It's official: The Edward James Olmos Book Fair Houston Latino Book and Family Festival is no more. At least not as presented by Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, the organization that originally brought the festival to town.
To be honest, there have been riffs with corporate sponsors for the last three years, Tony Diaz, NP's founder and director, tells Hair Balls.
Sponsors wanted more traffic, NP wanted more substance. Sponsors wanted quick-moving book-signing lines, NP wanted workshops for writers, and activities that encouraged readers, especially young ones. Sponsors insisted on the George R. Brown Convention Center as the festival's location. Not only was the GRB expensive, but try as it might, NP couldn't turn the GRB plane hanger atmosphere into a cozy reading room.
"There's always been some tension between us, from the beginning. But this last year, the riff was really obvious. We'd ask them why we had to have it at the George R. Brown, and they'd say, 'Well, do you want to do it at the Reliant Center?' We just didn't look at things the same way," says Diaz.
Diaz also points to the economy as a factor. In January, he says, Continental Airlines stopped their sponsorship of nonprofit organizations and banking institutions pulled their support. Even book publishers, usually eager to have their authors appear at high-profile events like the EJOLBFF, stopped covering travel and appearance fees for authors.
Without that support, the festival's cost fell to Nuestra Palabra and -- contrary to popular belief -- the festival was not a money maker for NP. The organization earned $10,000 one year, but most years were closer to the $1,000 mark.
Diaz also says that restricting the focus to just Latino authors and readers was becoming more difficult to justify. "Nuestra Palabra is bringing in Sandra Cisneros in to Houston in 2009, but she's not just a Latino writer any more. She's at the point where for her to be thought of as just a Latino writer is a disservice to her work and to other folks who can embrace her writing, even though they're not Latino. So I think this is the time for us to come up with new ways of how to be authentic to who we are but also open up to other communities. It's not enough to be multi-cultural anymore. We have to be multi-multi-cultural. We have to be multi-media. All that takes thought and effort, which we were spending just trying to figure out how to cover all that concrete at the George R. Brown."
But while he is sure his decision is the right one, it's a bittersweet parting.
"It's hard, but by the same token, I think it's time and right now is the best time to do it, we're doing it just ahead of the curve. If I waited till next year, it might be our demise. I don't think [Nuestra Palabra] could invest six or seven months in this enterprise and survive another year. It's not even just the costs, it's more the time and energy, it's all these volunteers who are working on that instead of the web site or workshops or the radio show. Those are the things we do really well. It's time for us to get back to those and leave this behind."
It's also time for Diaz to get back to what he does well, which is writing. "This summer I made a big decision, too. I have a dear friend who said, 'You can use my town home in Galveston to write for a few weeks.' My wife told me to go ahead and do it. But it coincided with the time when I started going to the big book conventions to look for the big names, and I had to decide, do I write or do I go to book conventions and look for authors to bring in to the festival? I went to Galveston and wrote my ass off and I didn't feel guilty. I don't want to be just an administrator. I want to be an artist who is a leader, yes, but I don't want to be a leader at the expense of the artist." (Diaz was working on his novel The Protester's Handbook, and he's now looking for a publisher.)
If he had any questions about the decision, Diaz says he was helped along by last week's weather.
"First we were postponed because of Katrina, then we were postponed because of Ike. So, last week when it started snowing, I thought, 'Wow! I get it God, I really get it.'"
-- Olivia Flores Alvarez
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