In the Old San Juan: a world of words

Close to a hundred writers from Latin America, the United States, Africa and the Near East attended the seventh edition of the Festival of the Word in Puerto Rico.

I don’t know why José Manuel Fajardo and Mayra Santos-Febres, director of programming and executive director, respectively, of the Festival of Words that is held every year in Puerto Rico sent me a very cordial invitation to participate in an event that has had very distinguishing world representatives of literature.


And I say it without false modesty. Because the names that participated in the previous six editions included, among others, Mempo Gardinelli, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Ana María Matute, Leonardo Padura, Oscar Hijuelos, Junot Díaz, Luis Sepúlveda, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Gioconda Belli, Ernesto Cardenal, Almudena Grandes, Javier Cercas, Sergio Ramírez, Esmeralda Santiago and Jorge Volpi. All of them stars in the international book market.


But I appreciate that invitation because this event’s fundamental aim is to flood with culture the streets of San Juan and other isolated zones where thousands of potential readers live, in an island or colony where bookstores are scarce and spiritual goods are left way below that desire for consumption that can be breathed in this “commonwealth.”


Every year the Festival has a very wide-ranging general theme that is later developed into almost a hundred activities between talks, book presentations, exhibits, street theatre performances, workshops with intermediate education students and film projections. All of them free. All of them with the aim, according to its organisers, of inserting Puerto Rico into the world.


That is why this seventh meeting – carried out last November – was attended by close to one hundred writers from Latin America, the United States, Africa and the Near East who were barely able to get to know each other since five days with their nights and an agenda that did not leave room for resting, allowed for little exchange.


In any case I was pleased to get to know persons like Wingston González, from Guatemala, Dominicans Pedro Antonio Valdés and Rey Andujar (winner by the way of one of the Alba Prizes, sponsored by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, awarded in the Havana Book Fair).


This time the theme was “Return to Utopia,” in tribute to the 500 years of the famous book by Tomás Moro, now updated by the paradises and hells of modernity.


In the Old San Juan we spoke about everything; from the follies of the big book transnationals to free love. And all the personal and collective utopias of those of us who participated were freely and easily expressed before a public that knew me in a way that was unimaginable for me.


I believe that that knowledge is due to Puerto Rican Carlos Roberto Gómez, founder of Puerto Rico’s most prestigious publishing house, Isla Negra, which was paid tribute at the meeting for its 25 years and which published in 2005 my novel Fiebre de invierno, winner of the Casa de las Américas Prize.


At the 2007 Festival of the Word there was another Cuban: playwright, poet and friend Norge Espinosa, who seemed to know Puerto Rico like the palm of his hand and I coincided with him in the observation of the friendly and affable character of the Puerto Ricans, the excellent attention we received despite the economic difficulties that the organisers had to get around to hold the Festival this year.


But the excellent Puerto Rican novelist Mayra Santos-Febre, creator together with Spaniard José Manuel Fajardo of this annual event, is not a woman to be daunted when faced by difficulties: “this is our resistance,” she told me. And when I commented my astonishment that in a public square the actors expressed themselves in favour of independence, she answered: “It could happen that the police beats us a bit when we express ourselves freely. But they don’t even dare to arrest us.”


I was seduced and fell in love with the beauty of that Old San Juan through whose steep and narrow streets I lost my breath accompanied by my “volunteer” (university students who selflessly and altruistically collaborate with the Festival by serving as guides to the guests). But the most indelible memory is that of its inhabitants, whose idiosyncrasy which I have already referred to is deferential and at the same time not invasive at all as happens in other spheres of the Caribbean.


Something that cannot be missed in the so-called by some Island of Magic is the music. And Peruvian Susana Baca travelled there to give an unforgettable concert that the crowds that filled the Plaza del Quinto Centenario rewarded with ovations; and the Festival participants did not miss it. We all knew what that singer that accompanies Calle 13 in a popular and iconoclast song represents.


Saturday night, which was my farewell, the noise in the Old San Juan dazed me. They enjoyed the reguetón as a favourite rhythm and when you allude to its misogynistic and tasteless lyrics they respond that other genres like the bolero or the tango also reflect a great deal of disdain for women and no one questions them.


I was convinced that like the name of the event in which I participated without imagining how much satisfaction I would find in it, its celebration pays tribute to the word as a fundamental tool of communication and vehicle of culture. Let’s hope that that island’s economic circumstances do not force it to disappear. (2016)

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