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National Book Critics Circle recognizes Arte Público Press as literary force

The Houston-based publisher has become a literary beacon against anti-immigrant sentiment and the banning of its books in states where Latino studies are under fire.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Song of the Hummingbird by Ada Limon and Desert Blood by Gaspar de Alba
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Song of the Hummingbird by Ada Limon and Desert Blood by Gaspar de AlbaArte Publico

If you were engrossed by the hopes and dreams of Esperanza Cordero in "House on Mango Street" or became inquisitive about your own family's history because of "Rain of Gold," then you know how Arte Público Press has been changing the literature landscape over the past four decades.

The independent publisher based in Houston has published over 600 books in English and Spanish, mostly written by Latino authors such as Sandra Cisneros ("House on Mango Street") and Victor Villaseñor ("Rain of Gold"), becoming a literary force and the largest publisher of U.S.-based Latino authors.

The prestigious National Book Critics Circle, an 800-member organization of literary critics and other affiliates, recognized Arte Público Press on Thursday evening in New York with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual awards ceremony.

The award, named after the circle’s first president, is given annually to a person or institution for significant contributions to book culture.

Previous recipients include the Library of America; PEN American Center; the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison; Gregory Rabassa, also known as the translator of Gabriel García Márquez’s most important works; and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, an esteemed Chicano author whose works have been published by Arte Público Press.

Gregg Barrios, a circle board member and author, said that “in its commitment to publish the literature of Latinos, the largest minority group in the U.S., Arte Público Press has built bridges toward understanding our people and culture for the reading public at large."

For decades the press has maintained its mission to serve the Latino literary community and readers, and has become a literary beacon against current anti-immigrant sentiment and the banning of its books in states where Latino studies are under fire.

Additionally, Arte Público Press made the Latino literary experience a reality for young Latina/o/x writers who were unable to attract mainstream publishers early in their careers. Today, many of those writers are at the forefront of American literature.

Founded in 1979 by Nicolás Kanellos, currently the Brown Foundation chair of Spanish at the University of Houston, the press has published books by established writers like Lorna Dee Cervantes, Denise Chávez and John Rechy, as well as up-and-coming authors like Daniel Peña, Jasminne Mendez and Alex Temblador, whose young adult novel "Secrets of the Casa Rosada" (2018), was recently honored by the National Association for Chicana/o Studies. The first edition of Sandra Cisneros’ "The House on Mango Street" was published by the press in 1989.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba, who has published four titles with Arte Público Press, including the award-winning novel "Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders" (2005), about the femicides along the U.S.-Mexico border, has maintained a 15-year relationship with the publisher. “

"It’s an amazing team,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist, so I work closely with the editors to correct any errors and answer any flags or questions. I have also been lucky that they have used my wife Alma López’s images for the front covers of all but one book. I love working with Arte Público Press, it greatly deserves this recognition, and I look forward to them publishing more of my work in the future.”

Among the press’ most important achievements is development of The U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, which recovers, indexes and publishes lost Latino writings that date from the American colonial period through 1960.

With 54 titles currently in print, this series reconnects new generations of readers to forgotten classics like the poetry of Luis Palés Matos, a distinguished poet from Puerto Rico, and the stories of Jovita González, who wrote about life along the U.S.-Mexico border during the 1930s and ’40s.

One of its most successful imprints is Piñata Books, which publishes approximately 10 books a year, including children’s illustrated books, chapter books for middle readers, and young adult literature.

Its mission is to depict Latino culture with accuracy, and to represent the Latino experience by placing Latino characters at the center of the narrative. Among its titles is the classic Pat Mora picture book "The Desert Is My Mother/ El desierto es mi madre" (1994), that celebrates the natural landscape of the borderlands, and Joe Jiménez’s "Bloodline" (2016), a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in modern-day Texas.

This award is a timely accolade for Arte Público Press, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

But for Kanellos, it means much more than that: “The award will go a long way to creating a greater awareness that the Latino community has always been a significant part of this nation and that it is a fountain of creativity that has often been erased. There are still too few opportunities for their publication, review and distribution.

"Latino books and writers rarely appear in the features and review pages and in the electronic media. And still, today, Latino literature lives and is nourished in the small independent presses that often lack resources," he said. "In these times of ethnic and racial attacks coming from the highest levels of society, the NBCC award recognizes the positive contributions of Latinos to the national culture and helps not only combat the erasure, but, more importantly, the stereotypes and xenophobia.”

Latino authors who were nominated for awards on Thursday night include: Luis Alberto Urrea in fiction for "The House of Broken Angels"; Francisco Cantú in nonfiction for "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border"; Ada Limón in poetry for "The Carrying"; and Rigoberto González (the author of this article) in autobiography for "What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood."

Limón won the NBCC award for her "The Carrying."

"Let me accept this great honor on behalf on not only my fellow nominees, but on behalf of all the women who have been nominated for this award," said Limón, who also praised all the women who had written books in 2018.

In a tribute to the collaborative and unifying power of art, which draws on so many experiences, Limón said that she "...had never written a single poem alone."