"I did not, like many other people in Miami, did not come from a wealthy family or even a family that had many resources — a working-class family in the service industry," she says. "Book Fair always made me feel included. I don't know if I could've said that to you in 1988 or even in 1998."
Now, after years of attending, volunteering, and loving the Miami Book Fair, Mendez serves as director of programs, a central role in making the week-long festival the cultural staple it is every year. But the Miami Dade College-sponsored fair wasn't always what it is now. After years of a committed community, the Book Fair has gone through several transformations.
This year, the Book Fair will be a hybrid event, heeding COVID-19 precautions while also bringing back the magic of the in-person annual fair. Last year, the fair was confined to online-only programming, a challenge for the long-time event — but also something new and different.
On its first day, the Miami Book Fair Online website crashed under the weight of visitor traffic. The site has been updated this year, adding accessibility to the festival while bringing together 450 authors and 250 publishers for the 37th edition.
What started as a grassroots campaign to celebrate and support the literary community in Miami in 1984 has become the renowned book fair we know today that, in many ways and setting the tone for how other literary festivals operate. With a continuous effort to make the events free — or mostly free — a push toward creating an inclusive environment and a continuous community effort invested in its success, Miami Book Fair is the longest-running book festival in the nation. And, as a testament to its perseverance, the event has yet again added and enhanced elements as a continuous effort to engage with Miami's community more deeply.
This year's fair is also hybrid, allowing those who don't feel safe attending in-person events to listen and participate through live-streamed talks.
All these things are connected to what Mendez describes as the heart of the Miami Book Fair: accessibility and inclusivity.
"Our big push, my big push, what I do every day, is I want to make sure that anybody who's out there who feels like I do: loves books, loves to read, loves literature, loves to talk, can learn," Mendez says. "We provide that access once they walk in, so they have the opportunity to learn more, find more about a topic they want to read about."
In addition to providing a safe space for all types of people, Miami Book Fair also makes an effort to generate important conversations in Miami. This is evident when glancing at the event list and conversation topics. Latinx writers, queer history discussions, Black authors discussing race relations, even mental health and self-care seminars are just glimpses of what will drive the conversations at this year's fair.
Among the vast range of participating writers are locals Les Standiford (Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus), Nicholas Griffin (The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees, and Cocaine in Miami 1980), Patricia Engel (Infinite Country), and Kristen Arnett (With Teeth), all of whom will be present in person. New Times alum Judy Cantor-Navas (Cha-Cha-Cha) will appear via livestream.
Others not to be overlooked: Anita Hill (Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence), Ha Jin (A Song Everlasting), John Edgar Wideman (Look for Me and I'll Be Gone), Gainesville-based novelist Lauren Groff (Matrix), fiction writer and Twitter must-follow Rabih Alameddine (The Wrong End of the Telescope), historian Ada Ferrer (Cuba: An American History), and, last but dedidedly not least, New Times editor-in-chief Tom Finkel's top personal recommendation: investigative journalist Albert Samaha, whose memoir of growing up Filipino-American, Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes, was published this year to significant critical acclaim.
And, after a year of being confined to online, the street fair is back with publishers and booksellers from all over, including the local favorite Books & Books, who has been an integral aspect of the Book Fair's growth. Even rare and exquisite vintage booksellers will pack the tents in downtown Miami.
Whether you’re an avid reader, bookstore enthusiast, writer, or just an intrigued Miamian, the Miami Book Fair hopes to continue its legacy of generating important dialogue and providing magical and safe space to people of any age.
Miami Book Fair. Sunday through Sunday, November 21, at various locations; miamibookfair.com. Ticket prices vary.