Viva los libros!

Little-known Arte Público Press is nation's oldest, largest Hispanic publisher

By Sylvia Bradshaw

Daily Cougar Staff

The M.D. Anderson Memorial Library is a familiar sight to most UH students. Frequently, it is a point of hibernation for truly serious-minded students.

While it serves as a sanctuary for researchers, bookworms or Internet surfers, the library also harbors a large underground movement.

You have probably seen a reference to it each time you entered the library, brushed past it as you shoved your books in the return chute or maybe even stumbled upon it as you searched for the library restrooms.

Welcome to the Arte Público Press, a publishing company housed in the library's basement that concentrates its efforts on publishing works of Hispanic writers.

I didn't know that!

The mystery does not lie in what Arte Público Press does, but from the lack of exposure the press has on the University campus.

Did you know that UH has a press that publishes books nationwide?

Asking the question raises eyebrows and causes puzzled looks upon the faces of students taking a break between classes in the University Center.

Despite this, Clifford Crouch, executive editor of Arte Público Press, said he believes as publishers, the group serves serve a very important role to the University.

"We are the closest thing to a University press here," Crouch said. "Harvard, UT and many other universities have a printing press that produces books sponsored or written by university authors, and while we don't function in that capacity here, we're the closest thing to it."

Hispanic alternative

Modern/Classical Language Professor Nicolás Kanellos founded Arte Público Press in 1979 and a year later Kanellos was offered a teaching position.

"Prior to 1990, we distributed our books primarily to the text market - universities and libraries," Kanellos said.

Of the four different book markets, the text market deals primarily with college bookstores, where books are ordered by professors for specific courses.

"However, there were no books on or by Hispanics on the trade market - in bookstores - so we began to travel around the country targeting those stores," Kanellos said.

What began as an alternative to the mainstream press for the creative works of Hispanic writers has grown to become the oldest and largest publisher of Hispanic literature in the United States.

Charles Baker, sales supervisor for Arte Público, said staff members take advantage of different methods to ensure the press's books reach the general public.

"We use mass mailing lists and send catalogs to schools and libraries and retail stores," Baker said.

The library market involves purchasing by city schools and libraries. "When they decide that a book has lasting value, it is purchased for the library," Baker said.

Kanellos said that there were several areas that needed to be mastered in order to become effective and productive publishers.

"We had to learn the business and create a whole structure of distribution designed to get our books to the public," he said.

At the beginning of this decade, 11 years of work began to truly pay off.

"We had explosive growth in 1990, after the hard cover release of Rain of Gold. It made the best-seller list on the West Coast," Kanellos said.

These Piñatas have no candy

So what do Arte Público Press and Fiesta Marts have in common? Beyond the Hispanic roots in their names, they have joined forces in providing the Houston community with Hispanic literature for all ages.

Launched in 1994, Piñata Books is devoted to providing literary materials to children and young adults that provide realistic and authentic themes, characters and customs that are unique to the U.S. Hispanic culture.

In the publishing world, Piñata Books is called an "imprint" of Arte Público Press. "Whenever a buyer sees Piñata Books they know that it is either a children's book or written for young adults," said Crouch.

With the publication of six new books in May, Piñata Books now has an inventory of over 40 titles and is still growing. Ave Maria Garza, the Arte Público Press marketing director, said that the staff continues developing ideas of how they can get the Piñata Books into the hands of the public.

"Putting our books in Fiesta Marts is the first stage of our pilot program to make our books available in supermarkets," she said.

"We are excited because they will reach more people and be available at a reasonable cost," Garza said.

Standing tall in their own revolving racks, Piñata Books provide a full range of choices for all ethnic groups- even picture books dealing with various topics.

Seven-year-old Nyasha Williams was shopping with her mother in Fiesta and heard people speaking in Spanish.

"I know some Spanish words," Nyasha, said. "Hóla!"

Vivian Williams, Nyasha's mother was both surprised and pleased to find the Piñata Books in Fiesta.

"I'm glad to see some books for children that are bilingual," Williams said. "I want my child to be able to communicate well with everyone. Learning and speaking Spanish is a must in Houston."

Frank Smith, co-manager of the Fiesta Mart on Bellaire at Hillcroft, said the Piñata Books sell very well.

"The only problem we have is keeping them in stock," Smith said. "The books are in great demand and some of the slots are empty now."

The second phase will expand the Piñata Books to the San Antonio, Dallas and Austin areas.

Taking reading to new heights

Arte Público Press launched a new pilot program Wednesday in conjunction with Continental Airlines to focus on creating greater reading incentives for elementary age children in the Houston area.

Beginning with 12 schools, the program has the potential to reach more than 50 classrooms. "We call it Flying with Books/Vuela con Libros," Kanellos said.

The program targets second-grade classes throughout HISD and offers prizes and gifts to those participating. "If it goes well, we will expand it. One of our greatest desires is to reach the family. The best way to do that, is to start with what's familiar to them, their culture and their experiences," Kanellos said.

Arte Público Press: While it specializes in publishing Hispanic literature, all of the authors must be Hispanic and reside in the United States.

For UH students who are aspiring Hispanic writers, Arte Público Press can serve as an inroad to the publishing world.

"Any student who wants to submit their work for review and publication is free to do that at any time," Crouch said.

"We're here to serve and Hispanic writers who want their writings published do not have to look to New York as the only source. We're here for that purpose."

Because Arte Público Press is a non profit organization, it is in need of continued financial support.

"It's very simple - we need money," Garza said. "We want to be around for a long time, and with the help of others, we will."

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