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Little red heart of Tijuana

It may surprise you to learn that we indirectly owe the current Feria del Libro de Tijuana to the Spanish Civil War.

Like most things in Tijuana, it all started with a migrant seeking an opportunity. After living in France, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Mexico City, Alfonso López Camacho arrived in Tijuana after escaping from the Franco regime in Spain. He worked as an accountant for a wine company and then transitioned to a variety of enterprises before opening Librería El Día on Calle Sexta in 1963.

The bookstore quickly became the little red heart of Tijuana, offering leftist political books from China, Cuba, and all over Latin America. In 1968, his son, the current owner of the librería, Alfonso López Camacho Jr. (Don Alfonso, as he is widely known in Tijuana), talked to his father about diversifying the book selection and modernizing the bookstore.

Don Alfonso also wanted to attract all of those potential readers who would not step into the librería. So, in 1980, he got together with other Tijuana booksellers and organized the first Tijuana book fair. Since then, 32 editions of the Feria del Libro de Tijuana have been held.

Since that first feria, the population of Tijuana grew from 150,000 to 2 million citizens and the book fair changed with the city. The feria moved around Tijuana almost every year. It was held on the street, at government venues, on the parking lot of a mall, and finally on the grounds of the Tijuana Cultural Center.

In the past decade, the book fair turned into one of the most important cultural events of Tijuana. Vladimir López Ontiveros, son of Don Alfonso, says, “The purpose of the Feria del Libro de Tijuana is mainly to place the book [within] hand’s reach of the reader and to have a street fiesta, a popular celebration seeking to widen readership in the city, and to spark the love for books. We want to create new readers and to awaken latent ones.”

Over time, many local, national, and international writers have come to present their books. The feria gathers all the booksellers from the city and around 100 commercial publishing houses from Mexico, Spain, and Argentina, among a smaller number of independent and government editors.

Suspense and death

The fair’s production has never been free of stress and tensions, but this year the drama was even more intense. There was even a death.

Traditionally, the association of established book sellers and the Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura (IMAC) have organized the fair. IMAC is currently led by Jesús Flores Campbell, nephew of one of Tijuana’s most respected writers: Federico Campbell. Federico this year was named honorary president of the fair by his nephew. Federico, however, was unable to preside over the fair because he suddenly died from complications of the AH1N1 virus (swine flu) on February 15. Flores Campbell also fell ill but was able to recover. During this ordeal, many questions arose regarding the fair.

Local cultural journalist and activist Jaime Chaidez says the main problem of the Feria del Libro de Tijuana is that, unlike other book fairs in Mexico, the organization committee changes every three years when a new mayor is elected. According to Chaidez, this mechanism can bring all sorts of problems, from inexperience to nepotism to applying impractical ideas.

“The book fair has a defect: [it] is organized by the government and every three years there’s a new mayor and every three years there’s a new mindset. Every three years we are praying to find out if the new director of culture is just a friend of the mayor or if he is actually an intellectual...we never know. This issue has affected the book fair gravely. So, we proposed to create a literary committee that would help and follow the book-fair organization, but this year the new government ignored the literary committee and there’s been a lot of tensions and problems.”

This year even the schedule was late. A week before the inauguration, the Feria del Libro website had nothing but dead links and there was no definite program published anywhere. When asked about this issue, Flores Campbell mentioned that his uncle had been organizing the program. He invited writers of his own stature and when he died, out of respect, IMAC decided not to name another president. But after Federico’s death, not all of the people he invited confirmed their participation. Flores Campbell said this is the main reason why there’s been so much uncertainty, and even when the program is finalized, it will be subject to change.

The delayed program is a problem because there are concerts and at least 200 book presentations expected from writers such as Élmer Mendoza, Cristina Rivera-Garza, Guillermo Fadanelli, and Xavier Velasco.

Free to dream

The Tijuana Cultural Center (Cecut) is collaborating on this year’s book fair. Their part of the program is on schedule. Cecut’s director, Pedro Ochoa Palacio, confirmed 20 book presentations, the concert by Eugenia León on May 31, the Luz Boreal show on June 7, and the closing concert by Nortec on June 8.

Ochoa Palacio believes the fair is a good showcase for the book as a cultural object. Regarding the importance of the fair in the Tijuana–San Diego region, in his opinion there is a widespread interest in Mexican literature from organizations, universities, and intellectuals in San Diego, and this event is a great opportunity for them to find a vast diversity of literature, including hard-to-find books.

About the future of the fair, Ochoa Palacio hopes that the efforts progress and the fair will be able to fulfill the growing interest in Tijuana’s culture: “The readers are very demanding, and each time they want to have better authors. This book fair focuses on the reader’s needs.”

Tijuana is already considered one of the most culturally active and innovative cities in Mexico, but although the book fair receives around 100,000 visitors and this year is being organized with a budget of around $500,000, it can’t compete with the impact that other Mexican book fairs have.

Author Daniel Salinas Basave has a point, stating, “The Feria del Libro de Tijuana is older than the Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara and the Monterrey Book Fair, but still our fair is domestic. It could be a binational book fair, a bicultural landmark, but it’s a fair that’s not growing, and this is not always for lack of money.”

According to Salinas, it seems that the problem is mainly creativity. In his opinion, the fair should spread and should hold alternative events outside of the main venue with key writers, bloggers, and magazine editors. For Salinas, the way to strengthen the feria is to have an autonomous board of trustees that won’t depend directly on the mayoral election or the designated director.

“I am convinced that the Feria del Libro de Tijuana deserves to transcend and ascend to another level,” says Salinas.

This week Lorena Mancilla’s work was published in a bilingual book by the Baja California Institute of Culture (ICBC) in collaboration with  La Línea, a Tijuana collective of which the author is a part.

Leer esta historia en Español , clic aquí.

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