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Celebrating the language of their roots

Deep inside my writerly brain, down where my earliest memories reside, there is a voice. It speaks to me in Spanish.

I write in the language of Shakespeare and Steinbeck. That's the language I was educated in, here in L.A. The language of the British Empire, of American Manifest Destiny, of California and the West.

But Spanish gave me my first words: mamá, agua. And it was the language on the covers of the first works of grown-up literature I held in my hands, the Guatemalan novels my immigrant father brought into our Hollywood home.

"Hombres de Maíz." "El Señor Presidente."

I remembered those books on Sunday as I watched dozens of immigrant families peruse stacks of the printed word in castellano at the second annual LéaLA Spanish book fair at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Everywhere I turned, I found reminders of the ways Spanish and English co-exist in certain L.A. families. And of the power of Spanish to give a sense of meaning, history and beauty to the lives of those Angelenos who speak it.

"You see, it isn't that hard," Alejandro Rincon said to his teenage son in Spanish, as he read a passage from the back cover of a novel based on the story of Cain and Abel.

The young man mumbled a few words in English and shrugged his shoulders in a "Yeah, Dad I get it" kind of gesture.

Rincon, I soon found out, is a Mexico City-born construction worker and resident of Culver City. He'd brought three of his kids to LéaLA, including Carlos, his U.S. educated, English-dominant son.

"We brought them so they could soak up the books and think about reading their whole lives," Rincon told me in Spanish. "My son doesn't want to read in Spanish. But it's important.... Because we're Latinos. They need to know where they come from."

Some people in L.A. think of Spanish as the language of backwardness. Members of an older Latino generation were forced to purge it from their tongues. And today some people in the anti-immigrant crowd associate the language of Cervantes and Borges with underperforming schools.

But there, in the Convention Center, we Spanish readers were surrounded by reminders of the greatness of the language. I watched immigrant families with kids in tow, walking past poster portraits of modern Mexican authors like Elena Poniatowska and Jose Emilio Pacheco.

I could feel the unspoken message those immigrant parents were passing on to their children:

Look, we may earn our living with our hands, and speak English with an accent, but here is the proof, children of ours, that you too come from a people who think. words and ideas are part of the heritage we leave to you.

This is a sentiment common to parents of every U.S. ethnic group. You have to know where you come from to know who you can be. That's why, on any given weekend in L.A., thousands of English-speaking kids are obliged to take classes in Mandarin and Hebrew, or to learn of the music and the memories of Ireland and Armenia.

"I brought him to show him our values," Cristobal Lopez, a 30-year-old house cleaner, told me as he guided his son Brian around the book fair. "Education first, before anything else."

Brian is 10 and bilingual. I asked him, "What do you like to read?" and his answer came in two languages. "Science y history, de Mexico y Estados Unidos," he said. "And 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid,' by Jeff Kinney."

Brian is taking his first steps on a path followed by many a young L.A. intellectual: from the native language of his immigrant parents to English. Today a "Wimpy Kid," tomorrow Hemingway, perhaps. That's more or less the journey I took.

Those Guatemalan novels in my childhood home, and the reverence with which my father spoke of their author, the Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias, were the germ of the idea that I might be a writer one day too. Now I've published three books — in English.

To begin to learn to create, and to think, there's no better starting point than works of literature close to your experience.

So it saddens and angers me to hear of the goings-on in Arizona, where a frenzy over immigration and Latino culture has led to the purging of ethnic studies. The works of dozens of Latino authors have been removed from public schools.

Among them are Dagoberto Gilb, Sandra Cisneros and Junot Diaz: All are award-winning, U.S.-raised writers, crafting fiction in English and making art of the Spanish and Spanglish that still float about in the places they grew up.

To deny those books, and to deny Spanish culture to new generations of young people, isn't just an assault on Latino culture, it's an assault on U.S. culture. When we lose those books, we lose American readers and writers whose lives, like mine, have roots in Spanish.

Unfortunately, that's an argument that's too subtle for the English-only, book-banning crowd to understand. Maybe if they spoke more than one language they might get it.

Paulina Torres, a Mexican immigrant and resident of Cudahy, speaks two languages. She loves words so much, she read to her son Abraham when he was still in the womb — passages from the Bible and other works. Now he's 7, and a voracious reader in English.

"He likes to read all night," Torres told me. She and her husband are big fans of book fairs.

"We went to the one at USC," Torres said, referring to the L.A. Times Festival of Books. And Abraham, she said with pride, buys more Scholastic Books in his second-grade classroom than any other kid.

I wondered about the books Abraham might read when he gets older. And how similar his reading journeys might be to mine. His began in utero with the Gospels in Spanish. If he's still in love with books in a decade, he'll eventually make it to that high-school standard called "Hamlet."

Perusing my own copy, I found a pearl of wisdom that's especially appropriate, I think, for a son of immigrants to follow.

"This, above all: to thine own self be true."

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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