Tuesday, April 16, 2019

AWP: Next Year In SanAnto

Guest Columnist: Pablo Miguel Martínez.
Op-ed piece: AWP 2020 Conference in San Antonio

Every year, approximately 12,000 poets, writers, publishers, and literary scholars gather in major cities in the U.S. and Canada to talk shop at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). 

During breaks from a schedule brimming with panels and readings—but often lacking in meaningful diversity—conference attendees stroll through a bookfair that draws 800 U.S. and international presses. 

It’s a giddy week if you’re an author, published or hoping to be, for it affords attendees an unparalleled opportunity to network with peers and meet publishers. Like most professional conferences, AWP is by turns exhilarating and exhausting. It is also expensive, especially for under-resourced authors.

The 2020 conference will be held in San Antonio next March. Over the past 20 years, during which I’ve attended the conference semi-regularly, it’s been held in cities like Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, and Washington, DC, all of which boast vibrant literary ecosystems. 

This year it was held in Portland, Oregon, home to Powell’s Books, which bills itself as the world’s largest independent bookstore. 

San Antonio last played host to the gathering in 1980. Much has changed since then. There have been important demographic shifts: Today San Antonio is the country’s largest minority-majority city (there are bigger cities, such as Los Angeles, with large ‘Hispanic’ populations, but those populations are not the majority, as we are here in San Antonio). However, that growth has not yielded the kind of power—economic, political, and otherwise—that generally accompanies majority status. 

Latinas and Latinos, who comprise about 64 percent of San Antonio’s population, bear a disproportionate part of the burden that comes with one of the country’s worst income inequality and economic segregation. 

Arguably, one of the more dispiriting local statistics, and the one perhaps most relevant to a gathering of writers, is San Antonio’s persistent illiteracy: Nearly one-quarter of the local population is illiterate; of that number, about one-half is classified as functionally literate. This explains much: abysmally low voter participation, poor public-school performance, and the pressing need for a larger skilled workforce to meet growing demands, which leads to importing labor from elsewhere, domestical and internationally. 

Little of this matters to most AWP Conference attendees who, if previous gatherings are any indication, will go from the airport to conference hotels to the Henry B. González Convention Center and back. (When he won a 1961 election, González, a San Antonio native, became the first Hispanic American to represent Texas in the U.S. Congress.) 

Those who venture beyond the narrowly circumscribed conference precincts will see traces of sites inhabited by indigenous people for millennia. They’ll see how Spanish missions, built by descendants of those earliest people, set in motion a colonization that still casts a long shadow here. (Or, as a famous African American writer, during a tour of the near-West Side, said plainly: “This is apartheid.”) 

A local friend who traveled to Portland for this year’s conference said a few people asked her if they’d be safe here in San Antonio. How pervasive the effects of the inflammatory, racist—and inaccurate—rhetoric that defines too much of this juncture in U.S. history.

Recently, my excitement over sharing my city with thousands was tempered by several threads in which only one aspect of our city’s diverse realities—based on an outdated misperception—has so far made an impression among online observers and commentators who express an interest in coming to San Antonio next March: affordability.

I’ve been utterly dismayed by comments on social media, many similar to these: “It’s so much cheaper than the coasts” and “It’s far more affordable [than other conference sites]” and “An interesting, delicious, and cheap city.” While this may true to some extent, the comments skim over deeper dismissive and derisive waters. (Because most writers are socially-engaged and curious thinkers, connecting the dots won’t be a challenge: If things here are more affordable than in other conference cities, it’s likely because of low wages earned by hospitality-industry workers, a majority of whom are brown.)

I associate the comments with others I’ve often heard about anything made in Mexico, comments to which I’m acutely sensitive and which drive me to defensiveness. “Made in Mexico” is synonymous with inferior quality, some suggest. “Tell them about Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan and los tres grandes,” my father, indignant, would say. 

Many years ago, during a family trip to Mexico City, my father took us to Bellas Artes to see an art exhibition. I overheard a British tourist whisper to another member of his tour group about the opera house: “You wouldn’t call anything that comes out of there grand.” The easy, often unchallenged denigration. 

These days I fume at the way Mexicans are vilified and dehumanized in political discourse. (The historical precedent for the reviling of Mexicans stretches far back: Walter Prescott Webb, described as one of Texas’s most influential scholars, said that Mexicans, who he deemed inherently violent, have impure blood.) 

It angers me because I see many young people of Mexican descent internalize shame. How else to explain the toxic less-than mentality that manifests itself in ways that are sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising, and always painful? For example, San Antonio is home to one of the country’s largest MLK marches (the largest, by some estimates). This is a beautiful, inspiring fact. 

However, this raza-majority city’s annual observance of civil-rights icon César Chávez is, by comparison, a far smaller event. The self-silencing, together with a willful neglect that is systemic, makes stories, essays, and poems about the lives of Chicanas and Chicanos all the more important, now more than ever.

A few weeks ago, walking along Dolorosa Street (listen to the poetic sorrow in that name!), I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the “Hecho en México” logo. We smiled knowingly at each other. The shirt speaks to a historically-informed ethnic pride that counters the bigoted narrative about all things and people Mexican. It also tells the world that the “affordable” and more brutal label, “cheap,” slapped on Mexico’s exports, be they produce, culture, or, most concerningly, human labor, belie the strength, diversity, and beauty of Mexico and its people, including those of Mexican descent here in San Antonio, once part of Mexico.

At the 2018 AWP Conference, 847—or 53 percent—of a total of 1,591 presenters were white, compared to 143 Latina and Latino presenters, or about nine percent of all presenters. 

If next year’s statistics are comparable, it will be more disturbing, given the backdrop of San Antonio’s demographics. Clearly, AWP must heighten its outreach efforts if its annual gathering is to accurately represent the diverse and ever broadening communities of authors. 

How can any organization credibly claim to serve its constituents’ needs and interests if segments of that constituency are routinely underrepresented in its programming? Conference planning must be a big tent, a big table—a bigness that welcomes and inspires the sort of “insightful dialogue” AWP notes as a hallmark of its annual meeting. 

Given its location, the 2020 conference affords AWP a remarkable opportunity to develop ties to communities of raza writers. For its part, gente can ensure better representation by submitting compelling panel proposals in unprecedented numbers. That means that in the coming weeks, prior to the May 1 submission deadline, those of us who have experience with the submission process should identify ourselves and be generous sources of information to authors for whom this is unfamiliar territory. 

And all attendees should lend their support by attending a Chicanx-focused panel. We should make a concerted effort to buy books by Chicana authors. And to every out-of-town participant: Please consider this a personal invitation to attend an off-site event that features gente.

My father, who was as fiercely proud of his Mexican roots as he was clear-eyed about his American reality, often used the worn adage familiar to many people of color: “You have to be twice as good to get half as much.” San Antonio’s Chicana and Chicano poets and writers are more than twice as good; ‘great’ is an apt description. AWP’s 2020 Conference will be an important platform on which to showcase work that is at once rich and undervalued.

Pablo Miguel Martínez’s literary work, which appears in many publications, has received support from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.

Martínez' collection of poems, Brazos, Carry Me, received the 2013 PEN Southwest Book Award for Poetry. He is a Co-Founder of CantoMundo, a national retreat-workshop for Latinx poets.


Rebecca F. Reuter said...

thank you for writing this.
I was at the AWP Latinx caucus meeting at AWP. Were you there?
I don't remember if there is an organized effort to have more Latinx panels/readings/etc., but would be happy to help organize.

Unknown said...

thanks for the inspiring information. I'm definitely going to try to make it to the San Antonio conference. I love San Antonio! I attended the 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights conference there in November 2018 and loved it!! Met Chicana author Barbara Renaud Gonzales and bought her books. She's amazing@

Edward Vidaurre said...

Thank you for your voice, your truth, and our reality. See you in 2020!

Antonia Murguia said...

This blog makes me excited to hear the conference will be in my hometown. See you with beautiful brown smiles.