Up against a wall

Times Staff Writer

The big question is being posed constantly at this week’s Mexico City Book Fair, but it’s not about writers, readers or publishers.

“What do you think about the wall?” shouted a man with a long white beard, resembling an El Greco prophet, toward the end of a round table with a group of L.A. authors here a few days ago.

He was referring, of course, to the planned 700-mile, double-steel fence that the U.S. Senate recently approved building along the U.S.-Mexico border. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation into law soon.

The proposed wall, which is fiercely opposed by most people here, has become Topic A in Mexican politics. Over the last few days, with a delegation of about 50 L.A. writers and artists in town as guests of this capital’s sixth annual bibliophiles festival, the wall has become an issue of urgent cultural import too.


At several of the panels, readings, performances and movie screenings taking place as part of the 10-day fair, Mexican audiences turned their curiosity -- and sometimes a touch of their frustration -- on the Angeleno visitors, pressing to hear the visitors’ thoughts on the muchdespised barrier.

Many of the Angelenos, several of whom have Mexican or other Latin American roots, seemed to share their hosts’ dim view of the plan.

“There’s much talk of walls. I’ve spent my life dealing with them. I’ve spent my life facing them,” said Judith F. Baca, artist and founder of the Venice-based SPARC community art center, while taking part in a panel on art and women. “This is a battle in the United States for the minds of the people and my fear is that we are losing this battle.”

Earlier in the day at the L.A. authors round table, held under a large white tent in the capital’s central plaza, several audience members began calling out questions related to the wall, and pleading for the panelists to respond. “It’s an important issue!” one man shouted.

Panelist Luis J. Rodriguez, co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Cafe Cultural in Sylmar, said the wall was racist and a waste of resources. Nina Revoyr, author of the well-regarded novels “Southland” and “The Necessary Hunger,” said it was hypocritical of the United States to welcome some immigrants as low-paid workers while trying to keep others out.

And so it went during the opening days of one of the world’s largest Spanish-speaking literary gatherings. Organizers expect tens of thousands of people to attend the fair, which is free and open to the public, and wraps up Sunday afternoon.

Each year, the festival highlights the cultural heritage of two cities, and this year’s invitees are a provocative pairing: Los Angeles, the capitalist nonpareil, and Havana, the socialist paradigm. Though the wall is on people’s minds, it’s hardly the festival’s only focus. Discussions have varied from political cartooning and Cuban cinema to why so few Chicanos (Americans of Mexican descent) have made inroads into Hollywood.

One young Mexican woman, attending a talk on Chicano and Mexican cinema in the globalized world, asked whether Chicanos and Chilangos (Mexico City residents) might be able to come together to work on film projects in the future. Two panelists, L.A. artist Harry Gamboa Jr., and actress Tonantzin Esparza, ventured that such collaborations could happen more.


Gamboa, making his first trip to Mexico City, said the visit had allowed him to connect with a part of his cultural heritage that he was sometimes denied while growing up in Los Angeles. As a public school student, he said, he had been punished by teachers for speaking Spanish.

Several other L.A. artists recounted comparable challenges in trying to straddle two or more cultures while growing up north of the border. Writer Jeanne Cordova, who founded the magazine the Lesbian Tide in the early 1970s, told a gathering here that she later landed a job at the progressive LA Free Press by telling the editor to hire her because she was a lesbian, a Chicana and a feminist. “You can have three for the price of one,” she said.

Revoyr, who was born in Japan, talked about how her sense of self, as a person and a writer, was forged in part by being raised in a Japanese/Polish-American household, first in the Midwest and later in her adopted L.A. “There was never one thing that I identified with,” she said. “I think because there was no set normal for me, there was no Other.”

And Rodriguez told the rapt audience about an L.A. school where the students speak Spanish, English, Mandarin and the Mexican indigenous language of Nahuatl. “I think it’s possible to communicate in different languages and manners,” he said.


Despite its serious literary bent, the festival also makes time for more playful endeavors. Performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena and writer-performer and Loyola Marymount University professor Ruben Martinez examined cultural identity from every which way in their semi-staged performance piece, “Ars Poetica Performatik,” a recital of music, poetry and Dadaist incantations.

Sharing the stage for the first time in at least a decade, the men were joined by a dominatrix clad in rough-trade attire, who prowled the aisles flirting and whispering ominous come-ons to audience members.

Activist-author Tom Hayden did his part for cross-border understanding, first by taking part in a public forum with Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsivais, then by playing a game of “This is the church, this is the steeple” with a little Mexican girl. Though the girl appeared to be well-amused, Hayden later reflected that it’s no easy matter to connect across different language and culture barriers.

He didn’t mention the wall. Nor did he need to.