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For the Love of Libros in Cuba

People enter Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org
People enter Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org

Imagine yourself in front of an 18th century fortress facing the Malecón, a famous walkway near the water in Havana, Cuba. The fortress occupies a vast expanse of land and is surrounded by a deep moat, which legend says was once filled with crocodiles. Comprised of underground tunnels, old dungeons and hundreds of ancient cannons, the fortress is said to have been built to resist pirates, buccaneers and corsairs. A frequented spot for visitors, there is a very different sort of crowd milling about the fortress this week.

Thousands of people stream up the hill toward the drawbridge of the fortress. The dirt road is lined with ice cream trucks and food stalls, and free pony rides for children are offered in the moat. There is a buzz in the air—people are happy, no one is pushing, but there is a sense of anticipation. It is a combination of the excitement of a massive rock concert with all the calm and cheer of a folk festival.

But this is not a concert, nor is it a festival. This is a book fair. More than 300 publishing houses from more than 43 countries have set up stalls and events in the fortress. The book fair will stay in Havana for 11 days, then it will travel to 30 other cities across Cuba.

A boy checks out a book at Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org
A boy checks out a book at Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org

Last year more than 5 million people attended the book fair, purchasing more than 6 million books. To put this in context, Cuba has a population of 11.5 million people. That means nearly half the entire population goes to the book fair. Imagine participation on this scale anywhere else in the world. In the U.S., that would mean no less than 152 million people coming out to attend, of all things, a book fair.

At the fair there were bookstalls that held the least expensive books—those that were marked down even lower than the already low prices. Many books were selling for 1 peso in moneda nacional (the national currency). That translates to, roughly, 5 U.S. cents.

Many of these books were children's books, some were propaganda, and there was an entire table of the collected works of Lenin in Spanish on the bargain table. Along with politics and history, a wide range of topics could be found. For myself, I bought a copy of a book by Boaventura de Sousa Santos called Reinventar la Democracia. Reinventar el Estado (Reinvent Democracy. Reinvent the State), and another called Emancipatory Paradigms in Latin America. Published by Cuban publishing houses, together the books cost less than 40 U.S. cents. At these prices, the books at the fair are affordable to most everyone.

The crowd inside Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org
The crowd inside Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org

The fair was filled with children—half the attendees had to be less than four feet tall. Really! There were countless children's events: readings for kids; spaces where they could just open books and look at them, touch them and have adults read to them; and play spaces. This reminded me of folk festivals I went to as a child. I can remember feeling like we, the kids, were the center of the festivals, the center of the universe. The book fair in Havana has that feel as well.

Each evening the book fair ended with a concert at sunset, which sometimes lasted until after midnight. The lineup of musicians the night I attended was for a young crowd. And they were arriving—as we left, teenagers and 20-somethings came toward the drawbridge. This concert for young people helped to bring in some of the youth who are sometimes referred to as "la generación perdida" (the lost generation).

I cannot begin to express what I felt and still feel. On the bus ride back to Havana I alternated playing with the adorable toddler in the seat in front of me, and just gazing out the window, my eyes filled with tears because I was so moved. I love books. I prize books over most all other material things. Here, it is a nation, a people, who love, appreciate, prize and celebrate books.

 Reading outside at sunset at Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org
Reading outside at sunset at Cuba's book fair. Photo by Caridad, courtesy of HavanaTimes.org

I cannot paint a colorful enough picture of what the days of the book fair felt and looked like. People of all colors and ages came for books. Books! To look at what books were there. To buy a book. To listen to people reading from their books. To sit on the grass or on the wall and discuss the books they were holding or wanted to buy. It was all about ideas and imagination. It was a space filled only with the inspiration, passion, adventures and mysteries the written word. Day after day, with attendees numbering in the hundreds of thousands and then millions. That is the International Book Fair in Cuba.

I was moved deeply by the true love of ideas. The importance placed on reading and imagination. And the clear respect regular people have for the written word. One can be critical and at the same time learn a great deal. There is something for us to learn. Let us imagine together. Let us dream of how we could create a space of passionate desire for ideas and literature in our country. How might this take place, and who might support us in this endeavor?


Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, dreamer and translator. She has edited Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, and the forthcoming Insurgent Democracies: Latin America's New Powers. Marina is currently living in Havana, Cuba. She can be reached by email.

 

Mouse iconRead more from Marina: Horizontalidad: Where Everyone Leads.
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