La Diada de Sant Jordi on the UES


By Jesse Greenspan When Joan Salavedra first moved to the New York area in 1992, he couldn't find anywhere to celebrate La Diada de Sant Jordi, a Catalan holiday held every April 23 in which, traditionally, men give flowers to women and women give books to men. He and a few friends eventually took matters into their own hands. With some help from the government of Catalonia-an autonomous region in northeastern Spain with its own distinct language and culture-they formed the Catalan Institute of America and began to put on Sant Jordi and other events for the public. Sant Jordi, or Saint George, is the patron saint of Catalonia. His holiday is "the most important cultural event that the Catalans do," said Salavedra, who has been president of the Catalan Institute of America for the last seven years. "It's an amazing tradition, and it's something that we have to use as Catalans to put ourselves on the map," he added. "Scotland is similar to us, and everyone knows what Scotland is. But many people look at us as Spanish, not Catalans." This year's Sant Jordi event will take place on Saturday, two days before the official holiday, at an Upper East Side Barnes and Noble. It will include a workshop for kids, an exchange of books and roses and discounted books on sale. Author Roger Evans will read from his recently published work on Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge, and there will be a short concert dedicated to Montsalvatge. Many of the attendants will then head to a nearby bar to watch Barca play Real Madrid in soccer. As usual, the two teams are battling it out for first place in the Spanish liga. "Visca Barca!" said Mary Ann Newman, a translator of Catalan literature and former director of the Catalan Center at New York University. "It's wonderful to be able to get together with the Catalan community, and the Catalan Institute is the only game in town in that sense." On Monday, the Instituto Cervantes, a language school and cultural center on East 49th Street that is endorsed by the Spanish government, will hold its own event "in the spirit of the Catalan tradition." It will give all visitors that day a rose and a book, and schoolchildren will come by to read passages from Don Quixote in multiple languages. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, and William Shakespeare both died on April 23, 1616, which-along with the influence of Sant Jordi-prompted UNESCO to declare April 23 "World Book and Copyright Day" in 1995. But although April 23 is now recognized around the world, nowhere is it celebrated like in Catalonia. For example, in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, book vendors and florists line the major streets and many people hang Catalan flags from their balconies. "It's a very pretty day for circulating through the streets of Barcelona," María Vázquez Estévez, head librarian of the Instituto Cervantes' New York center, said in Spanish. These days, the gender lines are not so rigid. Roses and books are traded indiscriminately between men and women, and giving a gift to a friend or co-worker does not necessarily indicate anything romantic. Nonetheless, Salavedra said it is a good time for flirting. "I remember in high school, this was the day that guys would make approaches," he said. "It's kind of like Valentine's Day. It's a declaration of intentions." Saturday's Sant Jordi event at the Barnes and Noble on East 86th Street and Lexington Avenue is free and open to the public. The kids' event starts at 10:30 a.m. and the general event starts at noon.