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Clink Glasses With Your Literary Idol

This event builds bridges between authors and the readers, artists and communities they serve.

In Spanish | When you think of actor Edward James Olmos's most important roles, what's the first thing that comes to mind? If you said Battlestar Galactica, Miami Vice or Stand and Deliver, I'm right there with you. No one does a cocked-brow, stoic stance better.

But his longest-running role is one you may not yet have heard about. For more than a decade, Olmos has quietly been touching thousands of lives (including my own) as cofounder and coproducer — alongside his publishing industry friend Jim Sullivan — of the Latino Book & Family Festival.

Initially, the actor and community activist pledged to throw his support behind the nascent literacy effort for just five years. But 13 years later, he's still on board. "I'm happy to now affirm a lifetime commitment to the festival," he says. And to its cause: promoting reading as a means of improving lives, both professionally and personally.

"I'm happy to now affirm a lifetime commitment to the festival and to its cause: promoting reading as a means of improving lives, both professionally and personally." — Edward James Olmos

More than three quarters of a million book lovers have supported that cause — passing through the festival's gates in cities from Chicago to Houston — since the event's inception in 1997. This year's October 9-10 festival at California State University, Los Angeles promises to be the mero mero of them all.

What should you expect? First, the event is free and open to the public. But be warned: There's more going on here than you can shake one of the food court's churros at, so scan the online schedule and plan accordingly. With more than 125 writers in attendance (myself included), this is your chance to rub elbows with some of your favorite authors and discover new ones. And there's variety. Both newly discovered and famous authors will speak at more than 40 presentations ranging from poetry to fiction to journalism and the business of publishing.

Latino Books & Family Festival

— Justin Hutchinson/Getty Images

In addition to all things literary, the festival will also present artists, musicians, dancers, clowns and other performers on the main stage, with storytelling and arts and crafts in the children's area. And with some 100 exhibitors, you'll be sure to fill your festival tote bag (free of course) with all sorts of goodies.

Want to clink glasses with your literary idol? Then consider attending the special dinner reception, Evening with the Authors.

A festival of this magnitude didn't, of course, happen overnight. Making a once-modest dream of a Hollywood actor and other concerned local Latinos into a reality required community support and the on-the-ground efforts of individuals like award-winning novelist Reyna Grande, who has volunteered countless hours to organize this year's event.

"For me, one of the goals is to have more interaction between authors, artists and the community," says Grande. "This will serve to enrich and empower the Latino community and inspire young people, while giving a permanent home to authors and artists."

The festival has not only hit its full stride but has also stretched beyond the weekend of the festival. Grande has taken the lead to grow the festival, launching innovative year-long satellite programs for the festival's parent organization, Latino Literacy Now, including a weekend storytelling event held at the Pan American Bank in East Los Angeles. Why a bank? Partly because the bank is a sponsor of the festival, and partly because East Los Angeles, like so many Latino communities, is mournfully lacking in bookstores — but plentiful in children whose parents want them to read more and kids who love to read.

Pan American Bank President and CEO Jesse Torres says he became involved with the Latino Book & Family Festival because he saw a direct link between literacy in the Latino community, its financial prosperity and the future of his own business. "As the only bank headquartered in economically disadvantaged East Los Angeles," he says, "it is our responsibility to help this community bootstrap itself out of economic duress."

Statistics from the National Institute for Literacy bear out Torres's assumption, showing a direct relationship between literacy and financial success. Helping Latinos succeed is, at heart, what motivates many volunteers of the festival (speaking of which, the festival counts on volunteers and needs you, if you have the time).

Even beyond the bank's storytelling program, there's much more going on behind the scenes than just a yearly event — especially for Latino writers of all stripes. Grande explains: "The festival is providing a year-round home and community for our Latino writers to come together and get the support we don't necessarily always get from the publishing world at large." Eso.

Happily, the publishing industry, which has for far too long assumed all Latino writers lived in Macondo with a parrot, is taking notice. Many New York publishing heavyweights, including Johanna Castillo, vice president and senior editor for Atria Books, will attend the festival this year, seeking new homegrown talent and trends. "The Latino Book & Family Festival brings Latino authors together and helps them feel that they're part of a community," says Castillo. "It also provides them with an opportunity to make themselves aware to publishing houses and literary agents."

Aspiring writers, take note.

But back to Edward James Olmos. "I'm very proud that over the past 13 years, over 765,000 people have come and enjoyed the 46 Latino Book & Family Festivals that our hardworking team has put on," he says. "It's been very gratifying."

Says Amada Irma Perez, an author of children's books who has already attended five festivals and plans to be on hand again this year, "The festival is a true celebration of literacy. I read my books there every year and see the joy in children and gratitude in their parents. I am honored to be invited every year."

Me too, sistagirl, me too.

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