They Just Don’t Read:
In Which I Wholeheartedly and Unreservedly Threaten to Smack Someone in the Face With a Book
An expansion on a theme raised at the center of the literary universe. Or, um, Facebook.
by Rich Villar
This was 2008, and at the back of the Bruckner Bar and Grill, one of our patrons at the Acentos showcase tried as hard as he could to convince me. “Es que nuestra gente,” he said, invoking his Spanish—and thus his ability to speak with me en serio—”they just don’t read, pa. It’s like all that rap and reggaeton garbage is the only shit they listen to.”
And that’s where I stopped talking, because at this point in the conversation, I realized that the person in question had not listened to much hip hop or reggaeton, and certainly hadn’t seen what I’d seen in terms of Latinos eating up poetry, or fiction, or memoir.
This is an argument with a Latino about the particular difficulties in getting “our community” or “nuestra gente” to buy books, stay literate, or support events around Latino literature, or literature at all. Wasn’t the first, sadly. I’ve attended industry panels, with editors who are supposed to know better than to generalize, and at some point someone says something to the affect of “Latinos just don’t read,” and I will be possessed with the sudden need to a) not go ape shit, and b) remind people that we Latinos come from some of the richest literary cultures on earth (the opinions of racist U.S. writers notwithstanding), and that books are always close to us, no matter your income level, no matter your background.
Let’s set aside reading spaces and open mics and movements among communities around the nation whose building blocks are Latino literature. No, let’s not even mention Cantomundo, the Kansas City Latino Writers’ Collective, Arte Público, Capicu Cultural Showcase, Acentos (& The Acentos Review), or Palabra. Let’s not mention any of them, even if I just did.
La Casa Azul Bookstore is dedicated to the prospect that Latinos do indeed read, and write, and live, books. Before there was a storefront in East Harlem, Aurora Anaya-Cerda put a table at the Brooklyn Book Festival, in September 2011. I met her there, along with dozens of my fellow writers, many of whom passed through a workshop of mine at some point. All day long, Latinos and Latinas showed up in droves to buy books by Latino and Latina authors, to listen to them read from the work out loud. I met a young lady from Queens there, age 13 at the time, who just today was asked by her English teacher to read and react to a poem by Pat Mora. The child eats books for breakfast, and she is not the only one, because I got to mention her on the air with Nuestra Palabra, a radio show in Houston, Texas, that is the homebase of Librotraficante, an organization dedicated to the prospect that the only reason Latino schoolchildren can’t read books is because the government tries every day to take them away. Ask the students in Tucson’s now-former Mexican-American Studies department if they read books. Better yet, ask their now-former teachers.
Similar thoughts cross my brain when I’m asked about the lack of enthusiasm for the Puerto Rican independence movement. Personally, I think the movement is strong when the United States is not busy killing its leaders. (Happy belated, Don Pedro Albizu Campos.) I think perhaps if we valued Latinos in this country, if perhaps we weren’t so xenophobic and eager to deport any brown skin visible in our crosshairs, our history and values would be preserved, and more people in general would read Latino literature. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
Then again, why wait for social justice from the top down? The best form of social justice has always been for the people to simply show up. On September 11th, over a thousand people showed up at Barnes and Noble in Union Square to see Junot Díaz, Dominicano, Pulitzer Prize winner from Perth Amboy, NJ, read from his third book, This Is How You Lose Her.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but, “If ya don’t know, now ya know.” –Notorious B.I.G.
I’ve planned events like this. I’ve attended events like this. I have read books from Latino authors and shared them with Latino readers literally all over the country, and outside it. The next person that tells me Latinos don’t read books is going to get smacked with one. Preferably, mine.