Houston’s Arte Público Press triumphs over ‘slings and arrows’ for 40th anniversary


Michelle Gachelin / Drescher

By Michelle Gachelin 9/21/22 12:04 AM

Arte Público Press, the nation’s oldest and largest Latin publisher, has never taken things by the books. Instead, they have promoted Latin writing and culture despite national opposition. The press celebrated its 40th anniversary on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month with a performing arts gala at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House, featuring performances by Solero Flamenco, Brazilian dance company Sambabom, the Houston Grand Opera and more.

Juliet K. Stipeche (’96) said Arte Público is a local treasure, and she credits the press with allowing more people to discover the rich history of the Spanish, Latino, and Indigenous communities. Stipeche, the daughter of immigrant parents from Argentina and Mexico and the first female lawyer in her family, said she was unaware of her own origins when she came to Rice.

“If we don’t have opportunities to celebrate our history, culture and arts, where should we go? As such, it is exceptional to have Arte Público Press on hand to support and empower all communities with this rich history,” said Stipeche, now director of human services at the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “I tell people, ‘I have a world-class education,’ but I didn’t even know much about my own history and culture. Thanks to leaders and institutions like Arte Público Press, we can celebrate the rich history that exists and the future that we have together.”

Often these historical narratives are not represented in our educational systems. The founder of Arte Público, Nicolás Kanellos, founded the printing house in 1979 from the literary magazine “Revista Chicano-Riqueña”, which grew in popularity during the Chicano movement. According to Kanellos, there was such a need for the narration of Latin history that university classes used separate editions of the journal as textbooks. 40 years later, the press is still wary of pushback.

“We have suffered from the slingshots and darts of conservative culture, white nationalism and Christian nationalism in the United States,” Kanellos said. “Our books have been censored, they have been removed from the curriculum, they have been removed from libraries. Some of our books were even set on fire… And right now, of course, these lists are floating around that the Texas legislature has started that some of our books have been targeted. … We’re always looking over each other’s shoulders to see who’s trying to censor us.”

In 1992 the publisher started the project “Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage”. first nationally coordinated effort to find, index and publish lost Latin writings. According to Kanellos, discovering and making available the narratives left out in history books, museums and cultural institutions transforms national history from a Eurocentric perspective to a multicultural and multilingual one.

“At this particular moment in history, when Latinos are making up the majority of enrollments in the nation’s largest school systems, it’s so important that we have materials that students can identify with and call their own and those that don’t forever being told that they are outsiders, that they are foreigners, that they contributed nothing and only learned about a few boatloads of Europeans who landed in Plymouth and defined what the United States would be,” Kanellos said . “That’s absolutely a biased view of what the country is.”

Richard Tapia, a Rice math professor whose upcoming book Losing the Precious Few: How America Fails to Educate Its Minorities in Science and Engineering will be published by Arte Público, said he’s had people tell him he’s Mexican inferior -American who grew up in the barrios of Los Angeles. For Tapia, US minority representation ensures a healthy nation.

“We want to improve representation of native underrepresented minorities for the health of the nation, not for the health of the discipline,” Tapia said. “In other words, there can be no country where a sizable and growing population is not represented in backbone activity. And the backbone of activities in this country is science, technology and engineering.”

Tapia said he wanted Arte Público to publish his title for their lobbying on Hispanic issues.

“Arte Público did an excellent job trying to promote this story and trying to promote everything about Hispanic issues,” Tapia said. “When I started writing my book, it just felt natural to think about Arte Público because they are progressive [and] because Kanellos has done great things.”

Stipeche, who has worked with Tapia, said his program has empowered underrepresented minorities and women through community building and that this includes celebrating culture, arts, music and literature.

“That’s part of what Rice celebrates: unconventional wisdom. And unconventional wisdom requires that we take the time to sit down and see what’s around us — to look for wisdom that goes beyond what’s in the traditional settings,” Stipeche said. “Arte Público Press opens up a world of possibilities for us to take a more holistic perspective of the community and the world that surrounds us.”

For some, this world includes space exploration. Former astronaut and author José M. Hernández, who hosted the gala, has written three books through Arte Público about his journey to NASA from a family of Mexican itinerant farmers. Hernández is played by Michael Peña in an upcoming Amazon Prime movie about his life, due out in 2023. He said his books inspire children to pursue their own dreams.

“It’s important because it’s an empowerment process,” Hernández said. “People look at me and they see [that I’m] are similar to them and have a similar socio-economic background. And because of that, it has a kind of empowering effect. [They say,] ‘Hey, if he could, why can’t I?’ That’s why I love it when my story is told.”

Houston-based author, translator, and educator Jasminne Mendez has also written stories for younger readers, aiming to share rich and empowering narratives. Mendez’s second memoir from her youth, “Islands Apart: Becoming Dominican American,” was published by Arte Público last week and details her life as a black Latina growing up in the South.

“One of the things that has always appealed to me is that they only focus on publishing Latin and Hispanic writers and amplifying those voices,” Mendez said of Arte Público, which selects 25 to 30 texts for publication each year. “They are very specific to the types of stories by Latin American authors that they publish, which are really focused on uncovering the culture and amplifying those diverse and individual experiences and opportunities that are found in specific Latin American subgroups, cities and nationalities .”

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