Amid the Spread of Book-Banning, Houston's Storied Arte Público Press Celebrates a Milestone Anniversary

ON THURSDAY, SEPT. 15, Arte Público Press celebrates its 40th Anniversary as the country’s oldest and largest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by U.S. Hispanic authors with a gala at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House.

The event will feature performances by Houston ensembles Sambabom, Solero Flamenco and Mariachi Puma. The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra will perform music composed by Derek Bermel in collaboration with Sandra Cisneros, whose book The House On Mango Street was originally published by Arte Público, and Houston Grand Opera will present its storybook opera Agua, Agüita (Water, Little Water) based on Jorge Argueta’s trilingual picture book published by Arte Público’s children’s imprint, Piñata Books.

“The whole ethos of the press is accessibility,” says Nicolás Kanellos, who brought the press with him from Indiana University Northwest in 1980 when he accepted a tenure-track position in UH’s Hispanic Studies department. Arte Público grew quickly, and now works with all of the major wholesalers and distributors and a sales force of commissioned sales reps to ensure its books are available in brick and mortar stores around the country. Arte Público titles are also available to order online.

At the Thursday gala, Airy Sindik, currently a Ph.D student in the Creative Writing Program in Spanish at UH, will accept the Reyes-Olivas Award for Best First Book of Latino Children’s and Young Adult Literature for his book Abuela y el covid / Grandma and Covid. The book tells the story of a young boy who relies on a cell phone to stay in touch with his grandmother who is ill with the Covid. “It captures the Covid moment,” says Kanellos of the book, who gives Sindik full credit for making digital devices such an important part of the story.

As a child, Kanellos moved back and forth between Puerto Rico and Jersey City, where his family lived in a cold water, railroad apartment with gas jets on the walls from the 19th century. He became a voracious reader at an early age, beginning with comic books in Spanish and English. His parents didn’t necessarily encourage him to read, but his father, who worked in a restaurant, would sometimes trade meals for books workers from a nearby bindery would sneak out. “That’s how we got a set of encyclopedias,” laughs Kanellos. “Though not all of the letters of course!” Classic works by John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemmingway also came to him from the bindery.

Arte Público’s 40th anniversary arrives in a year in which books of all types and for all ages have become a high-profile target of conservatives and right-wing extremists. According to the U.S. nonprofit organization PEN America, Texas is currently the leader in the banning and removal of books from public schools. “Some of our books have been censored and pulled out the schools and libraries,” says Kanellos. “It’s just baffling that people who are supposed to be patriotic are working against the founding principles of the nation.”

But Arte Público has no intention of slowing down, and Kanellos and his team look forward to another 40 years as a vital and expansive platform for Hispanic literature and historical preservation.

Nicolás Kanellos

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