The Dallas Morning News
Friday, November 7, 2003

Voice to Latinos

By The Associated Press

HOUSTON - As a child, Nicolas Kanellos rummaged through trash to satisfy his passion for books.

He lived in Jersey City, N.J., where the American Textbook Co. churned out texts.

"I used to go into the Dumpsters and pull out the [discarded pages] of the books, then fold them up and I had my own books," he said.

Mr. Kanellos, 58, transformed his love of reading into Arte Publico Press. The publisher at the University of Houston is now one of the nation's largest and oldest Hispanic publishing houses.

The Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s inspired Mr. Kanellos to offer Hispanic writers an outlet. The publishing house evolved from the Revista Chicana-Riquena, which became The Americas Review, a quarterly magazine of Latino literature and art. He grew it into Arte Publico Press in 1979 while at Indiana University Northwest, and moved it to Houston a year later.

"Back in the 1980s, we were just struggling to get all of these authors into print," Mr. Kanellos said. "As we have grown, we have come to understand that our mission is to reform the national culture and to get it to reflect that Latinos have always been here."

Arte Publico published some of the most influential pieces of Hispanic literature, including Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. It also printed works by Denise Chavez, Nicholasa Mohr and Miguel Pinero.

The publishing house has also given a voice to past Hispanic authors.

The Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project, started in 1992, rediscovers lost Latino writings from the American Colonial period through 1960.

The project has cataloged more than 18,000 books and nearly 2,000 newspapers written and published by Latinos. Arte Publico remains a trailblazer in publishing Hispanic literature because of its work with the recovery project, said Adriana Lopez, editor of Criticas, created by Publishers Weekly and Library Journal to review Spanish-language books.

"The reality is larger houses don't want to invest money in things that won't be profitable," she said. Arte Publico is "taking risks, not for profit but for the necessity of Latino history."

Without Arte Publico, many authors would not have been published, said Tony Diaz, director of Nuestra Palabra, a Houston-based reading and writing forum for Latino writers.

"I don't know if you can count how many people they have inspired," he said.

Arte Publico is relatively small compared to other publishers, operating on an annual budget of about $3 million. Private foundations and government agencies provide about 40 percent of its budget.

The downturn in the economy as well as dwindling corporate support have complicated things for Arte Publico. To ease financial difficulties now and in the future, it seeks a $5 million endowment.

While receiving 2,000 submissions annually, Arte Publico each year publishes only 30 books, which can range from scholarly works to detective fiction.

But being small gives Mr. Kanellos and his staff of 20 full-time and 20 part-time employees the ability to offer their authors individualized attention.

Sarah Cortez, whose book of poetry, How to Undress a Cop, was published by Arte Publico in September 2000, met Mr. Kanellos while she was a full-time police officer and exchanged letters about her writing with him for more than a year.

"He's the only publisher in America that would do that with an unknown writer," she said.