22 Years Leading FIL Minería. Interview with Fernando Macotela

Dolores González-Casanova y Carlos Maza
Dolores González-Casanova: In this fourth issue of UNAM Internacional we thought we should include the Palacio de Minería [The Mining Palace] International Book Fair (FIL Minería in its Spanish initials), through an interview with its… What is your title at the head of the FIL Minería, Fernando?
Fernando Macotela: Director. I cannot be the general director because that would put me above the director of the School of Engineering, whom I report to.

Carlos Maza: We are interested in the role of Spanish language at the fair: the event as a channel through which Spanish language expresses itself, spreads, and finds itself in its diversity. We are also interested in knowing whether an international book fair has an impact on or is part of the academic internationalization process at UNAM.
FM: I would prefer to avoid the second question, because I feel that we do not play a big role from the internationalization point of view; somewhat, we do, on the language side.

DGC: I do believe that the fact that UNAM has decided to hold an international book fair is also an approach for UNAM students to other horizons. Why are book fairs important? What role do they play in the process of knowledge production and dissemination? Especially FIL Minería, the oldest book fair in the country. 
FM: If some old fair—I don’t remember which one exactly—had survived (it disappeared about 20 years ago), that one would be the oldest. But it no longer exists, so FIL Minería is the oldest. In Mexico, we have had, especially since the population increased a lot, since the country grew, a proverbial shortage of bookstores. Publishers, who were not very keen on participating in fairs, suddenly realized that this was the only way left for them to sell books. There is a fact that I came across when I arrived at the fair many, many years ago, and that is still true and it’s terrible; they told me, “Do you know that in Barcelona there are more bookstores than in Mexico?” “No wonder...” “Yes, but there are more bookstores than in Mexico the country, not Mexico City.” There are very few bookstores and fairs have come to fill this gap. Now you find that in Tonantzintla, Puebla, they have an international book fair, to give an example that I consider significant. There are fairs everywhere; now there are many and, thanks to that, we have been able to subsist. The bookstore business itself has declined, while e-books have taken off, especially in the United States where they are more into gadgets, into new things. And books that are usually best sellers in the United States are not very important books, they are the hits of the moment, things that we could call superficial. I don’t think the situation has changed much in Mexico; the pandemic had some positive influence, but the percentage of e-books sold was so low that it had no statistic value. 

CM: The fair, then, is not only a dissemination event, but it is also a commercial strategy for publishers… But this is not the same in other countries, is it? Is this the purpose of a fair? 
FM: Spaniards are always complaining about their low reading rates; they consider that in Spain people read very little and, if we compare it with Germany, which is the country where people read the most, they do read very little. As always, France, England, and the United States have the best positions. In the United States, libraries buy lots of books (they are the institutions that buy the more books in that country), but also schools and universities buy books. As a result of a Fullbright grant I obtained many years ago, I had to teach courses at a university in the United States. I was told to choose the topic and, of course, I chose a Mexican topic, but I was not sure if the students could find the necessary books. It was one of those universities that are a bit isolated in the territory, it was all the way to Montana, and I thought they were not going to find the books there. “Don’t you worry about that,” I was told, “the university library is going to order the necessary copies.” What I liked the most was that each publisher sent me one copy of the books I had ordered for the students. When will something like that happen in Mexico? So, United States is a country where many books are sold. Because of its economic power, consumption power, etc., is a kind of a separate issue.

During the two years of pandemic, let’s call them the “intense” pandemic period, the fair was not suspended, but had to become virtual. We absolutely wanted to stick to the rector’s dictum: “The university does not stop,” so it was virtual, but we felt very unprotected, very diminished because we were used to have about 1000 or 1200 activities, and had to reduce to 100. Suddenly many people asked us to enter, but we could not for a thousand reasons. We weren’t technically prepared and, if it hadn’t been for my young assitants, I wouldn’t even had known how to connect.

Before the pandemic, we were 10 people organizing the fair. After the pandemic, we had to cut to eight because our budget was reduced. Six or seven years ago, the fair was leaving good economic surpluses for the School of Engineering, which is the one who created it and who, with a desire, with a will not only to disseminate culture but, I would say, even administrative, academic, and political will, has made the effort to keep it alive. And it is still alive after 44 years that make us the oldest fair in the country.

When I began working at the fair (and this is not for my own glorification by any means) there had been all kinds of problems for 20 years, even, for example, with informal merchants in the streets, especially those who have bookstalls outside Palacio de Minería (most of them selling pirate books); imagine how convenient it is for publishers inside the fair to have their books illegally copied and sold just outside… There was a time when an impressive number of stolen books was registered every day. We learnt how everything operated because, before I was known around there, I came through the Condesa alley, coming from 5 de Mayo street, towards Palacio de Minería, and I stopped, at first out of curiosity, to look at the used books. Suddenly I started to see new books there, very new; I took one of those books and the merchant told me, “If you are interested in a new book, you tell us and we will have it for you tomorrow at half price.” That’s how they placed their orders. They entered the fair, even paying their 20-pesos ticket! It was as if the fair was a catalog for pirates and thieves. Outside, at the stalls, they asked customers for all kinds of details. It was also very evident that books always disappeared at night. After that, we started to do better planning. That happened during the fair’s first years and it took us two or three years to correct it. Private surveillance was hired many years ago. Anyway, this may give you an idea of the extent of the problems.

If one gets into the heart of the publishing industry, it is very complicated: the metropolis, in this case, Spain, monopolizes the sales of books in Spanish. Little by little, we, the countries that produce books, have been getting involved. Spain became a very serious competitor since the fall of Franco’s regime. About a century ago, Buenos Aires produced an extraordinary number of good books. There were Victoria Ocampo and Borges. The same thing happened in Mexico. We produced according to the market’s size at that time. But with the dimensions of today’s markets, everything becomes more complicated. Spain’s post-Franco governments have understood this well and have done well economically.

As for internationalization, I believe that we do not directly comply with this; this sounds a bit absurd, but it could be the case that we are fulfilling tasks in this sense without realizing it. Maybe we have some influence, but we don’t know how it works.

What gives me great pleasure is that, among other things, FIL Minería has inspired absolutely all the other book fairs in the country. Some have a lot of money—of course it makes me envious—but I think we have replaced financial means with imagination, which is more or less what it means to be a member of the university community: you have to think, you have to create, you have to strive.

Usually, in interviews, I am asked, “What is your motivation? How do you keep this going after so many years?” And I tell them, “My motivation is the great badge behind me that says Por mi raza hablará el espíritu” [For my Race shall the Spirit Speak, UNAM’s motto]. This is an UNAM’s book fair, and we cannot afford to do something that is not up to UNAM’s standards. With what we know, we already know what we should accept and what we should reject.

Listening to these Spanish-speaking poets who spread the language through their work, because they continue to write in Spanish in the US, really moved me

Many years ago, I estimate about 15 (I have just celebrated my 22nd anniversary at the fair, last November) maybe a little more, a Cuban born poet—already a Mexican—Odette Alonso, whose name I’m very happy to say, approached me and told me, “I have many contacts, I get invited a lot to give lectures at universities in Central America and the Caribbean. Wouldn’t you be interested in me inviting people from those universities, writers who work there and who could come to the fair?” I said, “Please! We’re begging for something like that to happen.” And she did the magic (she and a group of women poets) of getting their respective universities to pay for their plane tickets. FIL Minería is not a wealthy fair, we cannot afford to pay for tickets to guests.

So, Odette Alonso organized lectures with people from different countries: Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Panama…, and there was always someone from the United States as well. All of them had Spanish as their mother language, they were born in Spanish-speaking countries, some had emigrated to the United States, but taught their classes in Spanish or taught Hispanic American or Latin American literature. They came, and they talked among themselves without even the interest of selling books; they brought a little package of books that they gave to certain people or to the fair. Odette has been organizing these meetings, inviting people for 15 years now. We rely on her a lot; as on many other people who work without profit, without charging us. They do it out of conviction, as so many things are done in so many universities, like ours.

The best example, the one I want to share with you, is when Odette told me, “Next year we want to invite writers-teachers, writers who also teach, who make a living from that, but they all come from the United States, do you have any objection?” “No, not at all…” We didn’t imagine the  great surprise we were going to get on that occasion. She invited writers from different places, some from far north in the United States, but many from the border region, not necessarily from border cities, but from the border states and some states located a little farther away. They showed up and it was a great success. When they arrived, they were snatching at each other’s words. I can summarize what they told me: “You can’t imagine what it has been like for us to come here. We teach; our students, who are attentive and intelligent, want to learn Spanish.” It was a strange thing, since not so many students are suddenly interested in our language. In one sentence, we felt the people’s babbling, impacted, we felt a communication with the audience; the final applause had nothing to do with the courtesy of who has been sitting there, it was real enthusiasm; they wanted more poems and asked where to buy the books. Listening to these Spanish-speaking poets who spread the language through their work, because they continue to write in Spanish, really moved me. Some of my collaborators and I were there, very happy and excited to see these teachers showing surprise because of the value that their Spanish was acquiring among us.

So how does the fair contribute to support language? As I see it, this is the best example. And also the fact that UNAM attends different international fairs bringing its books in Spanish.

The FIL Minería Calendars 

We made calendars every year, with events related to the birthdays of writers. The idea arouse because, in the Palacio de Minería’s library I suddenly found, one day, rummaging around (because I arrive and start rummaging everywhere) a 26 volumes collection, more than a one-meter high each, of Piranesi’s engravings. There it was, in a little corner, and I Thought we could make the calendars.

Since I arrived at the fair, I started to make them as a courtesy for publishers (not for sale or the public, but for publishers, institutions, and university authorities). I had done things with the frescoes on the chapel ceiling, but we started with the Piranesi calendars, and it was an absolutely stunning success. When groups of people or a speaker came to thank me, or when I went to thank them, I would bring a calendar and get a “Fantastic! The fair is in February, so you can use the calendar for the rest of the year.”

DGC: Could you tell us about the fair’s activities?
FM: For the 2023 edition, we are estimating around 1000 activities [this interview took place before the event began]. We are always surprised to find that expectations are exceeded. Among our activities is, for example, Science at the FIL Minería, the Science Cycle, which is a very important space. One day I realized something: I was working at Publishing and Editorial Promotion, where there was a program for Radio UNAM dedicated to disseminating poetry. The Publications General Directorate, in principle, distributes all books produced at UNAM. I thought, “Where did science and technology and so many other things go?” Things like these has made this university and this fair different. It has also been copied by other fairs. Curiously, because there are many important and large universities in the country. Alicia González Manjarrez, in charge of this series of scientific dissemination, now in its 16th edition, is a dynamo that sweeps everything. The idea of this series on scientific dissemination is hers. Originally, I asked her to share a lecture she heard: the famous topic of monarch butterflies. She asked me one day, “Do you know why monarch butterflies are orange?” And she explained it to me fascinated: butterflies stop in the oyamel fir forests, eat the these trees’ resin and develop their characteristic color, which is a warning of toxicity for predators; so the orange color is part of the miracle of evolution, like when you tell very young children that are about to stick their finger in the electrical outlet, “No, no, that’s a no, no!”

“You have to repeat that,” I said to Alicia when she told me, “But I don’t know anything about it,” she replied, “I only know what I heard yesterday. We should do a science dissemination series, what do you think?” “And what are you doing here? Go organize it right away!”

CM: How does the FIL Minería receive the new fairs being organized in the university, such as FILUNI or the Book and Rose Festival?
FM: The first edition of each fair is opened by the current rector. Some people write their speeches and contact me directly to see what I am going to put in my director’s intervention, to know what to say, what not to say, and which are the highlights of the fair. We keep in fairly close contact for two or three weeks. The rector Enrique Graue went to inaugurate FIL Minería for the first time during his Rectorate, and was impressed. Since I am the director of the fair, that’s the moment when I can approach him and follow him during his visit. Then I have to go with the director of the School of Engineering and we have to leave the rector in his car, which is already waiting for him outside. On the opening day, as we were walking down Palacio de Minería’s beautiful staircase, the rector was paying me some compliments. He was impressed. He asked for Armando Casas, then director at TV UNAM, and asked him, “You’re covering everything here, right?” And Armando and I understood.

We have worked a lot with the people at TV UNAM throughout all these years; I have met several directors, all friends, and we have seen our mistakes: at first we wanted to record everything, but that is not possible. So, TV UNAM produces television shows and it is Radio UNAM that broadcasts all the FIL Minería’s activities through its frequencies.

On that occasion, the person in charge of Publications told me: “What did you give the rector? He wants a book fair here in University City and asked me to call you for help.” For me, the fair had just passed and the audit’ stuff was going on, something that I am not a specialist in; it is Carmen González Mendoza, our deputy director, who deals with all that. I went to see this colleague at Publications, who supported publishing and editorial promotion a lot (even creating a book-club with his employees, something that has only happened once before) and I started to show him starting with how to select the dates. We have helped so many fairs around the country… We have some little secrets, things that you learn when they happen to you two or three times. That’s why it’s useful to stay in the same place for a long time: I would never have been able to put into practice as many things I have learned as I have at the fair because I have been there for 20 years. All that experience of mine, of life, has helped me in the fair for many things.

I talked a lot about FILUNI with the Director of Publications, who was in charge of making it happen. If I don’t care about the competition of the big book fairs in Mexico, I could never complain about FILUNI. Each fair has its audience and its identity. To a large extent, it depends on who directs it; the flaws that may exist in FIL Minería surely come from me and if something is good, then maybe I or one of my collaborators came up with it. I listen to them a lot and at the same time, I pass on my experience (I was the first director of the Festival Cervantino and things like that). I usually go to the opening of FILUNI because it’s my thing, it’s where I have to be, but it’s almost like a daughter of FIL Minería. They decided to make a fair where universities would participate almost exclusively and that is why it is a fair of university and academic books, and not an University Book Fair. The fact that it is in University City is important. For example, rector Narro wanted FIL Minería to move to University City when the Center for Exhibitions and Congresses (CEC) was inaugurated, but if we can’t fit into Palacio de Minería, which has 5500 square meters, imagine the CEC, which has 4000 square meters. Besides, there are no offices there, so, where are we going to get in? You need to have the offices and all the background of the fair there, and services: we have a doctor, a lawyer, and firemen that UNAM sends us, and it has been necessary to use those services more than once.

So FILUNI and the Book and Rose Festival are very welcome. In addition, many dependencies and schools also hold book fairs. There is, for example, Humanities Book Fair, organized by the Humanities Coordination, and we all help where we can. Now the time of help and advice is over, everyone knows how to make a fair. I don’t mean that they have learned everything from us, but, at the time, we did give them a lot of advice. I have given that kind of advice to Pachuca and Monterrey, whose international book fairs now work extraordinarily well. Guadalajara started after us. The difference is that we have an 11 million pesos budget for the next fair, including our salaries, while Guadalajara is estimated (they have never informed) to have a 150 million pesos budget. 

CM: Does it correspond to a fair to try to solve distribution and access to books problems?
FM: No. The contact that the publishers establish with us is mainly commercial, and administrative, and that is in the hands of the deputy director. I don’t get along very well with sales managers, because they think very, very different than I do.

CM: To conclude, could you tell us any other anecdote from FIL Minería that comes to mind?
FM: I wanted to mention Irene Vallejo’s speech on translation at the opening of the Frankfurt Fair. I have something very important to say about Irene Vallejo: the first fair in which she participated was FIL Minería. You have to keep up with what’s new; when I read Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World I was dazzled. I spoke with her several times, we made contact thanks to María del Carmen Castillo, daughter-in-law of a friend of mine, a great reader, a specialist in indigenous weavings, who wrote that colors and threads in the indigenous textiles seemed like words to her. Irene Vallejo read that and contacted María del Carmen. Suddenly, my friend told me that María del Carmen was in communication with Irene Vallejo and that’s where we started. I must confess that it was not difficult, but when the university found out what we had, Radio UNAM sent someone to interview Irene in Spain. FIL  Minería was the first book fair where Irene was presented and it was broadcasted by Radio UNAM. 
Fernando Macotela is not a cultural manager: he is the model for cultural managing. Also a writer and teacher, he began his career as a promoter of Mexican cinema, of which it can be said that he is the architect of its reactivation as an industry. He has represented Mexico in film festivals around the world as a jury member and promoter. He directed the first editions of the prestigious Cervantino International Festival. He has been the director of the Palacio de Minería International Book Fair since 1999. 

Dolores González-Casanova and Carlos Maza are editors of UNAM Internacional.
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