The annual Lit & Luz Festival returned to Chicago the week of October 13–21, celebrating 10 years of bilingual programming and cultural exchange between writers, artists, and musicians from the United States and Mexico.
Thanks in part to the boom in Spanish-language and bilingual publishing and bookselling in the U.S., Lit & Luz has found a growing audience; this year’s festival, which featured talks and workshops with such authors as Alejandra Oliva, José Olivarez, and Isabel Zapata, drew nearly 900 attendees. Lit & Luz was unofficially born in 2012 as an event series tied to the literary magazine MAKE, which spotlighted authors from Mexico and Chicago, and in 2014, the festival took on its current form with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The aim of Lit & Luz is to be “a response to the lack of both translated and Spanish-language literature in the U.S.,” said founder and managing director Sarah Dodson. The festival is currently produced by MAKE Literary Productions, of which Dodson is also executive director.
“When we first launched, the role of the translator in literature was under-recognized,” Dodson said, but she’s seen a gradual shift as “publishers, readers, authors, and even awarding institutions are, thanks in big part to the advocacy of translators themselves, recognizing the contributions of translators and the impact of translated texts—not to mention the public’s interest in them.” But Daniel Borzutzky, the festival’s founding artistic director, thinks there is still a way to go. “As a translator, I see a lot of rhetoric that supports translation and what it ‘represents,’ ” he said, “but I see very little material support in terms of finances for presses and translators to bring out new writing from other languages.”
Venezuelan poet and translator Adalber Salas Hernández, who participated in this year’s festival, agreed. “The publishing world in the U.S. is notably refractory to translated works—its monolingualism is pervasive,” he said. “Latinx presence in it, however tenuous, is creating possibilities for change.”
One change has been the proliferation of bilingual books. Borzutzky, who is also a National Book Award–winning poet, has noticed an uptick in bilingual collections by U.S.-born Latinx poets, with the English original and a Spanish translation appearing side by side. He noted that two such collections from this year—Promises de Oro by José Olivarez, translated by David Ruano, and The Border Simulator by Gabriel Dozal, translated by Natasha Tiniacos—were “published by major publishers” (Holt and One World, respectively).
Borzutzky stressed that small presses such as Action Books, Co-im-Press, and Eulalia have largely led the charge to bring translations of “experimental and lesser-known poets from Latin America” to the U.S. “There should be greater support for this kind of courageous publishing,” he said. Most Hispanophone authors at this year’s festival are published in the U.S. by small publishers such as Coffee House and Kenning Editions.
As for Spanish-language bookselling, Dodson has seen improvement since launching Lit & Luz. “In the beginning, it was very challenging to get Spanish-language books from participating authors into partner bookstores—not for lack of interest, but from very few distribution opportunities in the U.S. for Spanish-language titles,” she said. In the early years of the festival, most authors participating in the festival had to bring copies of their own books from Mexico, she added. “That has since changed.”
Colombian-born, Chicago-based author Juan Martinez, who participated in this year’s festival, is especially glad to see more bilingual books in publishers’ catalogs and on store shelves. “It’s exciting to feel like there’s a real market for these books—because of course there is,” he said. Martinez also thinks that in recent years “the jump in visibility and representation is dramatic” for Latinx authors and books more generally, he said—“but only because it had been so barren just a moment ago.”
“I’d very much like for representation to at least mirror the same rough demographic we’re in,” he said. The U.S. is roughly 19% Latinx, but in a recent report by Penguin Random House, the publisher found that in 2020 Latinx individuals accounted for just 9% of its workforce and 5% of its authors, illustrators, and translators. “It’d be nice to see those figures match up,” Martinez said.
For Lit & Luz, spotlighting Latin American writing and writers to the U.S. is a crucial first step toward creating industry-level change. Dodson stressed that Mexican literature in particular is neglected in the States, even though people of Mexican origin make up nearly 60% of the Latinx population. “Mexican literature should be part of all reading lists in the U.S., but even in translation, contemporary Mexican authors are too often overlooked,” Dodson said. “Lit & Luz would like to see Mexican authors’ titles included—in bookstores, in U.S. literary festivals, in homework assignments, and in people’s homes.”