Finding the way

Meet the Groundbreaking Publisher Who Built an Empire of Hispanic Literature

As a child, Nicolás Kanellos couldn't find books that accurately portrayed his Hispanic heritage. As an adult, he sought out and published the ones that did.

By Emma Schkloven October 8, 2020

NICOLÁS KANELLOS WAS IN HIS OWN LITTLE SLICE OF PARADISE IN JANUARY 2019—editing a manuscript in his Galleria-area home office, lush banana trees and hibiscus plants just beyond the French doors—when an email made him burst into tears. He’d often wondered if the wider world even remembered his little publishing house in Houston, and now his life’s work, Arte Público Press, had just been named the 2018 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

Typically given to individual authors, including literary legends Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, the honor recognizes those who’ve made contributions to book culture. “There’s no Pulitzer Prize for publishing, there’s no Nobel Prize,” Kanellos explains, just this rare honor, which has been given out based on merit since 1981, and what’s more: “Only four times has this award gone to a publisher. Ours is the fourth.”

The award, and the international recognition that came with it, had been a long time coming for the 75-year-old publisher. Kanellos has operated his press, the oldest and foremost Hispanic publishing house in the United States, out of the University of Houston for decades. The college supplies room and board, but the independent press focuses on contemporary or overlooked works by U.S. Hispanic authors. “To have a thriving ethnic enterprise in the middle of a majority-white institution is just really remarkable,” says former board chair and retired UH law professor Michael A. Olivas, who has released two books through Arte Público. “Nicolás created all of it out of his imagination.”

Born in New York City to Puerto Rican immigrants, Kanellos was raised bouncing between the two places in the 1950s. A voracious reader, while delving into the East Coast’s bastion of culture Kanellos too often found examples of what he describes as “yellow journalism,” American-published articles and books that he felt demeaned his Hispanic heritage. Bilingual thanks to summers spent in Puerto Rico, he devoured Spanish novels and comic books he received from family in San Juan. But Kanellos could never find texts that bridged those two worlds—“The first language that was introduced to North America was Spanish,” he says, but there weren’t English books that depicted life from a viewpoint he could recognize.

Kanellos longed to change that. Starting in the mid-60s, he became involved in the Chicano Movement while earning his masters and PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. He next found himself in the Midwest after assuming a university teaching post in Gary, Indiana, where Kanellos founded the first national magazine of U.S. Hispanic literature, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, in 1972. Through the journal Kanellos connected with Latino authors from across the country, and in 1979, eight years into a tenured-track professorship, he started Arte Público Press. Its mission? To ensure that Hispanic works often overlooked by New York publishing houses saw the light of day. Kanellos struggled for a year to procure the resources needed to make the publishing house work, putting out only one book. When UH offered him a tenure track position in the Hispanic Studies department—and a place for his fledgling press—it was an easy decision. He set up in Houston and got to work printing titles.

Gradually the American literati took notice. Arte Público released Sandra Cisneros’s modern classic, The House on Mango Street, in 1983. The book would be reprinted by a larger publishing house, and make Cisneros the most famous Chicana writer around. Kanellos put out Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold, nine years later, which was subsequently snapped up by a larger publisher and would become a national bestseller. More recently they’ve printed Pushcart Prize-winner Daniel Peña’s debut novel, Bang. The 2018 story about the drug trade and immigration has garnered national attention, and Kanellos says he won’t be surprised if larger houses come calling yet again. “We’re a talent scout, you might say,” Kanellos jokes. “They take advantage of that.”

Over the years Kanellos also fomented bolder literary pursuits: The press’s Recovery program, launched in 1992, has retrieved thousands of previously lost Latino writings. Its children’s inprint, Piñata Books, has published 234 titles.

While Kanellos attributes Arte Público’s success to its dedicated staff, many say the press’s monolithic status in the world of Hispanic lit rests on his shoulders alone. He didn’t just popularize the market for Hispanic literature—Kanellos created it.

“Nicolás is a big fish in, now, an ocean,” Olivas says. “That small pond has grown into at least the Gulf of Mexico.”

However, the press’s continued success has not made it easier to compete in the larger, East Coat-centric publishing world. Even after four decades, Kanellos continues to wield his pen (yes, he still reads manuscripts off the slush pile) against huge publishers that constantly consolidate into even mightier Goliaths and command an almost impenetrable control over what creative works capture national attention.

“We haven’t had a New York Times book review in over five years,” he laments, though there are eight pages of awards and accolades on Arte Público’s website, he acknowledges. But mostly Kanellos tries to remain focused on the work, and for good reason. “Latino history and literature are American history and literature,” he explains. “But they are still looked upon as foreign.”

That’s beginning to change, though. By publishing the kind of books he fruitlessly searched for as a youngster, he’s watched these stories find a place in public school around the country. “That makes it all worthwhile,” he says.

But when moments of recognition from the larger literary world, like the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, arrive, Kanellos knows to take the time to savor it before heading back to the stacks of manuscripts in his Houston office.

“It reinvigorates you,” he says, “that chance to be in front of that very large audience and show that we exist, that we’re part of the U.S. literary culture. We’ve always been here, and we’ll be here in the future.”

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