San Antonio Book Festival A World Without Walls

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Journalist Jorge Ramos is swarmed by well-wishers as he arrives to speak at the San Antonio Book Festival Saturday at the Central Library.

Robin Jerstad for the Rivard Report

Journalist Jorge Ramos is swarmed by fans as he arrives at the San Antonio Book Festival Saturday at the Central Library.

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.

Sandra Cisneros and Jorge Ramos.

Robert Rivard / Rivard Report

Sandra Cisneros and Jorge Ramos.

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.

Robert Rivard with Jorge Ramos.

Courtesy / Mary Fisher

Robert Rivard with Jorge Ramos.

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.”

8 thoughts on “San Antonio Book Festival A World Without Walls

  1. After visiting the Book Fair for the first time, I can only hope for one improvement….. change it to twice a year. I was frankly amazed that a NIOSA-sized crowd would come to a literary event.
    As our city grows, may events like this grow as well., both in value and in number.

  2. Robert Rivard:
    It will be great to cue Jorge Ramos to do a profile on “a city councilman”, just as he did on Dr. Quiñones. As this talented, educated & engaged San Antonio native also has an amazing and worth telling story. His story is also a representation of how Hispanic youth through education and community involvement make this country, this city and its barrios better.

  3. I was there it was really wife loved it as well..we both bought a book by the wonderful Sandra Cisneros and was able to get them signed..we plan on going again.

  4. A huge thank you to Katy Flato, Tracy Bennett and the many red shirted volunteers who made Book Festival 6 an exciting, often inspiring event… in spite of the weather!

  5. It’s not true that San Antonio didn’t have a book fair/festival until 2013!
    In 1985 Bryce Milligan began a Small Press Book Fair that evolved into the Inter-American Book Fair, sponsored by the Guadalupe.
    The Inter-American Book Fair brought in authors like Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, Ilan Stavans, and local writers as well. Publishers of small presses and university presses from the United States and Mexico sold books at the Book Fair.
    It lasted twenty years or more, until a new Guadalupe director discontinued it.
    I can’t believe this is the second article I’ve seen claiming there’s never been a book fair here before this one.
    The current Book Festival is great, and I spent all day there as usual, but let’s not pretend it’s the first book fair San Antonio has ever had.

  6. Mr. Rivard, thank you for your article. I was ill and not able to make it to the event. However, a dear friend, Sally Avila was able to make the event. You may have seen her, she was dressed in Native American regalia. She informed me it was a fantastic event. The Jorge and the event inspired many people who feel like they have been left out. But it is up to each of us to keep helping the less fortunate. Keep up your good work.

    Ricky D. Reyes
    Architect/ Author/ Artist

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