna

    “As I scrolled through the festival website’s 2013 list of authors and panelists, I searched for the names
    of Latina and Latino writers with new books, whose presence would have made for a more inclusive festival.”

    The author assumes that only those with overtly Hispanic surnames are of Latino descent — excluding Hispanic women with non-Hispanic married names and those with Hispanic mothers, but not fathers — to name a few examples. And while I doubt the inclusion of these potentially unaccounted for Latino writers would increase the total dramatically, it’s worth noting.

  • Vicente Lozano

    After knowing more about the festival’s late start, I can see an unfortunate confluence between a new Festival Director and an esteemed critic who speaks, I believe, out of 40 years of frustrated experience watching Texas lag in its representation of Latinos.

    Gregg Barrios has lived nine amazing lives: Air Force enlistee, Warhol Factory witness, Hollywood scenester, award winning playwrite…and (of course) Tejano. He was an integral part of starting a film subculture during the 1970s in Austin, as well.

    With Gregg and others, there is probably a frustrated desire to cram more of these lives and experiences into Texas literature, and, please God, to go beyond cute & glossy Lone Star regionalism too often used to mug before a national audience.

    On both sides there is a lot of good faith to work with going forward.

  • Vicente Lozano

    I’m fascinated by the following angles and hope journalists might write a story about a transitional cultural time in Texas.

    1. The confluence of a new and overwhelmed Festival Director–from New York and a long established Texas critic venting in the wake of 40 years of Latino under-representation.

    2. Whether or not the Texas Book Festival has drifted toward the SXSW/Austin City Limits model of staging nationally branded festivals, but with little local representation. Partly because it’s easier to let East Coast publishers put that publishing season’s roster of cookbook authors on the road. Win-win for a harried TBF staff.

    3. It says something, systemically, that in the rush to put the Festival together, it defaulted to whomever TFB could get quickly, and (surprise) those authors turned out to be, largely, non-Latino. There weren’t enough ties in place beforehand to commit demographically representative authors when the first round fell through.

  • Emmet Campos

    New York City? Why would the TBF recruit a new yorker as literary director to coordinate the festival when we have plenty of local talent that would thankfully organize an literary and cultural event with such plentiful resources that the TBF has at its disposal. As most of the commentators here would agree, the Latina community locally and in Texas has done far more with much less for a long time. We’ve been accustomed to utilizing our network of writers, poets, and organizers, who are quite intimate with the particularities and nuances of Tejas’ literary culture and independent publishers and bookstores, to organize literary and poetry events like the Flor de Nopal Festival that Ir’ene Lara Silva references below, and others. Let us pull together the organizers of these events, like Tammy Gomez, Chris Carmona, Lilia Rosas, among others, to help the TBF be truly representative of the rich and diverse culture of the real Texas, and not some homogeneous replication of so many dozens of other festivals around the country.