12 March 2008

Dispatch from Los Angeles

Carlos Fuentes

A translated version of this piece will be published in the legendary Spanish literary magazine Quimera.

I know my way fairly well around literary lectures. Generally—and perhaps especially in a place like Los Angeles, where there are more glamorous things to do on a Friday evening—they are poorly attended by a ragtag assortment of professors, students, and writers, who come dressed in blue jeans and rumpled shirts with notebooks under their arms and pens behind their ears. During the lecture, they nod, furrow their brows, and make notes; at its conclusion, the boldest among them raise their hands with questions the purpose of which is as often to demonstrate their own intellectual perspicacity as it is to clarify that which they have just heard. Later, bold and timid alike disappear into the night, back to the usually modest homes, filled with books and ideas, in which they take their refuge.

This was the familiar scene I expected to find when I battled Friday afternoon traffic into downtown LA last week to see the great Carlos Fuentes deliver a lecture on “Contemporary Latin American Narrative”—the first in a series of LA lectures sponsored by Mexico’s Universidad de Guadalajara—at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium. The moment I walked into the building’s foyer, however, I knew I was out of my element. Workers on the neighboring patio were busily preparing platters of pastries and canapés, uncorking bottles of wine and arranging bouquets of flowers on tables draped with white tablecloths. The woman who stopped me at the door to check my name against a list of invited guests seemed genuinely surprised to find it there.

The scene in the auditorium, meanwhile, reminded me more of what I imagine the Oscars must be like than of what I’ve come to expect from literary events. Men in dark suits and tuxedoes, their hair gelled; women wrapped in floor-length gowns, toting Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Other men, burlier men, stood near the entrances and at the back corners of the auditorium, wearing black jackets with American flags pinned to the lapels, their arms folded sternly across their chests. They looked like secret service agents—and in fact, that’s probably what they were. When I turned toward the stage, my eye was first caught not by the iconic Fuentes but by the man sitting to his left: Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles. I had seen Villaraigosa on television and in the newspaper so many times during my years of residence in his city that, suddenly sitting there before me, he seemed an excess of reality, more hyper-real than real, and I had to look away.

Thirty minutes behind schedule, a woman representing the Universidad de Guadalajara opened the proceedings. She gratefully acknowledged the presence of a number of noteworthy guests—including the aforementioned mayor, Mexico’s ambassador to Los Angeles, and the hundred year old Mexican literary scholar Luis Leal—and declared her pleasure at having come all the way from the Mexican state of Jalisco, home of the Universidad de Guadalajara, to the beautiful American city of Los Angeles, with its population of 1.6 million Jalicenses. She then directed the audience’s attention to a screen behind her, on which subsequently played a video that put the rarefied atmosphere, to that point utterly inscrutable from my own perspective, into context. As it turned out, tonight’s was not simply the first, and perhaps most illustrious, in a series of literary lectures; the series of literary lectures, rather, was the first of a five-phase development project that would end, the video informed us, with the establishment in Los Angeles of a fully functioning branch of the Universidad de Guadalajara.

In principle, of course, I have nothing against having a branch of the Universidad de Guadalajara, or any other Latin American university, in Los Angeles, a city well over half of whose inhabitants are Latin American or of Latin American heritage; in fact, I’m in favor of it. All the same, there was something disconcerting, even distasteful, about the video. It seemed like the kind of propaganda a corporation might play at a gathering of its major stockholders, encouraging further investment by touting the likelihood of future gains; it presented the 1.6 million Jalicenses living in Los Angeles less as a population in need of culturally viable opportunities for higher education than as a theretofore untapped market, a stockpile of human capital ripe for exploitation.

The end of the video was met with polite applause.

After an introduction, delivered in halting but perfectly pronounced Spanish by Villaraigosa—in spite of his Mexican heritage, he claimed to have an incomplete command of the lingua franca of the evening—Fuentes finally took to the podium. He spoke first in flawless English, expressing gratitude for the invitation and making one last mention of the 1.6 million Jalicenses living in Los Angeles. Then he shifted to the Spanish in which he would read his lecture by way of an ironic recitation, given the massive northern migration to which he had just made reference, of a popular Jalisence saying: “Jalisco no pierde, y cuando pierde arrebata.”

Amidst laughter, Fuentes launched into a summary of the history of Latin American literature. He began with its various heritages—from the Quixote to the oral traditions of the continent’s indigenous peoples—and then passed, by way of Sor Juana, Rubén Darío, and the Magical Realism for which Fuentes himself is best known in the United States, to a series of contemporary authors who, Fuentes said, have blazed new paths for Latin American literature. As he described the work of each contemporary author in brief, offering plot summaries and talking points, their names appeared on the screen behind him in parallel columns.

At last, having compressed five hundred years or more into thirty minutes or less, Fuentes asked, “What will be the future of Latin American literature?” I opened my notebook and uncapped my pen, thinking that the lecture would only now begin in earnest; but to my surprise, it was already ending. “In the future,” Fuentes declared, “we must be inclusive, not exclusive. And we must recognize ourselves, regardless of which side of the border we live on, and of what language we speak”—he glanced at Villaraigosa—“as a single community in spirit.”

That was that. There would be a reception on the patio during which Fuentes would be happy to sign autographs, but no time for questions. So while the men in dark suits and women in ball gowns applauded, I was left to ponder on my own the seeming anachronism of Fuentes’ parting shot, a call to disregard what is perhaps the most important border of all from the perspective of the contemporary Latin American experience: the border that divides Latin America from North America. Regardless of their injustice, I thought, literature has never been interested in simply eliminating the borders that divide people, places, and even languages. Rather, it seeks out the zones of ambiguity that inevitably form along those borders, places in which difference, without disappearing entirely, becomes somehow indeterminate; borderlands like Los Angeles, I thought, in which the Mexican-American mayor of an American city that occupies what was once Mexican territory speaks an imperfect Spanish perfectly. One needs look no further than Fuentes’ own Magical Realism, a literary genre that walks the uncertain line between fantasy and reality without ever collapsing the two into mere sameness, to see what I mean.

But while literature makes its home along the borders, capital—be it political, economic, or as in this particular instance, primarily cultural—has never desired anything more, in its need to create always larger and more numerous markets, in its desire to open always newer and more numerous paths for its interminable expansion, than to clear those borders away.

What a shame, I thought, that in one of the United States’ most diverse cities, Fuentes—even as he occupied the symbolic place of author—had chosen to renounce the language of difference, which also just happens to be the language of literature.

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