By Bruce Jacobs

For 25 years Guadalajara Mexico has hosted the largest Spanish language book fair in the world (Feria Internacional del Libro) which is also one of the largest in the world outside of Frankfurt (including the popular BookExpo America in New York). Open to the public for six days – and restricted to book professionals for three – it attracts 600,000 visitors, 2,000 publishers from 43 countries, 2,500 media people, and 18,000 book professionals. For Mexico’s second largest city, this is a big deal.

An Anglo in Español Land

I have attended the last four Ferias – each time a little more comfortable with my own Spanish skills ­– and navigated the million square feet of display space in the Guadalajara Exposition Center in awe of the range of offerings. I have also attended the last 35 American Booksellers Association conventions, and there is no comparison.

While New York’s BEA event has more hoopla and swag, Guadalajara’s FIL is way more fun. The “calles” of publisher booths are only a small part of the story. The most enticing aspects of the Guadalajara Book Fair are the 300 literary panels, presentations, and especially musical evening events that bring in all the heavyweights of the Latin American book industry. All of them seem to dress in dark suits looking far more glamorous than the swarms of booksellers at BEA decked out in air travel casual.

But since you can only spend so much time roaming trade show aisles (regardless of the industry) before you feel like you’re caught in some kind of video loop of nonstop car insurance commercials, the beauty of the Guadalajara Book Festival is getting out to see the city itself.

Guadalajara vs. New York

Guadalajara has it all over New York. Granted New York weather in late May can be pleasant, but it also can be rainy and cold. Not so Guadalajara. Held in late November, FIL occurs during the dry season for Mexico’s central highlands. Daytime sunshine and temperatures in the 70s are virtually guaranteed; and even the cool nights never fall below the 50s. There are no HVAC systems in Guadalajara; nor are any needed. An extra blanket and perhaps a small fan take care of any unusual extremes.

And unlike New York, the pace of Guadalajara is slow.

Guadalajara packs 1.5 million people into 58 sq. miles, perhaps not as densely as the 1.5 million packed into Manhattan’s 23 sq. miles, but still pretty crowded. A taxi ride from the international airport (well, the only airport) is a mere twenty minutes and $15 to El Centro regardless of time of day. You can take a couple of city buses into the center city for $1, but that makes the trip at least an hour and there is hardly space for a backpack over your shoulder in the small buses, much less a suitcase. Take a cab.

My hotel during the last few visits is two blocks from La Glorieta Chapalita, essentially a large roundabout street surrounding a large shady park with benches, a gazebo, sculptures, and a regular Sunday art show. Walk the quarter mile perimeter of the glorieta and you can pretty much find everything you need: a 7-11, a farmacia, a night club, two fancy restaurants, several outside torta and ahogado vendors, a full service grocery, a local “Cuarto de Kilo” burger joint, and a beauty parlor (packed on Saturday afternoon).

$50 a Night

My Hotel Suites Internacional is a small, locally owned place and perhaps a little on the funky side with only two desk clerks – an old man at night and young woman during the day – who mostly sit in a lounge chair watching TV. During my five day visit, I never saw another guest, although I occasionally heard door closing echoes against the ubiquitous Mexican tile floors, wood walls, and wrought iron railings. No carpet or floor rugs in this place. With a full kitchen, king bed, balcony, living room, free wireless, and large tilting casks of mineral water in the hall outside the door, my $50/night room had all I could possible want.

From this humble headquarters, I was a short fifteen minute walk from the Expo center for the Feria; but more importantly, I was right on the route of several city buses that pretty much went to all the key high points of the city: the Centro Histórico, the famous Zapopan city square in front of the 17th century Virgen de Zapopan Basílica (now swallowed by greater Guadalajara), the large central Parque Agua Azul, even the small ceramic craft centers of Tlaquepaque and Tonalá on the outskirts of the city.

Buses and Churches

The old city buses seat about 50 and usually are jammed with another 20 standing in the aisles. But they come frequently and only cost 40 cents a ride. The downside is that they seem to stop at random places (when you see one that you want, you wave your arm and hope the driver will stop), and most apparently have never been inside a Monroe Shocks and Struts shop since they rolled off some Mexican assembly line.

When setting off early to explore Guadalajara (or any Mexican city for that matter), you soon find that the only public buildings open before 9 am are churches. That’s really kind of nice, since there are churches everywhere and they all are filled with interesting religious relics and art – and people. Sunday, weekdays, all day – there are masses scheduled pretty much every hour.

A quiet church service is not a bad way to start a day in a strange city…at least it’s a good way to get your brain thinking in Spanish after a night of English email and web crawling. While the small parish churches are nice, the central Cathedral is something else. Whether it is the National Cathedral on Mexico City’s huge Zocaló, the Metropolitan Cathedral on Guadalajara’s Plaza de la Liberación, or one in a smaller city like Morelia’s Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas; the central cathedral in Mexico is the heart of the city where at one time or another everyone touches base.

Shops and Museums

Once I got the cathedrals behind me, shops and museums were opening for the day. In all of my trips to Guadalajara, I have never missed the famous Orozco murals in the Hospicio Cabañas. It is a pleasant walk from the Cathedral through the fountains and benches of Plaza Tapatiá. Built as a hospital complex and orphanage in the 1800s, the buildings with their interlocking courtyards and arched passageways are now home to art classes and exhibits…but none as dramatic as the Orozcos in the entrance hall.

All the famous Mexican muralists had a political, even revolutionary, axe to grind, but Orozco seems to have transcended that to touch on the very spirit of the Mexican people. Like the Michelangelos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Orozcos cover the ceilings of the hall such that all of us below – tourists and locals alike – walk about with our heads tilted up, necks cramped from the awkward stance. It is worth it.

Don’t Miss The Rodeo

All that Fodor checklist stuff aside, the most exciting foray on this trip was to a Sunday rodeo in a warehouse district not too far from the richly planted Parque Agua Azul. I thought I had the location Google mapped in my head, but as I wandered farther and farther from the park in what was starting to look like an industrial wasteland of meth kitchens and rogue lead battery recycling chop shops, I was happy to see a policía in his standard bullet proof vest talking on the street with two guys in jeans and cowboys hats.

I asked him where the Charerría was. He jabbered with his amigos a bit too fast for me to catch. I tried again explaining it was a place where the traditional Guadalajara charros (cowboys) competed. Still nothing. Finally, he pointed back up the street to where I’d been and suggested that I find a tourist booth in the park. Forget it, I said to myself. What bad can happen on a Sunday?  I’ll find it on my own. Three blocks later, I happily saw the telltale signs of every rodeo: big pickups, horse trailers, and big piles of horseshit leading into a cement-walled compound.

A Wild Show

I bought my ticket for two bucks and went through a big wooden door into an empty, dusty courtyard. A guy in a cowboy hat sitting on an overturned trash can pointed to concrete stairs ahead. I climbed them a little warily. At the top I looked down into the coolest little rodeo ring I’ve ever seen.

Surrounded on three sides by concrete seats about five rows high and covered with circular panels of corrugated steel, it was a dirt ring about 75 yards in diameter. A half dozen charros on horseback were practicing their lariat twirls before the show. I was the only white face in the so far meager crowd of a couple of dozen. I took a top row seat and settled in for whatever show was coming, presuming I was in the right place.

Mariachi music blared from bad speakers while I watched the charros warm up. Each looked the same: skinny, tight snap button shirt, big sombrero with back rim rolled up and snug chin strap, special bow tie like neck kerchief (corbatín), leather chaps, cream colored sharp-pointed boots…all sitting with knees high in a big horned saddle with an advertisement for a tequila brand burned in its back. They were practicing lariat work or side-stepping their horses or doing jump starts as if chasing a bull out of the chute.

The Snap Button Shirt Crowd

Slowly the stone stadium filled with a mix of the charro’s families and girlfriends, old guys who looked like they might have once been down in the ring, and young guys wearing the same wannabe snap button shirts and light boots.

An old woman and what seemed her daughters lugged around old paint pails filled with ice and coke, beer, water, and tequila selling each for 50 cents. An old man (her husband?) was toting a big box of bagged tortilla chips which he sold for 30 cents and doctored up with salt, fresh lime juice, and salsa to your taste. Both the old man and woman managed to do all this with cigarettes flapping in their lips while they called out their offerings.

Stop and Skid

The charrería opens with a very orchestrated protocol. A long line of charros race into the ring from a 100-yard dirt runway then stop dead at the cement wall below us. An announcer says something, they all tip their sombreros, we clap. Then the rodeo itself begins.

First up is the dead stop competition––or so I call it––where riders race into the ring, make their horse plant his rear hooves and slide to a stop. Helpers measure the distance from hoof-plant to a dead stop. They then give the results to the six judges in a sort of special box behind the announcer. Each rider then makes his horse pivot in a clockwise circle for several rotations only to reverse directions and spin the other way. Somehow in all this, a winner is declared, but I can’t tell you who.

Bareback Horse Jumping

Slowly the contest worked through various charro maneuvers. There was the running bull tail pull where the rider chases the bull, grabs his tail, puts a foot on the bull’s ass, and then steps hard until the bull goes down. There was the running wild horse back hoof lariat throw––where the rider tries to sling his rope around the back hooves of a running horse to bring him to the ground. There was the bull ride followed by lassoing the bull’s horns and dragging him down.

The big finale was a rider chasing a bareback horse and leaping off his own trying to land on the other without falling. Cheers accompanied those who did, and groans were heard when they failed. The audience happily drank, smoked without restriction, and wiped the lime juice and salt off their chins.

It was a helluva a show. Who needs the world’s largest book fair with this kind entertainment?

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