Boca de Oro festival showcases the diversity of O.C.'s literary and arts scenes

Sheila J. Sadr, 23, of Irvine performs a poem during the Boca de Oro Festival of Literary Arts & Culture in Santa Ana on March 2.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Boca de Oro — “mouth of gold” in Spanish — couldn’t be a more apt name for the series of events in downtown Santa Ana on March 2. In its third year, the literary and arts festival continued to showcase the creatively rich voices of diversity in Orange County.

Sheila J. Sadr was one of four local female poets who read her work at the “Women: A Tapestry of Words Between Syria and Iran” session at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.

The art gallery was one of 15 venues in downtown Santa Ana that housed each of Boca de Oro’s 35 literary and artistic-themed sessions. All festival events — which included author talks, workshops and poetry slams — were free to the public.

“Someone asked me the question ‘Why do [you] write?’ and in my opinion it’s to build bridges, inside and out,” said Sadr, who is Iranian American. “So for me, talking about my culture and my background, it tells you who I am and how I will treat you, and how I deserve to be treated. Writing about it is a form of building a bridge between me and you.”


Perhaps the most well-known of the authors was Justin Torres, the keynote speaker of the festival. Torres, whose bestselling book “We the Animals” was adapted into a feature film currently streaming on Netflix, spoke about how his Puerto Rican upbringing influenced his novel and how necessary cultural variety is in the literary world.

“Whenever communities are paying attention to the need for people to see themselves reflected in stories and literature, they’re on the right track,” Torres said.

Students from Heninger Elementary School in Santa Ana perform ballet folklórico during the Boca de Oro Festival of Literary Arts & Culture in Santa Ana on March 2.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The concept for Boca de Oro was inspired by Lit Crawl L.A., which in turn was inspired by bar crawls: attendees can meander from venue to nearby venue, indulging in literary offerings instead of libations. It’s not the first literary festival in Orange County, but it’s the first one that emphasizes local diversity, and the first that’s free for everyone.


“While the rest of the region may have great locations, there’s a gritty need for the cultivation of critical thought about literature [in Santa Ana],” said Madeline Spencer, executive director of the Santa Ana Business Council. “We know there are literary festivals in L.A., but they’re not accessible to everybody; they’re expensive.”

The beauty of hosting Boca de Oro in Santa Ana is that the city itself gets to shine.

Santa Ana’s majority Latino population was highlighted in sessions like “Chicana — HERstory” detailing the history and work of the city’s Latin American artists.

Concurrent to the literary sessions were musical and dance performances staged by more than 500 Santa Ana Unified School District students, faculty and staff in the plazas outside of the venues. Even with sporadic rain and cooler temperatures, there was undeniable warmth in the entertainment.

The presence of the students underscores another area of focus for the festival: exposing Santa Ana’s youth to the arts.

“Many students here often don’t have access to fine literature, so we need to provide these opportunities to them,” said Robyn MacNair, visual and performing arts coordinator for SAUSD. “[Boca de Oro] is creating pipelines to connect them to the U.S. creative economic capital — L.A. They can be inspired by it and aspire to join that and go out into the world.”

Jackline Tello, 17, from Century High School in Santa Ana is a finalist in LitCon, the SAUSD literary arts competition. She and other finalists read their work during the Boca de Oro Festival of Literary Arts & Culture on March 2.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Jackline Tello, a senior at Century High School in Santa Ana, entered SAUSD’s first literary arts competition, LitCon, and was the overall high school winner for her piece of prose, “A Story.” She and other student finalists read their work at the Frida Theater as part of Boca de Oro.


“My teacher told me about [LitCon], and I thought, ‘Why not? It’s my last year here, I’ll go do something,’ ” Jackline, 17, said.

She had previously tried creative writing in her classes, but the Boca de Oro festival marked the first time that she shared her work in public.

“I think it’s inspiring to know that there’s a community of other writers and artists here that you can reach out to for support,” Jacklinesaid. “And for the artists, they can come here and show what they have, so they can have a bigger audience.”

When asked about whether she will pursue writing once she graduates this spring, Jackline said that she’s considering it.

“It’s one of those things where I’m like, ‘I could do this,’ ” she said. “I have a bunch of interests, and this is one of them.”