Photo Credit: University of Houston Arte Público Press

In March 2019, The New School hosted the National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.

Virginia Valenzuela, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed founder and director of Arte Público Press, Nicolás Kanellos about being awarded The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for the 2018 NBCC Awards.

Nicolás Kanellos is the founder and director of Arte Público Press, the largest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature in America, and a beacon for the recognition of Hispanic American artists and writers since 1979. The effort started in 1972 with the establishment of Revista Chicana-Riqueña and then The Americas Review which both aimed to bring attention to Latino authors who previously had nowhere else to go to publish their work. Arte Público famously published The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, among other authors including Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Miguel Piñero and so many more. They are established under the University of Houston and they publish around 30 titles per year. Arte Público Press is the 2018 recipient for the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. We spoke over the phone between the University of Houston and a small cafe in Brooklyn.

Virginia Valenzuela [VV]: A lot of the things I’ve read about Arte Público Press mention that it got its start on the “artistic fringe” before achieving its current status as the oldest and most accomplished publisher of literature by U.S. Hispanic authors.

Nicolás Kanellos [NK]: That’s a lousy word, I hate it, “fringe.”

VV: Yeah, I’d love to hear a little more about this “artistic fringe,” and the early days of the press.

NK: We were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement — no “fringe” about it. Organizing blocks, marching, boycotting, producing newspapers, grassroots newspapers, publications, etc.

VV: Right, and I know that a lot of this work started with the Revista Chicana-Riqueña, which ultimately became The Americas Review, so, how did some of these grassroots movements play into the way that you looked for work and the way that you published new voices?

NK: Well, I was working with the theater companies in Texas and in the Midwest, and we were performing in communities and supporting the Civil Rights Movement and block organizing, what have you, and it became very obvious that we had lots of artists and writers that didn’t have any place to get their material published and circulated. That’s all we wanted to do. That’s what sparked our interest in founding Revista Chicana-Riqueña, working from the grassroots and the barrios, and getting these artists out to a national audience. It was very humble at first, of course, but eventually, through Arte Público Press, it became a reality.

VV: So, in 1980, the press moved from Indiana to Houston, Texas.

NK: That’s right.

VV: What changed with the new environment and the new backdrop of the University of Houston?

NK: We were in Gary, Indiana, which was very poor and depressed. Steel mills closed, you know, and so we moved to Houston looking for more solid footing for the fledgling press and for the magazine, and basically, we came to greater resources and to a more populous Latino community, so, those were the reasons why we came here, and it has borne fruit over the years, at times, you know, with feast of famine, right? When we got down here the oil industry was in recession, and the savings and loan institutions were crashing, and we couldn’t get our hands on a lot of resources. But eventually the economy bounced back and we were doing better. Plus the University of Houston was a growing place, and we could tap into the resources of this very large state institution, versus the really small campus, minority campus, that we were at in Gary, Indiana.

VV: Let’s talk about the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project. What are some of the most interesting things this project has uncovered? Have you been surprised by any of your findings?

NK: Well, as you know, we’ve recovered and made accessible hundreds of thousands of documents, everything from correspondence to entire books, published books, manuscripts of books, and so on and so forth. What has been a great boom for the recovery program has been the finding of a lot of women’s voices, and women who published and who were not published.

We’ve recovered correspondence, we’ve recovered diaries, and we’ve recovered and published writers such as María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, who, under pen name in the nineteenth century, self-published two novels that documented how the Californians, the Califorños, lost their lands to railroad and banking interests, and another one that dealt with race and gender in mid-19th century United States, dealing with Hispanic, or Latino, African-American, and indigenous groups, versus the Anglo-American society — two novels that really are now studied throughout the United States in various types of curricula, you know, from history to literature to sociology, and so on and so forth.

So, those two books are very, very important, but also we’ve found women who were publishing their own newspapers, who were politically active, anarchist women, penning, in 1905, penning a manifesto to women throughout the world, outlining how women should take the reins of society, and combat the excesses of corporate structures and government and the church. So, there’s been a lot of stuff, in fact, we have a magazine that was published called Feminismo International, out of New York, in 1921, 1922, all kinds of gems like that.

VV: And it sounds like it links very clearly to the Civil Rights Movement too, a lot of these topics and radical ideas.

NK: Absolutely!

VV: Alright, so, I’d love to talk about Piñata Books. How did the idea for Piñata Books come about?

NK: Actually, on our advisory board, we have some people from the industry, one in particular, a guy by the name of Mark Jaffe, who was an insider, very important guy, an executive in publishing in New York, and he said it became obvious that we had all of this talent out here and we had a great need in the schools and in society for children’s literature and we should be growing our own readers. So, we went ahead and founded Piñata Books to further literacy, to create a place that would be a bridge from home culture to the schools, and everything we do at Piñata Books, almost everything we do is bilingual, so, parents or kids who read in one language and are transitioning into the other.

And miraculously, today there’s this big movement in education for dual language education, and we’re virtually the only publishers of books that are doing this, that create authentic literature using real literature and authentic language and cultural situations of the United States, rather than pedagogical books, for dual language and bilingual language education. Our flip books, we call them flips books, can be read in either language in either direction, and they’ve done pretty well.

VV: And why do you think it’s important for there to be original content, rather than doing it the way some other children’s books do it, which is basically to translate the classics into Spanish?

NK: Right. It’s because we have our own history, culture, and traditions, and we have our own way of saying things, and our communities, our families, and our children will recognize themselves in those books. For kids to stay in school they have to see that there’s a place for them, they have to see that reading culture and education culture welcome them and reflect them, rather than just have them studying and reading about other people all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the Spanish language, it’s about others, not us, so, we are combating the “other,” trying to promote the “us” in books, you see?

VV: That’s incredible. On the same note, I read a lot about ¡Salud, Familia! a program which helps educate children and their families on health and nutrition. Did you feel that Hispanic-American families did not have the same access to messages regarding health? Or that these messages just didn’t speak to Hispanic culture, the food, the habits?

NK: Well, like many poor people in the United States, they live in food deserts, where there’s hardly a supermarket close by or a place to get fresh fruits and vegetables, produce, and quite often the diet of poverty, no matter what tradition it’s from, is high in fats, sugar, and salt. What we do find in Latino and poor neighborhoods are the fast food places, and they’re nice and cheap, but they’re loading up the veins and arteries with fats and cholesterol and promoting diabetes. Diabetes is an endemic among Latinos.

So we decided, through our books, to start a program to, in a very soft and easy and entertaining way, give information to families and children about eating right and doing exercise, and what we believe is that the elements of eating right can be found directly in Latino culture, the things that are really healthy for us, such as avocados and beans and squash, all those staples that we’ve all grown up with, you know? So that’s what that lead to, and when we started the program and throughout the program we had advice, and it was overseen by some of the leading experts in nutrition, Latino nutrition, and health and disease from coast to coast, and some of the leadership in institutions for public health.

VV: So at this point in time, do you feel that Hispanic-American authors have left the fringe and become more of a staple in the mainstream?

NK: No, I don’t. I do not. All you need to do is read the Sunday New York Times Book Review and count the names, or read the New York Review of Books and count the Latino names whose books are being reviewed, and you’ll see that we’re pretty absent, and of thousands and thousands and thousands of books published by mainstream publishers, we’re not there. We’re not there in sufficient numbers. I would say that Latino literature lives in the small presses like us, not in the major publishing houses. Not in the major, commercial publishing houses, but in the small, not-for-profit presses. Of course we’re the largest one, but there are others that are small and putting out one, two, three books a year, and basically, among the non-profit Latino presses is where Latino literature lives today. There’s only exceptions of a Pulitzer Prize here and there, and an author that gets a full treatment by the commercial publishing houses. For the most part, the Latino authors that do make it into the large publishing houses, their books are not the headline books, they’re not the leading books, they’re the mid-lift.

VV: Right, it’s like a constant conversation with people like Neruda and Lorca and Marquez and never anything contemporary.

NK: And they’ll publish foreigners, Neruda and Carlos Fuentes and so on, but the home-grown Latino authors have a hard time breaking through.

VV: Do you think there are any advantages to having the Hispanic American voices in the small press?

NK: Well, the advantages are mostly aesthetic and value-wise. These authors are very close to our history and traditions and to what’s actually happening in our communities, rather than their work being filtered through the larger presses to be more palatable to a readership of the Sunday Book Review.

VV: And what are some things you think we can do in order to get these voices to be more mainstream and more available to readers and to students of all ages?

NK: I would say that this award from the National Book Critics Circle is a big shot in the arm, and will help a great deal to make us more visible, to let people know that Latino writers exist, and that they’re available, and that they can speak to large audiences. Hopefully we can break some stereotypes. When we started publishing Arte Público Books back in the nineteen-eighties, it was taken for granted that Latinos did not read, much less write.

VV: Wow, how terrible! I can’t believe that.

NK: That was a rule of thumb in the publishing world back then, so they didn’t address that market. And even today, we’re the largest minority in the United States and still growing; by mid-century we will be a third of the population, and the publishing houses are still not addressing this very large potential market.

VV: Do you think that correlates directly to class issues, or culture issues?

NK: Yes, I think it is a class issue. It’s an issue about who the publishing houses employ, who are the editors, and who are the agents. They’re predominantly non-Latino, and have no appreciation for what’s out there; and, of course, they’re very much tied to New York and quite often do not see what’s happening in the rest of the country.

Virginia Valenzuela is a poet and essayist from New York City. Her poetry has appeared in the Inquisitive Eater and the Best American Poetry blog, where her fashion column “Fashion and Beauty with Poetess Vinny” debuted in fall 2018. She teaches English at New Jersey City University. This interview was first published on the Creative Writing at The New School blog. It has been edited for length.