UH-based publisher promotes Latino heritage, writers
While in graduate school in the ’70s, Nicolás Kanellos, director of Arte Público Press, scoured the libraries at the University of Texas at Austin for Latino literature but found nothing in one of the top 10 largest public collections in the country.
He has worked to change that for the past 44 years, publishing the work of Latino writers and recovering records of Latino heritage.
“We knew that there was a long history of Latino thought and Latino writing in the United States,” Kanellos said. “But not all of that material was available in libraries, classrooms, archives, and our whole written heritage was being lost.”
In Chicago, 1972, Kanellos started a magazine, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, after realizing that a lot of Latino writers didn’t have an outlet to publish their work. Kanellos founded Arte Público Press in 1979 after the magazine’s success in classrooms, and he brought the magazine and publisher with him to the University of Houston in 1980.
Arte Público Press is the oldest and largest U.S. publisher of contemporary and recovered U.S. Latino literature. APP launched the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project to recover records of Latino literature and created Piñata Books, a division focused on children’s books.
Preserving Latino heritage
Kanellos said institutions responsible for safeguarding our national heritage were not accessible to Latinos.
He wanted to find records of Latino literature, history and culture but found nothing. Kanellos always knew Latino heritage existed, but it was absent from his education, he said.
Americo Paredes, a Mexican-American author and Kanellos’ professor at UT, directed him to century-old newspapers where he found records of Latino history, Kanellos said.
He’d have to wait 20 years for adequate funding, modern technology and a core of professors able to focus on safeguarding Latino heritage, Kanellos said. Then he found 20 scholars in the field and created the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project.
Foundations, like the Rockefeller Foundation, began supporting the project soon after, he said. The project is self-sustaining because they sell databases of recovered texts.
Latinos participated in almost every movement in American history, ranging from abolition to women’s suffrage, Kanellos said.
“We have material evidence, texts, documentation and about 2,000 different newspapers that were published before 1960 that are evidence of our thinking, of our contributions, of our literature, of our art and of our politics that our students and scholars around the United States can access,” Kanellos said.
APP launched the careers of most of the important Latino writers in the United States, like Sandra Cisneros, he said.
There’s no other recovery program in the United States nor a publisher focused on Latino literature as large as APP, he said.
Promoting Latino writers
Gwendolyn Zepeda, Houston’s first poet laureate, said her work wasn’t stereotypical enough for New York publishers, so she published her work with APP.
“When I was contacting agents, they were like, ‘I would rather have a story about your family crossing the border’,” Zepeda said. “It occurred to me that whoever published Sandra Cisneros first was the right person for me.”
Zepeda’s work doesn’t deal with assimilating to American culture because she’s already American, she said.
She was afraid APP wouldn’t want her work because she wasn’t Latina enough, but they liked it and said she should make it longer, she said.
APP understands that while Latinos have things in common, there’s individual and artistic differences, Zepeda said. They try to promote as many different voices as they can, she said.
“They’re not just looking for the border story or just looking for Dirty Girls Social Club,” Zepeda said. “I believe that no minority in America can be truly respected until we are seen as individuals.”
Jasminne Mendez, a UH alumna and author, said APP’s focus on Latino writers ensures their work gets into the right hands.
Mendez first published with APP while studying at UH when her professor selected her work to be part of an anthology, she said.
“Because of their dedication to only Latino authors, they really are thoughtful in the editing process, marketing and the care they take with your work and your words,” Mendez said. “It was important to me that they would consider my story and honor my story, not try to whitewash it.”
Kanellos said UH covers some of APP’s indirect costs, such as financial accounting, personnel and facilities, but he didn’t always have these resources available.
“When we started at Revista Chicano-Riqueña, we were scrounging for paper at the university (in Chicago),” Kanellos said. “We would be selling them out by hand during community festivals.”
It started as a grassroots effort, Kanellos said. Now APP works with wholesalers, distributors and movie agents, he said.
Marina Tristan, assistant director of APP, said the agency had only four full-time employees when she started in 1986 compared to the current 10 full-time and 10 part-time employees.
They had offices in three different buildings at one point: a trailer behind the law school, Agnes Arnold and the library, she said.
“Our warehouse was literally closets and classrooms,” Tristan said. “We’d have a 10-minute window to get in the classroom, haul out the boxes that we needed and not disrupt the class.”
They regularly sent out students, and one of them missed the 10-minute window, Tristan said. He had to hide in one of the closets until class ended, she said.
One of their closets located in the basement of Agnes Arnold flooded during tropical storm Allison — a problem they haven’t dealt with since moving to their new office in 2012, she said.
Tristan and other APP employees now have easy access to books without having to walk across campus, worry about rodents or climb over toilets, she said.
Kanellos said APP employs graduate students who oftentimes choose their research topics from the recovery program.
Universities and libraries across the country subscribe to their databases, Kanellos said.
“We’re especially targeting the eight largest school districts with Latino enrollment in the country, like Houston, Dallas, San Antonio,” Kanellos said. “(We’re) getting our books, our heritage into the hands of kids, especially Latinos who haven’t had access to this material in the past.”