Updated: Feb 6
In March 2020, San Antonio hosted the most famous writers in the country at the Artists, Writers, and Writing Programs (AWP) week-long conference. From March 3rd-7th, stellar national and local writers alike came together to share books and readings, alongside literary agents, publishers, and editors. But what does it mean to host a conference about writers in a city with a 1 in 4 illiteracy rate?
As Barbara Renaud Gonzalez, an author from San Antonio says, “If we really want to combat illiteracy in San Antonio, we have to get creative.” So on March 7th, the last day of the conference, Books in the Barrio, along with a todo dar productions and Dignidad Literaria, hosted a read-in, a party, a celebration, a mitote of books and stories designed to bring notable writers and activists to the community.
The Read-In included live music and a DJ that welcomed the assembled audience. Over 40 Indigenous/Xicanx/Latinx writers read to small audiences on colorful colchas, providing intimate reading spaces, blanketing the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center courtyard with stories, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and a children’s section too. “Writers took their stories to the streets and they invited communities in San Antonio to join them,” says Virginia Grise, a theatre artist, writer, and first Chicana to receive the coveted Yale Drama Series Award in 2010 for her play “blu.”
All of this happened in the shadow of the controversy surrounding American Dirt, Oprah's January 2020 Book Club selection, a sensational immigrant story suffering much criticism from Latinx writers who say the New York publishing world ignores them. They formed a network of committed Latinx authors, #DignidadLiteraria to combat the invisibility of Latinx authors, editors and executives in the US publishing industry and the dearth of Latinx literature on the shelves of America's bookstores and libraries. While Latinos make up only 3% of the workforce in the publishing industry, there are over 60 million Latinos in this country with just as many stories to tell.
Our response, a mitote, an uproar, a disturbance. “We can not wait for the publishing industry or anybody else to tell us our stories are important. We know our words have power,” says Marissa Ramirez, founder of Books in the Barrio. Many participating writers also donated books to Books in the Barrio for a future project that Ramirez describes as “an itinerant, fugitive library.” The Read-In is an example of a shifting paradigm of literacy outreach that provides authentic storytelling at its best, as much fun as the “comadres who came to our porches back in the day and told the best juiced-up stories,” says Renaud Gonzalez. “If Pablo Neruda could read to the coal miners in Chile, then we can read to the barrios of San Antonio at a conference on books.”