Arte Público Press is the leading publisher of books in English and in Spanish written by Spanish-surnamed authors in the United States. Since it was founded in 1979, the publishing house, based in Houston, Texas, has been in the forefront of promoting Latino writers and literature. Latinopia sat down with editor and publisher, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, to find out the story behind Arte Público Press
Latinopa: We understand that Art Público Press grew out of a literary journal you created in 1973, the Revista Chicano-Riqueña. How did the Revista come about?
Kanellos: When I was in graduate school and got involved in the Chicano Movement in Texas, I came into contact with all kinds of artists: writers, painters, theater people etc. And likewise when I got a job at the University of Indiana Northwest, which is just outside of Chicago in Gary, Indiana. I started a theater group up there El Teatro Desengaño del Pueblo (The Undeceived Theater of the People), and again this was a magnet for all kinds of writers and artists. So they had no place to publish, neither in Texas or any place. So based on the fact that even in graduate school I had been doing student magazines. My collaborator, Luis Davila, from San Antonio, Texas who is a professor at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. He and I got together and founded Revista Chicano- Riqueña precisely to offer a forum for Latinos throughout the United States to publish their literary works and art. And that was in 1973.
Thanks to some professors down in Indiana, in Bloomington, we got a $500 dollar grant, some left over money from a Ford Foundation grant to the Latin American Studies Program. They gave us the money based on a previous anthology that I had created with my students who were all steel workers. It was a combination of material they got from the community, old tales and what have you, and their own creative writing. We called it La Cadena de mi Herencia. (The Chains of My Heritage) (Laughs). And they liked what they saw and they gave us $500 bucks and said “O.K. Start a magazine!”
So we started Revista Chicano-Riqueña, and did everything ourselves, took it to where the local newspaper was printed and they are the ones that printed it. And it looked like it too! (Laughs) And then we gradually became more professionalized. We had a really first rate commercial artist who worked for Playboy and all the top magazines in Chicago. His name is José González, a very good artist, and he became our art director. He designed our covers and selected art and he solicited and got works from artists from throughout the United States. Latinos, Chicanos, Puerto Riqueños, Cubanos. It was universal, which is the way we were right from the very beginning. Even though it was Chicanos and Riqueños, right from our manifesto we said that we wanted to serve all Latinos in the United States. And by the mid-80s we changed the name to The Americas Review. By that time we were so professional we hired consultants. And they said we needed to be more intelligible in our title and show that we embraced people from all of the Americas so we did that.
One of the main things in Revista Chicano-Riqueña was that we wanted to provide some material for the newly founded and bourgeoning bilingual education programs at universities and for the new ethnic studies programs at universities. They had virtually nothing to use in their classes. And by and large that built up our subscribership to about 5,000. This was from 1973 to 1979. We did special issues that were more like anthologies. We did a Chicago anthology which was called Nosotros which was a special number. We did La Mujer which was a special number. We did an anthology of theater which was called Nuevos Pasos in 1979. And based on that we said, hey we know we can do this. We can do books!
So I got together with some of my Nuyorican friends we were publishing: Miguel Algarín, Tato Laviera, Miguel Piñero and we brain-stormed forming a publishing house. And we founded Arte Público Press in 1979. The first book we published was Tato Laviera’s La Careta Made A U-turn.
We immediately got a 40-page article in Deadalus magazine, which is the magazine of the American Association of Arts and Sciences. Very, very important. It was a great launch for that book. It won the American Book award. And we were on the road with Arte Público Press!
And from then on we were going back to the people we were publishing in Revista Chicano-Riqueña: Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Tato Laviera, Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero, Rolando Hinojosa, Tomás Rivera…you name it. If they published in Revista Chicano-Riqueña, we went back and started publishing their books.
In fact the first books we published were by the Nuyorican school. We did three. We did Laviera, Algarín and Piñero. Then we did Rolando Hinojosa, And then we did The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. We did Women Are Not Roses by Ana Castillo and in our second batch of books we published all women, we might say, who did not have prior access. And that included Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chávez, Helena María Viramontes, Ana Castillo, Pat Mora, Evangelina Vigil. And then we took them on the road! I specifically raised money to put the writers on the road, so they would get a following, a portfolio of reviews, and interviews at newspapers, etc. that would help build them up and create their careers.
Latinopia: I was unaware that you were so instrumental in their careers.
Kanellos: I think most of them will acknowledge that they got their launch from Arte Público Press. I had this idea from Langston Hughes. What Langston Hughes did with his poetry books was he threw them into the trunk of his car and then drove to the deep South and then he would go around and read poetry and talk to people and sell his books. And I said we have to build up from the grass roots too. It wasn’t just here at the academic level.
Latinopia: When did Arte Público Press move from Indiana to Texas?
Kanellos: We moved to Houston in December of 1979. We moved with one book published by Arte Público Press to Houston. And the publishing of all of these books by Arte Público Press by all of these authors that I mention took place in the early 1980s.
Latinopia: Why move to Houston?
Kanellos: Unfortunately, Gary, Indiana at the time was a place that you might compare to Juárez today. It was riddled with gun fighting and drug wars. High unemployment, steel mills that had shut down and were silent. It was a depressed area and with all of the things I wanted to do with Arte Público Press, and culture, and teaching and everything else, Gary just didn’t afford the base. So I let out feelers to universities where they might be interested in employing us. And the University of Houston followed through and made me a nice offer and we went down there. They offered us facilities for the Revista and Arte Público Press and they offered me one personnel position to help run the office.
Latinopia: One of the things that is so visionary about you and Arte Públic Press is its Pan-Latino approach. Tell me why is it so important for us to have that Pan-Latino approach in America today?
Kanellos: The Pan-Latino direction really came into my mind when I lived in Mexican culture and realized how close it was to Puerto Rican culture. People who live in the United States often think we are so different. But Spanish is one language, you may have different pronunciations, but it is one language. And in the New World we share a common history. Common exploitation, common racism, in and outside of ourselves. From without and from within.
Latinopia: What have been the landmark moments in the history of Arte Public Press?
Kanellos: I believe that one of the game changers was around 1984 or 1985 when there was this large movement at elite institutions, the leading universities in the country to democratize their curriculum. Especially their core curriculum. Stanford and Harvard and various other places were finally admitting into the books that should be read as quote and unquote masterpieces or great books, books by ethnic minorities and women.
And the Wall Street Journal, among many newspapers, all attacked this. And there was an uproar. And the Wall Street Journal ran a double page editorial on it with the title that ran, “The Great Books Replaced by the Not So Great.” And they were talking about one of our books, The House on Mango Street. So they were attacking this book and no one knows about this book in the popular culture, in the greater society. Nobody. But based on that article and on this uproar we started getting requests for the book from all over the place. From libraries, from bookstores, etc. It was actually the media response that was negative that led to more popularity for our books and for more integration into the whole book industry.
Another moment that was very important for us was when Victor Villaseñor’s book, Rain of Gold was withdrawn from a publishing house in New York. He had signed a contract with Putnam to publish the book. It’s a family autobiography based on his family’s history coming from Mexico during the Revolution and the various generations and how they made a living in California. And Victor was taken aback when the publisher had sent out, as they do, a survey of salesperson that go around to the book stores to see what kind of reception for abook by this ethnic writer was going to be. And the salespersons came back with a negative. And so Putnum said to Victor you’re going to have to change this into a novel and you’re going to have to retitle it Rio Grande and its going to be a romance of the West. And he busted a gasket and said, “You cannot change my family into fiction. And you can’t change this book. This is our history, it’s real. It’s true,” etc. And he withdrew it and promised to pay back the advance of $75,000 which they had given to him. So he was blacklisted among all the New York publishers.
And so Victor came to us and literally begged us to publish it. We had never published a hardcover book in our history. Our business you know was the trade paperbacks or quality paperback books that are used in universities. So we had never done a major book like this before. We didn’t have a sales force that goes to book stores around the country, we had never given out the free books to be reviewed. Our whole budget was going to be involved in this one book. I said, “Victor we can’t do this. No.” So he got on a plane and came and begged and pleaded. So I had a meeting of all of the staff and I said if we’re going to do this, we’re all going to have to work extra hard and do extra time, we ‘re going to have to establish a sales force, we’re going to have to learn how to publish a hardcover book. Luckily, Victor had high-level contact in the business, and they helped us. They came onboard. They saw this as Jack the Giant Killer or David and Goliath. We were also fortunate to get major support for this and other projects from the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund..got sales teams to take us on as clients, and we did it. We put it all together, put the book out and it became a best seller! So based on that we started publishing hardcover books and have had sales reps going to book stores ever since. Because of this experience our budget for publishing books tripled. So that was a big moment in our development.
Latinopia: Tell me about the authors that you publish now and what is the range of genres and themes that Arte Publico covers?
Kanellos: Who are the authors that we publish and what is the range of themes and books that we publish? Well, we continue to publish some of the old timers, like Rolando Hinojosa. We have the complete library of Tomás Rivera. But we have young authors and stalwart authors who are prize-winners.
We have Cuban American writers like John Antigua who was a finalist for the Edgar Awards: he writes mystery novels. We have Graciela Limón from Southern California over here who writes wonderful novels from a feminist perspective. We are the publishers of the winners of the recently demised University of Irvine Prize for Chicano Latino Literature. So through that we get all kinds of new writers. Carlos Cisneros, who writes legal thrillers, is from Brownsville, Texas, and these legal thrillers are all set on the border. So he brings in border culture through his novels and he is already being called the Chicano John Grisham.
We do books on history, we have a Civil Rights series that has published the memoirs and writings of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement, such as Reies Tijerina, Corky Gonzales, José Ángel Gutiérrez. And yourself. We’ve done the book for the “Chicano!:History of the Mexican American Civil rights Mnovement Series for PBS TV. We have about 20 books in that series. We do reference works. We have published The Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights and various other titles and reference works–The Handbook of Hispanic Culture in the United States, a four volume set. But probably the most interesting thing that we do and what was a game changer for us was that one of these people who helped us out with the launch of Rain of Gold, was formerly a Senior Vice-president of Bantam Books. His name is Mark Jaffe. He became a member of our board for Arts Public and he thought we should go into children’s publishing. So we founded Piñata Books around 1992, and we now publish bilingual children’s picture books, we publish middle readers and we publish young adult novels and anthologies. All of these in both languages. And they have been a tremendous success.
Latinopia: How many authors do you think you publish each year?
Kanellos: Besides the individual books that we do, we also do anthologies and collections. So we cover a lot of authors every year. It could be anywhere from 30 to 40 or 50 authors a year.
Latinopia: What are the criteria that you use for accepting a manuscript to be published? And how does one submit?
Kanellos: Most presses will ask, “How does a manuscript fulfill the mission as we define art and literature and history and knowledge, and what would the reception be in the market place? For instance, there are a lot of books of poetry, that should be published but that we won’t publish because, basically nobody will buy them. So there are some genres that we publish only one or two books a year We are not in the business of, except for the Irvine Prize or some other major prize, of launching new poets. We are in the business of launching new prose writers. And we are in the business of publishing interesting political science, non -fiction, like we did with the book edited by Henry Cisneros, a collection of essay by leading Latino organizers and experts called Latinos In the Nation’s Future. That book had legs. We get more than 2000 manuscripts a year for only 30 books that we publish. So we have to say no to a lot of books.
Latinopia: How can writes submit their works?
Kanellos: The way to submit manuscripts is very easy. People go to our website, Artepúblicopress,com. And they can upload their manuscript and we acknowledge it through the internet, through email. It automatically it generates an automatic acknowledgment and then our editorial team looks at the books. If we have to get outside opinions, we do. And then we decide up or down. And that is only the beginning process. Because we have editors who work with the writers. We have developmental editors to improve the book. Then after we get a finalized manuscript, we have copy editors and then we have proof readers. While all of this is going on we have designers, who design the pages of the book and then they incorporate whatever art we generate for the book. Outside artists. We are always trying to match up text with image.
Latinopia: You have created an on-line website to further advance the vision of Arte Público called Latinoteca.com What is Latinoteca?
Kanellos: What Is Latinoteca? We are hoping to grow Latinoteca into the encyclopedia of Latino cultures online. We are enriching our space for art, music and literature, video and documents and photography, etc. Other current and historical areas as well as all kinds of information for teachers and educators and grassroots activists, organizers, students, kids, we even have coloring books to help combat obesity and diabetes among kids. We are going to be putting up games on there, too. And the idea of course is to bring many many eyes and readers to Latinoteca.
TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ARTE PÚBLICO PRESS VISIT: www.artepublicopress.com and www.latinoteca.com.