By Aileen Mendoza
“As a child, Nicolás Kanellos couldn’t find books that accurately portrayed his Hispanic heritage. As an adult, he sought out and published the ones that did.” – Emma Schkloven
Houston is home to a rich, diverse Hispanic, or Latino, culture, including Arte Público Press, the largest publisher of U.S. Latino contemporary and recovered literature in the United States. The main goal of the press has always been to provide Hispanic writers access to publishing their works and, overall, to provide an accurate representation of Hispanic culture in the United States. Dr. Nicolás Kanellos founded the press in 1979 and continues to serve as its director. With the help of his wonderful team at the University of Houston (UH), where the press is located, Arte Público Press has grown significantly, achieving a national identity as a successful publisher. More so, it has assisted numerous young writers in launching their careers and continues to advocate for Latino culture to continue its integration into the United States, from educational curriculums to social progression, and much more.
From a young age, Kanellos was conscious of Hispanic culture and its absence from schoolbooks. Born in New York City in 1945, he spent most of his childhood moving back and forth between New York and Puerto Rico. He quickly noticed that his life in New York was very different from that spent with his family in Puerto Rico. In New York, he observed how Puerto Ricans were under attack by the mass media, an act he calls “yellow journalism.”i The media highlighted crime, the unfamiliar food Puerto Ricans ate, and even their religious practices, all with negative views. In addition, children like him received a poor education, which hurt their intellectual growth and access to higher education.
While at UT, Kanellos became involved in the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s. He began working with young writers and artists, using art and activism to support political issues. However, as the arts began to separate from politics in the late 1970s, Kanellos wanted more opportunities for writers to have their works added to the curriculum, popular culture, and ultimately the national identity of the United States. To achieve that, he explained, “I was there at every step of the way working with writers and artists, establishing magazines, then establishing the publishing house” to get their works published, distributed, and reviewed. Kanellos emphasized the importance of literature in pushing toward the future, expressing his belief that “social and political progress go hand in hand with the recognition of the culture and the expression of that culture through the arts.”
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