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


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.