Lissette Mendez sits behind her desk inside her office on the seventh floor of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami. Colorful post-it notes cover the surface, while stacks of books take up the rest of the real estate.

The annual Miami Book Fair is right around the corner and it’s in full swing. This year’s headliners include the singer Juanes, actor and comedian Kevin Nealonand filmmaker John Waters. Plus, of course, a crazy amount of creative programming.

“A big part of my job is problem solving and making sure everything is where it needs to be when it needs to be there and also that everyone on our team feels supported,” she says. Her open laptop rings to indicate a slew of new emails.

As program director for the Miami Book Fair, she’s seen some things. She has been at Miami Dade College since 2001 and has served as head of the programming unit since 2014. Over her many years, the book lover has been instrumental in the fair’s growth and memorable guests.

Prior to 2004, the Miami Book Fair was limited to one week of programming in the fall. During his first year working at the programming department, Mendez was part of the team that launched additional programming throughout the year to give locals access to great literary events throughout the year. ‘calendar year. While it remains a career highlight, Mendez has more than two decades of memories of working at the Miami Book Fair. When asked about some standout moments, the creative writer isn’t shy about recalling the time the team forgot Patti Smith’s guitar backing.

Mendez takes a deep breath and lets out a nervous laugh as he tells the story. Simply put, the guitar stand was mistakenly forgotten in the artist jumper when it first appeared at the fair in 2010. The moment they realized there was no guitar stand in room, Smith was already on campus. There was no time for a quick errand at Guitar Center, so it was up to Mendez to look for a guitar stand in nearly every room on the Wolfson Campus.

“I left her in the green room and started running all over campus. I go to the music department, I start opening all the rooms. Someone probably thought I was going to steal something as I walked through all the classrooms,” Mendez laughs.

His search proved fruitless and Smith had to put his guitar back in its case. “She made a comment on stage about the lack of guitar support, and I thought I was going to die.”

Mendez is proud to say that no guitar stand has been forgotten since. “I always think about [that moment], and specifically this year because it has a much more complicated setup. There’s a piano and the whole nine yards because she’s going to perform as part of her book fair event.” (You can catch Smith on friday november 18 in conversation with Lenny Kaye.)

“I lost some sleep over it to make sure we’re ready,” Mendez adds jokingly.

Click to enlarge

Photo courtesy of Miami Book Fair

Another special memory for Mendez was when one of her favorite authors, Dorothy Allison, attended the Miami Book Fair. It was a rare moment for the program director to sit in the audience and listen.

“She had the most impact on me as a girl and as a reader. Dorothy Allison is one of the most important voices, I think, that I’ve had the opportunity to read,” says- she. “[When she came to the fair], she spoke so eloquently. She spoke from her heart. I sat in the audience, and I just cried and cried. I mean, it was so amazing, everything she said. I cherish this moment; I cherish her.”

Although Allison will not be present this year, the public may be inclined to attend a discussion between poets Gregg Shapiro, Nicole Tallman, Julie Marie Wade and Shelley Wong on Saturday November 19.

In 2014, Mendez’s first year as program director, her team received a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge Fellowship for a program she later implemented in 2015 called the swamp. The week-long pop-up remains one of Mendez’s proudest moments.

“It was a multidisciplinary space that we built in one of the downtown parking lots, and we filled it with programming,” she explains. “We built a theater on site that could seat 300 people, with a stage, lights – every possible amenity and amenity you could imagine.”

The fair worked with local artists and organizations for programming. In the end, it was eight days of music, art and unforgettable stories. Although the swamp does not return in 2022, the beloved children’s alley takes place again behind Building 1 of the Wolfson Campus.

“It’s three days of hands-on activities of all kinds, whether it’s art, robotics, or music – it’s all very family and kid-oriented,” Mendez says.

In 2020, when the in-person event had to move to revamp its entire lineup to go virtual, Mendez recalls a standout installation by local artist Christina Patterson.

“She’s just awesome,” Mendez said, throwing his hands up. “In 2020, she created a shadow puppet play set in the Everglades. It was part whimsical, part eco-fairytale. “It’s all really storytelling. Whether it’s a song, an art, a work of visual art or a theatre. And so, you know, what other ways can we tell stories, live stories? And so [Patterson’s piece] was really another highlight.”

Although it hasn’t happened yet, Mendez is looking forward to debuting a new program this year that is sure to be a staple in her repertoire at the Miami Book Fair.

“We are working with Miami-Dade County to launch the Poet Laureate program for the next two years, which is called Miami’s Favorite Poems.” As part of his duties as Poet Laureate for Miami-Dade, Richard Blanco will tour the city and give presentations where he invites everyday people to read and submit their favorite poems.

“It’s a way for Blanco to reach out and engage with the community at large, not just the literary community, and give everyone a chance to talk about poetry,” Mendez said. (Listen to Blanco speaking during his Event “Poetry for the People” on Sunday 20 November.)

“One of the goals of the Book Fair is to make sure everyone in this community feels there is a space for them where they can come and find books and ideas that they can connect with. That’s why we’re so varied in what we offer.”

Miami Book Fair. Sunday, November 13 through Sunday, November 20 at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami; miamibookfair.com. Ticket prices vary.