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Culture is under siege in Los Angeles. The big museums and high end art galleries are fine. It's the publicly-funded, independent cultural events and arts spaces that are now on the endangered species list.
Last night the cultural leaders didn't let us know that budget cuts have public arts in a chokehold. "We're still open." Said L.A. City Librarian Martin Gomez to nearly a minyon at the Central Library's Mark Taper Auditorium. Three panelists and a moderator sat in front of microphones ready to expound on the new Big Read book that all of L.A. is supposed to be paging through, and experiencing collectively, Sun, Stone, and Shadows, a new collection of short stories by Mexican writers who've entered the pantheon of world literature: including Alfonso Reyes and Juan Rulfo.
L.A. Big Read events coordinator Leslie Thomas opened the night apologetically, thanking the devout in the pews for carving out time from busy schedules to attend and for missing the college basketball championships to hear a discussion about great literature. Maybe he's right, if it weren't for March Madness the room would have been packed.
In the few years cities across the country have tried to manufacture collective literary experiences with federal grants for Big Read programs. Pasadena and other Southland cities assigned residents to read Jack London's "Call of the Wild." West Hollywood picked "The Great Gatsby." Orange County's library assigned "To Kill a Mockingbird" two years ago.
Los Angeles is making the case this year that it's rare for its residents to be exposed to the deep literary traditions of Mexico and that's why they've picked the anthology of Mexican short stories. Panelist Alicia Gaspar de Alba said she was inspired by some of this literature. Her family gatherings in El Paso, she said, almost always included drunk uncles declaiming the 17th century verses of Juana de Asbaje, a literary prodigy who found the only scholarly refuge available to a woman in those days, a convent. Now as a literary scholar with an interest in Lesbian interpretation and re-interpretation of literature, Gaspar de Alba said she realized her uncles' slurring spoken word revealed an organic feminism that they may have only admitted was a love of literature.
She read from her fictionalized reinterpretation of a scholarly competition between Asbaje (also known as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz) and the top 40 scholars of New Spain. I believe the nun won.
UCLA Spanish and Portuguese Department Chair Maarten Van Delden, the second panelist, outlined how author Juan Rulfo took the modernist techniques that made James Joyce and William Faulkner international icons and used them to explore Mexico's peasant struggles and the bloody 1910 revolution. That made me wonder whether any Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez authors are using flash prose to write about narco-violence.
L.A.'s graffiti writers are already redefining literature, the night's third panelist Karla Diaz argued, as she read from a manifesto she published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.
There was no dialogue, discussion, deliberation, or diatribes between or from any panelists or the moderator, Sesshu Foster. In the end the discussion was in the hands of the library's security guard. Within earshot of the panelists, she informed the event organizer that culture's time was up.
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