Director/founder of Houston press on past, present, future of Latinx publishing

“I am inspired by a young cohort of writers that is still interested in writing from the community to the world, who are well educated and have marvelous control of craft and can still surprise an old dog like me”


LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Dr. Kanellos, you are the director of the oldest Latino publishing house in the United States, Arte Público Press, which you founded in 1979, located at the University of Houston. Please tell us the origin story of Arte Público.


DR. NICOLÁS KANELLOS: I was teaching at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana, and realized that Hispanic authors had very few outlets for their creativity. Major publishers in New York City were certainly not publishing them. So in 1972, some colleagues and I started a literary journal, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, which later became The Americas Review, to address the lack of opportunity for Latino writers. The magazine was quite successful, receiving several Citations of Achievement from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and funding from various foundations. We decided to build on Revista’s success and start a publishing house, creating Arte Público Press and publishing our first book in 1979.


Why was 1979 the right time to create Arte Público, and how did you and the press come to Houston? What was the first title you published?


We had a great deal of success publishing Revista Chicano-Riqueña, with special thematic issues being used in university classes throughout the country. This led us to believe that we could publish books, being that these special issues were like books. By 1979, the major publisher of Chicano literature, Ediciones Quinto Sol, had ceased to exist and their lead writers were looking for a place to land. These writers were already part of our magazine’s advisory board, as were the major Nuyorican writers from the East Coast.


So in 1979, we decided to line up those writers who had been steadfast board members and contributors to Revista for our first series of books. Our first book was La Carreta Made a U-Turn, by Tato Laviera, a bilingual poetry book based on Puerto Rican working-class life in New York City. We followed with other books from Nuyorican and women writers who had published in Revista, such as Evangelina Vigil, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Nicholas Mohr and others—launching the first significant wave of Latina authors.


We decided to move from the Midwest when that community did not have the resources or desire to sustain us. We let the word out around the country about our desire to move, and the University of Houston made us an offer we could not refuse.


Piñata Books, the children’s and young-adult imprint of Arte Público, was created in 1994. What was the specific inspiration for a young readers’ imprint? What was the debut title?


Several things came together around the same time that made the creation of our kids’ book imprint possible. For years K-12 teachers and librarians had been asking us for books for children, so we had been pondering the possibilities for a while. We knew the need was immense, given the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States. And then, Arte Público was selected for inclusion—along with eight other independent literary presses around the country—in a grant program from the Mellon Foundation. Suddenly we had some significant funding and a mandate from the foundation to “do something big.” That opportunity allowed us to hire consultants to help us create and market the imprint, develop a logo, promote it in trade journals like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and attend a slew of new conferences geared to K-12 teachers and librarians.


The very first book published under the Piñata Books imprint was Pat Mora’s bilingual poem, The Desert Is My Mother / El desierto es mi madre, which was illustrated by Daniel Lechón and published as a picture book in 1994. A poetic and artistic rendition of the relationship between nature and Hispanics and indigenous peoples, the book depicts the desert as a giver of comfort, food, and spirt rather than an empty expanse devoid of life. The book is still in print and continues to be a bestseller for the press.


An ongoing effort you are leading is the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage project, the first “national, coordinated program to recover, index and publish lost Latino writings,” dating from the American colonial period through 1960, to document the history of Latino cultures. Please talk about the accomplishments of this program to date and goals in progress.


More than twenty-five years ago, the University of Houston’s Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage established its effort to research, recover, preserve, and make accessible all types of written culture created by Latinos in the United States, including manuscripts, documents, books, photographs, and periodicals from colonial times until 1960.


Since then, the program has funded 182 scholars to conduct research; created a comprehensive project database of some 500,000 documents (from one-page broadsides to entire books); microfilmed for preservation and digitized for online distribution some 2,000 books; compiled and published the first comprehensive bibliography of Hispanic periodicals, Hispanic Periodicals in the United States: A Brief History and Comprehensive Bibliography by Nicolás Kanellos with Helvetia Martell; indexed and digitally scanned some 350,000 literary and historical articles from hundreds of newspapers for production of the electronic edition of periodical materials (in full text for distribution by EBSCO Pub. and Newsbank); held eleven biennial national conferences to date; published in print some forty recovered volumes, plus nine volumes of the selected conference papers, peer-reviewed scholarly publications; published two comprehensive anthologies (one with Oxford University Press and the other with Arte Público Press), as well as Recovering the US Hispanic Linguistic Heritage: Sociohistorical Approaches to Spanish in the United States, edited by Alejandra Balestra, Glenn Martínez and María Irene Moyna, and various other documents and books; and underwrote the microfilming of various Hispanic collections from New York to Los Angeles.  


Since its founding, more than fifty university-press books have been published using Recovery materials or based on Recovery resources and/or research funding. All of these books acknowledge the contribution of our program.


Right now, we are expanding the program to be the center for Latino digital humanities. That means we’ll be doing research and teaching scholars from throughout the country and the nearby Spanish-speaking countries in the techniques of creating new knowledge by using advanced technological tools in the Humanities.


This month, y’all announced the launch of Arte Público Digital (APP Digital). Please tell us about this initiative.


Arte Público Press Digital will make available to classrooms interactive texts that can be commented on, added to, illustrated, and enhanced with relevant information and data so that a community of students and scholars can work together to understand the text and create new knowledge around it. In other words, it will facilitate the type of study that takes place, especially in the Humanities, inside and out of the physical classroom, but it can be shared with people around the world via the internet. So any community of scholars, wherever they are located, can come together to study and address any intellectual issue.


Earlier you mentioned that, prior to starting Arte Público, you founded the Revista Chicana-Riqueña, a quarterly magazine of Latino literature. You state that the impetus for this literary magazine was a lack of access to publishers for Hispanic author. What else can you tell us about this situation? Which currently published literary magazines do you enjoy and recommend?


Revista Chicano-Riqueña grew out of the Latino civil rights movement, and in fact was actually sold hand-to-hand at meetings, boycotts, street festivals, and at institutions where our theater company, Teatro Desengaño del Pueblo, performed. My co-editor, Luis Dávila, I, and our editorial board wanted to establish a vehicle for publishing writers and artists that were active in supporting the civil-rights movement but had no access to publishers. There were two important magazines at that time, but they were ethnically limited. In 1972, there was a major Chicano magazine, El Grito, being published in California, and a major Nuyorican magazine, The Rican, being published in Chicago. So, through Revista Chicano-Riqueña we wanted to serve all Latino ethnic writers and communities from coast to coast in the United States.


I enjoy Puentes: Revista méxico-chicana de literatura, cultura y arte out of Tucson, Ventana abierta out of Santa Barbara, and Camino Real out of Alcalá de Henares, Spain.


It seems to me that one could say your life has been devoted to “recovering the US Hispanic literary heritage.” What has been the toughest challenge to overcome, the most satisfying challenge surmounted? Can you ever say, “Mission accomplished?”


The greatest challenge is breaking through the hold that large corporations have on literature and the media, such that it is extremely difficult to reach audiences. It is very difficult for a small nonprofit to let the world know about its books and authors, when the major media conglomerates ensure that newspapers and magazine, as well as all of the electronic media, function to promote their commercial products and none other. Thus, getting our books reviewed, distributed, bought, made into TV and film, translated to other languages for other countries, etc., is extremely difficult, despite the fact that what we publish is superior to the fare offered by these conglomerates.


The most satisfying part of our job, the reward, I would say, is seeing a second-grader reading and enjoying one of our children’s books, or hearing a Latino lawyer or engineer or doctor say that they read some of our books in college and those books helped define who they were and set them on a path to self-realization. I am old enough to have been given that feedback by professionals at the beginning or at mid-career.


I cannot say, “mission accomplished,” in my lifetime.


Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. In this case, what has it meant to you to teach Hispanic literature, and for Arte Público to operate, in Texas and Houston, specifically?


Well, first off, we publish many Texas authors, so Texas is deep in our hearts. But also, we publish many of the foundational writers of Latino literature, and they are Texans: Rolando Hinojosa, Pat Mora, Tomás Rivera, Ricardo Sánchez, Evangelina Vigil, and many others.


We came to Houston because it is centrally located and accessible to the nation; it is on the border with Spanish America; it is a Latino cultural center in a Latinized state.


What about the current state and future of Latino literature in the US are you most inspired by? Can you tell us what’s next for you and the press?


I am inspired by a young cohort of writers that is still interested in writing from the community to the world, who are well educated and have marvelous control of craft and can still surprise an old dog like me with their insights and inventiveness and passion; people like Anna Garcia Schaper originally from Houston, Lyn Di Iorio from New York City, Oscar Mancinas from Phoenix, Jasminne Méndez from Houston, Richie Narvaez from Brooklyn, Alex Temblador from Dallas, Diana Noble from Washington state by way of Houston, Daniel Peña at UH Downtown, Richard Santos from Austin. The future of Latino literature is in great hands with these young, innovative, and committed writers.


What books are on your nightstand?


Más allá del invierno, by Isabel Allende, Redención, by Fernando Gamboa, [Un]framing the "Bad Woman": Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauhqui, and Other Rebels with a Cause, by Alicia Gaspar de Alba  and Intimations, by Zadie Smith.


Nicolás Kanellos has been honored with appointments to the Brown Foundation Inc. Chair and the National Council for the Humanities. He received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of Arizona and was inducted into the Spanish American Royal Academy of Literature, Arts & Science in Cadiz, Spain. Selected awards include the Cruz de la Orden de Isabel la Católica (Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic Queen), the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature, and the “Enrique Anderson Imbert” Prize of the North American Academy of the Spanish Language for Lifetime Achievement.