We Are the Border

— 'Look at this," Edgardo Moctezuma said with disgust. Then he rose from the table and went to the rear of the tall book-lined wall and brought back a stack of books. "This is what, as a book-dealer, I am forced to sell." He tossed a stack of torrid-covered paperbacks on the table. I didn't need to read the titles to know they were the paperback equivalent of TV soaps or telenovelas -- heavily plotted romance with hints of black lace -- La sirena, Tengo fe en ti, Coraz�n de oro; The Siren, I Have Faith in You, Heart of Gold.

"This is what Borges called books to be read with one hand," Edgardo exclaimed.

I couldn't confess to this man that my fingers itched to grab one of those books, take it home, and curl up with it. For 20 years I have studied Spanish, but telenovelas have been my best teachers. Even when I missed the subjunctive tense in the sentence, I knew when the stud, closing the door behind him, was gone for good. It takes me so long to read a literary novel in Spanish, I thought, what a quick easy read one of those books would give me. Still, I appreciated that here in downtown Chula Vista were books by Octavio Paz, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Miguel de Unamuno, even Jules Verne.

I have lived in Chula Vista all my life, and the paucity of cultural events has famished me. The Union-Tribune has stated that Chula Vista will be the size of San Francisco in five years. The sprawl, with all its attendant problems, already depresses me; we'll have all the problems of a big city and none of the accoutrements. Though there's a small but good theater called OnStage Playhouse, short of that there was nothing -- until Edgardo and Lisa Moctezuma opened Moctezuma Books & Gallery.

At the end of the summer of '99, I went to Moctezuma's opening at their store on Third Avenue near F Street. It was the best cultural event I'd attended in years and the best ever in Chula Vista. The handmade bookshelves gave off the scent of wood and varnish, while the collection of Spanish-language books insinuated their own perfume. Watercolors and etchings by Alberto Blanco splashed the white walls. Blanco, a renowned Mexican poet, flew in from Mexico City for the opening. Gabriela Flores and Eugene Williams read their poetry in English and Spanish; Flores accompanied the reading on acoustic guitar.

After the reading a group of musicians, Tierra Nativa, played music while guests from both sides of the border browsed the exhibit, glasses of wine in their hands. Trays were passed with Brie and bread, spicy squares of polenta, morsels of barbecued chicken, satiating appetite as well as aesthetic hunger. The sounds of Spanish and English intertwined like two climbing vines.

* * *

Edgardo comes from Tijuana, Tecate, and Chula Vista; his wife Lisa, from New York. They met at Brandeis University in 1986, and as she tells it, "I was his student, and I thought he was neat and wonderful. I hung around for a semester after taking his class until he finally took me seriously."

At that time Edgardo was frustrated with the academic world, "where the main currency was intellect, and so many in that world had small intellects." As a professor of Spanish literature and poetry in translation, Edgardo could not find the books he needed at the campus bookstore. It was in Boston that Edgardo and Lisa began dreaming of their bookstore.

When they moved to Chula Vista in 1989, they began distributing Spanish-language books -- mainly academic -- to libraries and bookstores. They ran the business out of their garage. As the inventory grew, it became annoying to have customers come to their garage, so they looked for a warehouse. In Boston, Lisa had dreamed of a bookstore-gallery; they decided to try a main-street Chula Vista address and combine the two enterprises.

Edgardo, like other small bookstore owners, is troubled by "the cornucopia that Amazon can offer readers and the problematic way they can continue to exist in the red." But the 25 to 30 million Spanish readers offers the bookstore its corner of the market. The bookstore and warehouse are stocked with volumes: history, poetry, literary theory, art, philosophy, and an international classical literature -- all translated into Spanish. It's Edgardo's goal to provide Spanish readers with books they would find in their countries of origin.

Though he despairs about what he calls "my rapidly growing pornography section: the how-to, self-help, I'm-a-rotten-human-being books," he sees the bookstore and distributorship's function as presenting an alternative to those tracts that try to change lives overnight. He wants to sell books that encourage readers to be analytical and philosophical ("We're trying to provide real books"), books that deepen people's cultural lives.

About the art they promote, Edgardo says, "We don't have a cultural agenda that is minority-related. We don't have to push any type of agenda." In the past the gallery featured an abstract and modern exhibit; he noticed people were flustered when they came to the exhibit. He laughed and said, "They were wondering where the little hats and the colorful people were, where the folk art was." But Edgardo believes "Art is art." Lisa adds that they feature local artists; a recent exhibit, "Artistas sin Fronteras," featured work by a group of South Bay female artists.

Another way they promote art and culture is to print art books in conjunction with Circa Publishers. In October they bring out their first effort, a coloring book of Alberto Blanco's drawings. Edgardo described it as a "tremendous book"; the title, he said, will be El origen y la huella (The Origins and the Trace).

Edgardo believes the gallery and bookstore "provide culturally relevant experiences for our community. We are not in the business of promoting Mexico on this side of the border," he notes. "We have a larger aspiration." But both husband and wife are conscious of their ability to connect the cultural frontiers of Mexico and the United States. And both are delighted by the positive response from the community.

"We are the border," Lisa says. "We try to bring out the best of both worlds."

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