The specter of the coronavirus outbreak hovering over the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in San Antonio did not dampen the enthusiasm of the small audience in attendance for Thursday night’s keynote address, delivered by noted Chicana author Helena Maria Viramontes.

Billed as the largest annual literary conference in North America, the AWP has suffered an estimated 40 percent drop in expected attendance due to concerns related to coronavirus uncertainties and international travel.

Viramontes, a self-described “working class Chicana” who has chronicled her early life growing up in East Los Angeles in novels and short stories, was a popular choice as keynote speaker.

Just under 300 registered conference-goers turned out for Viramontes’ impassioned speech in the 2,500-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre. The crowd rewarded Viramontes’ commitment to attending the conference with enthusiastic applause and yelps at her introduction and a standing ovation at the conclusion of her 45-minute talk.

Viramontes displayed a deep knowledge of San Antonio’s long and complicated history, as well as its current concerns.

Early in her talk, she referenced a statistic given by local author-activists Virginia Grise and Barbara Renaud Gonzalez that one in four San Antonio residents are illiterate. In response, those authors organized a free public “Read-In & Mitote” event on Saturday to promote literacy and access to residents normally beyond the reach of the conference, to which Viramontes posed a question.

“With over 60 percent of the city’s populace being Mexicano and Latinx, one has to ask, who benefits most from keeping residents illiterate?” She touted the benefits of literacy, including sparking the imagination, connecting to the experience of others, and exercising political and moral agency through learning multiple perspectives.

While mentioning famous authors of color such as Frederick Douglass, Audrey Lorde, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Toni Morrison, and touching upon local colonial history, Viramontes enumerated the moral implications of any author’s work, saying “A writer’s perception then becomes a set of observations influenced by religion, gender, race, economic status, mobility and sexual orientation.”

The array of 550 planned panel discussions and readings during the diversity-aware conference attested to the reach of Viramontes’ observation, with a wide-ranging focus on LGBTQIA+ issues, feminism and women’s issues, accessibility for the disabled, and race and immigration controversies. However, due to low attendance, nearly half of scheduled discussions had been canceled as of Thursday afternoon.

Still, the conference has gone on, despite what local poet and teacher John Philip Santos described as “the strange destiny of San Antonio,” in hosting the major national writer’s conference amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus.

After the speech, he said, “Helena Maria’s talk was fiery, prophetic, and essential. I wish the totality of the AWP community had been here to hear that.” The talk was also livestreamed on the AWP website.

Of San Antonio and Latin America, Santos echoed Viramontes’ message about what he called “the underlying mysteries of our exclusion from the national literary culture – the voices coming from the borderlands, the blind spot in the national media around this legacy and these voices. And here was an incredible moment, and ironically we are silenced by this contagion from afar.”

While Viramontes pondered aloud whether recent political conflicts in the U.S. were due to “losing our trust in the power of stories,” she extolled the virtues of writing to bridge differences and said that the AWP conference “would not exist if this [loss of trust] were happening.”

She closed by offering advice for writers, including leaving the writing table occasionally to “go outside and get some fresh air.” Viramontes also encouraged the writers in attendance to engage in what she called “corporeal activism,” building community with their work, and by observing others. “Everyone and everything has a story,” she said.

One result of the diminished conference attendance is a special $5 attendance fee on Saturday allowing access to any conference event, reduced from the previous price of $45, and available to anyone. Among the events taking place are the Bookfair featuring hundreds of exhibitors, and a special presentation by the Macondo Writers Workshop and Gemini Ink featuring Santos and other San Antonio authors including Gregg Barrios, in the Lila Cockrell Theatre from 3:20 to 4:35 p.m.

Check the conference schedule page for further information.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...