Thanks to one man who always loved U.S. Hispanic literature and saw the need to share it with the world, hundreds of award-winning books like Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” and “Rain of Gold” by Victor Villaseñor were published.
Dr. Nicolás Kanellos has had a fruitful career as a Hispanics studies professor at the University of Houston since 1980, but his childhood affection for books never faltered. He established Arte Público Press in 1979 — the oldest and largest non-profit Hispanic publisher in the U.S.
Moreover, through his research program, “Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage,” Kanellos and his team of students have recovered more than 500,000 written works of Latinos in America and made them available digitally through Internet research databases.
This month, Kanellos received high honors from Houston Mayor Annise Parker for his lifelong contributions to make U.S. Hispanic literature available to the world. This adds to his list of honors; he is the recipient of a 1996 Denali Press Award from the American Library Association, a 1989 American Book Award, and the 1988 Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature presented by the White House.
“Getting books, growing up, was very precious and expensive,” says the avid reader, who was born in New York. “I learned to read in English and Spanish at the same time. I went back and forth from Puerto Rico, where my family is from, and I spent a lot of time reading.”
By the time he went to the University of Texas for his post-graduate work, he realized from his travels to Puerto Rico that there was so many books by Latinos missing from the shelves.
“I was talking with a professor, Americo Perez, who told me that I had to look in old newspapers to see what was written. That led to many, many years of researching old newspapers,” says Kanellos who explains he was also involved in the U.S. civil rights movement in Texas and the midwest. “There were all these writers who couldn’t publish their works so Arte Público Press developed after the magazine.”
In the early 1970’s, Kanellos would go to literary and theater festivals around the country.
“I was always in touch with what was being written and who was performing,” says the Puerto Rican who had started the Revista Chicana-Riqueña, which later became The Americas Review — a quarterly magazine of Latino literature, art. Eventually, that project turned into Arte Público Press, which today publishes 30 titles from U.S. Hispanic authors a year.
He says his research program, “Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage,” doesn’t stop with literature.
He and his group of about five student research assistants, and professors from the U.S. and abroad, find texts that have been lost for 200 years by searching online, zip code by zip code, searching for Spanish surname authors. One of Kanellos’ personal favorite finds was a complete run of a satiric artsy newspaper published in New Orleans in the 1850’s, found all the way in a street vendor stall in Lima, Peru.
“It includes all written culture, written by Latinos, from the 1500’s all the way up to 1960 — political material, religious, medical, pharmaceutical, and we’re still finding material using the oldest newspapers available in the U.S.,” says Kanellos. “We find, preserve, digitize, and we deliver these texts to libraries and universities all over the world.”
The hard work seems second nature to Kanellos.
“I’m always moved when I see young kids reading our books,” says Kanellos who most recently created Piñata Books, a U.S. Hispanic publishing company for children. “I visit elementary schools, and it’s just breathtaking seeing them reading our books and identifying with characters in the story.”
He says he is also proud to now see the books he didn’t when he was a student on university curriculums.
“We believe, through our continuous project, we’re filling out the history of the U.S. — the whole history that has been left out, we are providing it,” says Kanellos. “We need to know our history, our medicine, what we’ve contributed in science, government and business — all these materials help fill out that portrait. People need to know what we’ve contributed to this country.”