Potent gum and Catholic kitsch: notes from Guadalajara
“Pásate,” whispers the kind señora who stands up from her seat so that I am able to pass.
I buckle myself in to what promises to be a sweet journey: a few days at Guadalajara’s International Book Fair, or Feria Internacional del Libro (FIL for short) under the auspices of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. It’s my first foray into this mega-event, 26 years in the making, housing over 600,000 people in a week’s time and welcoming authors from 28 countries. It’s the largest Spanish language fair in the world, and is unique in that it brings together both professionals and the public under one roof, for forums, book presentations, round tables, and other non-book events, like a series of concerts featuring the guest country’s top musicial acts. This edition honors Chile; I can’t wait to hear that Chilean accent that is so hard to come by in L.A. I plan to attend some of the presentations, meet with the organizers (the University of Guadalajara) and spend a moment with the L.A. Spanish language fair director to plant some seeds for the future. The fair takes place in the state of Jalisco, well known for its beach-side resort Puerto Vallarta, but also for being the land of tequila, mariachis, and charro.
I settle into my window seat.
“Chicle?” The señora accepts my offer of gum, and immediately comments, “Qué fuertes son estes chicles, no?” This singular comment about how strong the gum is is all she needed to say to remind me how marked American culture can be compared to Mexico: strong and potent, everything in megadoses.
We’re on the tarmac. Her right hand moves to her forehead, then diagonally across to her left shoulder, and then to the right. Her lips silently mouth the blessing, and we ascend.
Kitch a la católica
Five hours later I am wandering the historic center of Tlaquepaque, a small neighborhood outside of the main center of Guadalajara and a taxi drive away from the Expo center where I’ll be Sunday morning, collecting my registration card and hoping to catch Jonathan Franzen open the Literary Salon around noon.
Night has fallen. I turn down one of the main streets that lead to the plaza where the mariachis gather to serenade the Saturday night strollers and my eye is pulled toward blue neon designs that crown what appears to be a Catholic church. I walk up to this imposing white ornate structure- yes, with three neon signs pitched on top each of the towers, and think that it must be some sort of old church turned odd hotel, or some cultural space or something. I walk through the gates and can immediately see before me that mass is underway. A bride and groom kneel at the altar; their guests stand silently in the pews. To my right is another wedding party snapping pictures; they must have just been cycled through. I’m sure my mouth must have been open in disbelief, yet how foolish of me to think that this might be sacrilegious. After all, Mexicans have done wonders with La Virgen.
I barely walk past the shiny red cadillac adorned with big white wedding bows immediately outside before falling upon another church. The doors are open, lights on. Another couple is getting married. Love is in the air, and so is the smell of maple syrup. That’s not a scent I recall smelling in the plazas I’m used to roaming in this country. I turn my back and laid out before me is a maze of food stands and fryers, grills and make-shift mini-restaurants. Plátanos fritos next to pancakes on one. Elote (corn) with crema on the other. I wind through the maze of scents and find everything from funnel cake to french fries, orange meat on a skillet that I can’t look away from quickly enough. Men with balloons on sticks saunter through a plaza dotted with novios stealing kisses on park benches, corn kernels strewn about the ground. Little children run in circles, squealing with delight as their grandparents watch on. It’s 7pm on a Saturday night and everyone is out to enjoy as the strange blue neon light casts its glow on the kiosk below. I come back to the gates for a picture of this odd church and note the engraving etched above the main doors.
Indulgencia plenaria* católica perpetua una vez al día.
The literal translation would sound something like this: Full perpetual catholic indulgence one time a day.
I have no doubt the goal has been met. I hear an echo…qué fuertes son estes chicles.
*To be fair, the true meaning, from the Latin, refers to submitting yourself and your sins before God
Walking home from my stroll, I encountered a death metal teenage rock band jamming on a basketball court with a multi-generational audience of about 30. The lyrics were so distorted I really had no clue what language was coming out of the booming speakers, but it was enough to lure me over to the gate, where I looked on in misbelief and delight. A young woman came over to me and motioned for me to come through to the other side but I silently declined, for some reason feeling safer on the outside, not really wanting to get any closer to the deafening sounds yet all the while relishing this seemingly random show of teenage angst. The kind lady quickly explained that they were doing some social action as a way to stop the authorities from cutting down the trees that surrounded the court in order to install a parking garage. This was one of many events over the ensuing weekends to gather the community, to show solidarity for the trees. Perhaps that explained the young children and elderly. It was for a good cause and it made for a pretty fabulous way to end my first night.