There were no walls dividing the thousands of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life at the San Antonio Book Festival in the city’s Tricentennial year. Saturday was a great, single-day merging of people, young and old, rich and poor and middle class, Latino, white, and black.
It was a great day to be an American in San Antonio, where all that we share in common unfolded on a brisk, chilly day and the literary arts spread warmth, obscuring that which divides us.
This was the sixth book festival in a city that did not have one until 2013. Now it is hard to imagine San Antonio without this much-anticipated rite of April that precedes Fiesta. I have watched each one closely, taking shape throughout the year, and then from morning to evening as nearly 100 authors as diverse as their standing room-only audiences bring literary and storytelling talent into the city for a single day.
A dedicated team of people work all year to produce one great day. It’s worth it.
It’s a natural high for lovers of language, the written word, and the power of narrative. Great stories connect us, inspire us, soothe and heal us, educate us, and cause us to search deeply for our better selves.
I have served as an author moderator each year, a highlight on my annual calendar of arts and culture experiences. Nothing prepared me, however, for the experience of introducing our country’s most respected Spanish-language broadcast journalist, Jorge Ramos. His own life’s journey has made him a symbol of hope for new Americans, Mexican-Americans, Dreamers, and the millions of Spanish-speaking immigrants who live and work here without legal citizenship.
Ramos could play the celebrity, but he carries himself more like a humble philosopher king, so it was no surprise when one member of his big-tent audience asked when he intended to run for president. Ramos said he has no such political aspirations, and as a Mexican-born, naturalized U.S. citizen, he couldn’t hold that office anyway. He does understand the power of his name, reputation, and platform. After decades of on-air newscasts and 13 books, including his latest, Stranger, he wields a different kind of power, one heavy with responsibility which he shoulders well.
His is the power to give hope to people who have the least reason to be hopeful, the most marginalized of our neighbors. Ramos’ 45-minute presentation was delayed as we made our way through the throngs of people spilling out of the two big outdoor tents that showcased the day’s literary stars. Fans eager for a smartphone selfie or seconds-long video of him up close and personal mobbed Ramos with the reverence usually reserved for a holy man.
Later, he took two hours to sign books and pose for photos with hundreds who lined up on the Central Library’s second floor. Each person got a handshake or hug from Ramos.
An aging grandmother slowly pushing her walker, parents with children in their arms or pushing babies in strollers, a city councilman, a college chancellor, the library system director, an upscale department store marketing executive, journalists, book festival volunteers, all waiting with working class families, young Dreamers, and one woman with a dressed-up lapdog – all were treated to a moment with Jorge.
Yes, Jorge. Everyone was on a first-name basis. People shared hometown names in Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley, and memories of their parents seeing Jorge a generation ago.
I helped keep the line moving, bantering with people in English and Spanish, greeting Rivard Report readers, and savoring the perfect mix of San Antonians as they steadied themselves to meet someone they trusted, cherished, and looked to for a better future.
“Keep working, no one ever said it would be easy,” Ramos told one young Dreamer whose voice cracked as she quietly told him how emotionally fatiguing it is to fear the specter of arrest and deportation from the only home she knows.
“Keep pushing. We have no choice,” Ramos said.
A few feet away, the celebrated novelist and short story writer Sandra Cisneros also signed books and visited with a long line of fans. Cisneros, who called San Antonio home for many years, now lives in San Miguel de Allende, an expatriate back in the country of her forebears.
Like the Dreamers who came here after him, Ramos represents the energy and talent that immigrants have brought to the United States since the country’s founding. Yet even educated, successful immigrants often receive a mixed welcome, people caught between their countries of birth and their adopted homelands, no matter how great their contribution.
Democracies have never found security in border walls, or benefit from a war of words with neighbors. Some of the darkest chapters in the great history of the U.S. recall the country slipping into national moods of xenophobia, racism, fear, and exclusion. In an unwelcome counterpoint to the book festival, hundreds of gun-toting marchers descended on Olmos Park, an intimidating force for those who walk through life armed only with reason.
At least for one day, downtown San Antonio offered a safe harbor from those storms. The book festival, a confluence of people and talented storytellers with big ideas and noble aspirations reflected the city and society we can be at our best – when we are together, unarmed, undivided.
Ramos gained greater fame, even among non-Spanish speaking audiences, when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump ignored him at an Iowa press conference and infamously told him, “Go back to Univision,” his network, in what many took to mean, “Go back to Mexico.”
Saturday, a teeming crowd outside the Central Library offered a different message: “You are always welcome in San Antonio.”