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Cartagena's literary festival hopes to inspire a new generation of artists

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Caribbean beaches, museums and Spanish colonial architecture have turned Cartagena into Colombia's biggest tourist attraction. But the wealthy city center is surrounded by impoverished areas. Recently, a literary festival tried to bridge this gap and inspire a new generation of artists. Reporter John Otis has more.

ALEXIS PIMIENTA: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Cuban poet Alexis Pimienta is holding a workshop for about two-dozen teenagers. They arrived here by bus from an outlying town, and for some of the kids, it's their first time in Cartagena. They don't know much about poetry but are mesmerized by Pimienta, who invents verse on the spot.

PIMIENTA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Pimienta calls poetry a powerful tool to spark the imagination.

PIMIENTA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "When kids invent rhymes or discover new words, they get excited, and their eyes begin to shine," he says.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

OTIS: Pimienta's workshop is part of the annual Hay Festival, which took place at the end of January. It gets its name from the town Hay-on-Wry in Wales, where it was first held in 1987. Since then, sister Hay Festivals have sprouted up in other parts of the world. They feature novelists, playwrights, philosophers, economists and political activists.

IRENE VALLEJO: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: That's applause for one of this year's invitees - Spanish novelist Irene Vallejo. In Cartagena, organizers are using the festival to address one of the city's biggest problems.

CRISTINA FUENTES: Cartagena is one of the most unequal cities in Colombia.

OTIS: That's Cristina Fuentes, director of the Hay Festival in Cartagena. Besides the gap between rich and poor, the city is racially divided. The downtown is dominated by mostly white Colombians and tourists; nearby slums are populated by descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to Cartagena starting in the 1500s. So, Fuentes says, festival speakers have been going out to poor neighborhoods to address these issues head on.

FUENTES: We talk about race. We talk about inequalities. We bring economists like Thomas Piketty. And it's very significant to talk about this, here.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: In addition, the festival brings kids from poor communities into Cartagena for events like this one, featuring Spanish actress Julia Barcelo.

(APPLAUSE)

JULIA BARCELO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Barcelo's talk is held in a gorgeous Spanish colonial building that's been turned into a library. Afterwards, I speak with one member of the audience, Ashley. We're not using her full name because she's only 13.

ASHLEY: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "This is my first time here, and it's so beautiful," she says. "There are so many books. They look fascinating. I'd like to read them all." Cartagena's Hay Festival plans to be back next year, bringing literary and artistic stars to new audiences.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cartagena, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHLOWSUM'S "CRISPY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.