THURSDAY SEPT. 15, Press Arte Publico celebrates its 40th anniversary as the oldest and largest publisher of contemporary and salvaged literature of American Hispanic authors with a gala at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House.
The event will feature performances from the ensembles of Houston 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, Small Water) based on the trilingual picture book by Jorge Argueta published by Arte Público’s children’s imprint, Piñata Books.
“The whole philosophy 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 the Department of Hispanic Studies at the HU. Arte Público has grown rapidly and now works with all major wholesalers and distributors and a sales force of commissioned sales representatives to ensure its books are available in physical stores across the country. Arte Público titles can also be ordered online.
At Thursday’s gala, Airy Sindik, currently a PhD student in the Spanish Creative Writing Program at UH, will receive the Reyes-Olivas Award for Best First Book in Latin Literature for Children and Young Adults for her book Abuela y el covid / Grandmother and Covid. The book tells the story of a young boy who relies on a mobile phone to keep in touch with his Covid-stricken grandmother. “It captures the Covid moment,” Kanellos says of the book, which credits Sindik with making digital devices such an important part of history.
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 19th century walls. He became a voracious reader from an early age, starting with comics in Spanish and English. Her parents didn’t necessarily encourage her to read, but her father, who worked in a restaurant, sometimes traded meals for delivery people from a nearby bookbinding who would sneak out. “That’s how we got a set of encyclopedias,” laughs Kanellos. “Although not all the letters of course!” Classic works by John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemmingway also came to him from bookbinding.
Arte Público’s 40th anniversary comes in a year when books of all types and for all ages have become a favorite target of conservatives and right-wing extremists. According to the American non-profit organization PEN America, Texas is currently the leader in banning and removing books from public schools. “Some of our books have been censored and removed from schools and libraries,” says Kanellos. “It’s just baffling that supposedly patriotic people are working against the nation’s founding principles.”
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.
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