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Photo: International Latino Book Awards
Photo: International Latino Book Awards

International Latino Book Awards: And you expect us to read?

A soporific and politically skimpy gala doesn't put Latino writers on the map, it invites its readers to turn on the TV.

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"Latinos are the solution, never the problem," said Rick Najera, twisting his mouth like he was advertising a ring on a commercial. "There is a wide variety of Latinos. There are Puerto Rican-Mexicans, Cuban-Mexicans, and Mexican-Mexicans." 

"Because Latinos are the solution, never the problem," he repeated.

Across the computer, my exhausted Saturday self was preparing for the 22nd International Latino Book Awards ceremony, which faced numerous challenges this year. The first of them was to keep the attention of Internet 'book lovers' in a virtual event. The second was an opportunity to grab the bull by the horns and send a real political message to the world about the power of American Latino authors, who barely cover quotas in the country's publishing industry, and to do so with a presidential election looming and in a context where Black and Brown lives are still fighting in the streets. 

In all of them, it failed. 

During almost three hours of the virtual gala with canned speeches from about 90 awardees, instead of making talent visible, it worked in the opposite, swallowing itself like a snake that bites its own tail in an eternal list of books and authors interrupted from time to time by the always-magnetic presence of the host, Edward James Olmos, the Godfather of Latinos. 

This year, there were two highlights, or rather, one. It came in honoring the figure of famous Chicano writer, Rudy Anaya, a legend, whose death took the world by surprise a few months ago. The organization created an award in his honor, the Rudolfo Anaya Latino Focused Fiction Book. Its Spanish version went to Cantutas Salvajes, by Cecilia Granadillo, a book of short stories about women, while its English or bilingual version was won by The Affairs of the Falcóns, by Melissa Riverothe, a novel that shows a snapshot into the contemporary American immigrant experience. 

Two more absolutely wonderful books that accumulated some awards were La Raza, a book featuring some of the most impressive images of the historical publication during the first days of the Chicano movement and an exhibition curated by Luis C. Garza and Amy Scott. Another winner was Los hijos de la Diosa Huracán, by Cuban writer Daína Chaviano, who won, among others, the prize for the best adventure in Spanish.  

Does that make them an ellipsis? 

Towards the end of the ceremony, the actress, director and producer Eva Longoria, from somewhere in her home, perhaps a guest room, inspires those who are still in front of their laptops to sacrifice a little more.

My eyes opened. It was the middle of the night in Portugal and outside, on the street, I could hear the hustle and bustle of teenagers going and coming from their COVID parties as I tried to place myself spiritually in the same guest room with Longoria to hear what she had to say. 

"Eva, you are amazing and you LOOK amazing," said Olmos, after praising Longoria's role at the Democratic National Convention. 

Longoria presented some of the evening's most important awards: the best non-fiction books in the categories of best political work, most inspiring book, biography, autobiography and history. "Key" awards if you take into account the leading moment of Latinos in the U.S. 

"It's time for women, especially women of color, especially young Latinas, to understand ourselves as the leaders we are," said Cecilia Muñoz, the new author of More than ready, as she thanked the award for the most inspiring non-fiction book. 

Muñoz's canned message didn't allow for a tête à tête with Longoria. A brief exchange of praise or comments that would have made that very moment a lifesaver of the ceremony, as well as for Charles Kamasaki, author of Immigration Reform, one of the most eagerly-awaited books and winner of the Best Political Current Affair Book.  

Then came the darkness.

"Isabel Allende is the best Latino author in the world," said Olmos.

Leaving aside the personal tastes of the Godfather and, apparently, an entire organization, which this year launched an award in honor of Allende — the best author, yes, of The House of the Spirits — the Chilean took advantage of her fascination with self-help to say that reading "open minds and hearts" gave her witness to Valiance, by Vanessa Caraveo, a book for young readers whose protagonist is a young Latino deaf man who dreams of becoming a soccer player. 

The afternoon took a bite out of the Southern Hemisphere. In the north, the night had long since eaten away at us. I stayed awake, thinking about so many authors, those who were awarded and I didn't have a chance to read, those who didn't even show up and those whose books deserve a separate award. We need to be shaken from a book and beyond — from another Rudolfo Anaya, or another Brown Buffalo howling: "I leaned forward, ready to lurch to my doom" to put us on the map and not to bed.

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