Book series' speaker preserves culture, history

Sept. 2, 2014 at 12:45 p.m.

AJ Ortega

AJ Ortega   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

The University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series speaker Thursday will be Nicolas Kanellos. He is an author, editor, publisher and professor. Combine all of these things, and you get a remarkable advocate for Latino literature and culture.

As a Latino writer - Mexican-American, to be specific - it's important to know what the publishing world looks like for people like myself. The short answer? It's rough out there.

Kanellos founded Arte Publico Press in 1979 while he was teaching at Indiana University. One year later, he moved the press to the University of Houston. The unique press was born out of need. Despite population numbers, Latinos had even less representation than we do now, even in the arts. Kanellos made it a personal goal to promote the vibrant literature and culture of people who were largely ignored.

For his work, Kanellos has won numerous awards, including an American Book Award as a publisher/editor and the PEN Southwest Award for Non-Fiction. Former President Bill Clinton appointed Kanellos to the National Council on the Humanities. Additionally, he is the first Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Studies at UH, where he works and houses Arte Publico.

The press publishes 25 to 30 books a year. On top of this impressive feat, in 1992, Kanellos and his press launched Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, a project that archives Latino writing from the 1500s all the way up to 1960. As of now, the project has preserved hundreds of thousands of works by Latinos.

This is a huge undertaking. Preserving the words of these individuals - who are often passed over - is valuable because it keeps their culture alive. Historically, there have been certain people and entities that are very much in favor of destroying books instead of preserving them.

For instance, in the 1500s when the Spanish set their sights on the indigenous Maya people of what is now Mexico and Guatemala, Diego de Landa ordered all their codices be burned. The Maya recorded their history in these beautiful books, going as far back as 800 years into their past. Do you know how many of the books survived? Three.

Uno.

Dos.

Tres.

Fast forward to the present, and we have Kanellos and his team of students collecting written works of Latinos, so we have our culture and our history preserved. Thanks to them, we'll have a whole lot more than three books.

It's a good thing too because, unfortunately, we have our own version of this book burning in the present: book banning. It may be less ceremonial, but it's just as damaging. Numerous authors and books were the target of the Tucson Unified School District's siege against programs that promote multiculturalism. Several of the books banned by the district were Arte Publico titles. The only result of these measures is more loss of history.

In recent years, it has become even more difficult to publish and sell books. It is especially difficult for Latinos. If you join us at the event, you'll enjoy listening to Kanellos discuss the importance of promoting Latino literature for the benefit of all readers.

ABR is pleased to welcome Kanellos to Victoria and the UHV/ABR Reading Series at noon Thursday in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

A.J. Ortega is assistant editor of Huizache and teaches English at UHV.


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