During an unusually warm October 4–6 weekend, LéaLA, the Spanish-language book fair, returned to Los Angeles after a four-year absence, albeit in a different format. Organized by the University of Guadalajara USA Foundation and backed by the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL), the 2019 LéaLA was a literary festival.

At its peak as a fair, LéaLA drew 80,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center, but for the literary festival organizers opted to create a more intimate environment and moved the event to the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican-American museum and cultural center that is the heart of the Hispanic, predominantly Mexican community, in Los Angeles. The change was made in large part to create greater dialogue among the authors, special guests, and the public at large.

The theme of this year’s festival was the U.S.–Mexico border, a topic that dominates discussions in the communities in the southern California region. Los Angeles, home to the second-largest Hispanic population in the U.S., is only 200 miles from the border. The festival also celebrated the Spanish language, a topic featured in many of LéaLA’s panels. Given the recent backlash against people who speak Spanish, the festival organizers and speakers took a very strong stance on the importance of keeping Spanish alive. As the ex-mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, said, “We also need to learn English. We are two wings of the same bird. We must learn Spanish and English well because the border, one day, not today, but some day, will become more fluid, and those that are truly bilingual will succeed.”

PW was present at LéaLA and on Friday attended the inaugural panel, featuring journalist Lydia Cacho. Described by Amnesty International as “perhaps Mexico’s most famous investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate,” Cacho focuses her reporting on violence against and sexual abuse of women and children. Today, Cacho is living in exile in the U.S., as her life has been threatened in Mexico and her home there invaded. That experience resonated with audience members as Cacho reminded them that not everyone immigrates for economic reasons.

The first presentation on Saturday, titled “The Border as a Character,” included authors Carmen Boullosa, Margarita de Orellana, and Rodrigo Blanco, and was moderated by David Unger. The border was not only the title of this panel and theme of the festival but it also became the main character.

In his opening remarks introducing the panelists, Unger observed that the border is not simply geographical or a physical barrier, a land one crosses, a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, a supposedly impassable wall. It can also be a character. In a sense, he said, it could be a real and armed person: an American or Mexican soldier, an ICE agent, a member of the U.S. National Guard. The border can also be a mental projection, without flesh and blood, without physical existence. It could be the result of paranoia. There is so much conflict on the border between Mexico and the United States, Unger said, yet the border is a no-man’s-land like the old Berlin Wall.

Marisol Schulz, director of LéaLA and FIL, closed the fair with a conversation about culture and community between Villaraigosa and Marcela Celorio, consul general of Mexico in L.A. With so much going on in the Spanish-speaking community, Schulz said, “LéaLA will be absent no more: we will return in 2020.”

David Unger is a Guatemalan author, translator, CCNY professor, and the international representative of FIL.