Igniting an Explosion of Culture

Arts: The soon-to-be published monumental book of an Oceanside writer and the efforts of a Houston publisher could serve to trigger a torrent of Latino creativity.

Oceanside – There on his family’s south Oceanside ranch, Victor Villasenor, 50, writes about heroes, real and imagined. Many come from stories he heard from his barrio childhood in nearby Carlsbad.

And, there in the tight basement quarters beneath the University of Houston Library, Nicolas Kanellos, of Puerto Rican and Greek background via New Jersey, works quietly at a little-known publishing enterprise called Arte Publico Press.

Together they have formed a new American alliance, a Southwest axis of sorts, that in the `90s may produce a major impact on entertainment and the arts – the books we read, the movies and television shows we follow and the dramas we experience.

They represent a new dynamic for most Americans of what Latino-American culture is all about.

As Hollywood studios are finally seeing a long-delayed chain reaction of works from black filmmakers, Villasenor and Kanellos are preparing ground zero for an explosion of Latino creative works.

Here are their opening shots:

This month, Villasenor’s most recent book, “Rain of Gold,” a 551-page, “Roots”-like nonfiction chronicle of his family’s passage north from Mexico, will be published by Arte Publico. This will be the company’s hardcover edition since its 1979 founding.

Rights to a six-part television adaptation of “Rain of Gold are being negotiated with PBS and possibly other producers; Villasenor is writing the script. Earlier, Lorimar and some independent TV producers showed an interest in adapting the book as a four-hour miniseries, but Villasenor is standing firm on a longer version. Villasenor previously wrote the script for another PBS project, “Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.”

This year Villasenor completed the film script for his first book, “Macho,” which will go into production next February for later theatrical release. It’s a joint British-American project of Allied Vision budgeted at $8 million with Villasenor as co-producer and cinema-tographer Ray Villalobos as director. (Before selling “Macho” as a paperback, Villasenor says he received 260 rejections from publishers.)

In Houston, Kanellos now finds himself as busy negotiating and selling rights for his published novelists, playwrights and poets as he does in publishing the 25 titles by Latino authors that come from his press annually. Supported largely by grants, Arte Publico has become the largest publisher of Latino books and plays in this country, 95% of which are written in English.

Five of Kanellos’ writers have recently received film options on their books.

Arte Publico’s annual publication of plays is finding expanding markets for live Latino productions.

But it is what the two jointly are doing with “Rain of Gold” that has been the attention-getter, the opening shot in establishing Latino artists more firmly in this country.

Originally, the book was scheduled by Putnam as a hardcover release for late 1989 with Villasenor receiving $75,000 for U.S. rights. But, before publication, differences set in.

The author was asked to trim the large book. A title change was suggested: “Rio Grande.” “This is not a John Wayne novel,” Villasenor says. And worse, in the writer’s view, the book about his parents’ life would be billed as fictional history. It would become more a “Gone With the Wind” than a “Roots.”

Villasenor said a firm no and then arranged to buy the book and all of its rights back. It was then that the New York publishers’ iron curtain fell on him. No other publisher was interested, despite the fact that the book was scheduled to become an alternate choice with the Book of the Month Club. And Villasenor lost his New York agent. It was then that he heard of the ambitious, quiet and small Arte Publico Press that Kanellos, a professor of Hispanic literature, was directing at the University of Houston.

He had to do a selling job on Kanellos, however. Arte Publico had no national distribution, had never published a big book, let alone a hardcover book.

What Villasenor and Kanellos found was that they had a lot of previously unidentified friends in publishing: a New York publishing executive who gave them free marketing advice, an expert book publicist who gave him a six-hour crash course and 16-page instructional sheet on how to produce a market bestseller.

The fight with Putnam had produced some surprising supporters. And when Arte Publico received a new foundation grant, the signal went green for the new enterprise. “Rain of Gold” would go hardcover and would have outlets in chain bookstores that previously had not heard of the University of Houston, let alone Arte Publico.

Soon, Arte Publico would do something different for a small specialized publisher: auction rights for the paperback version of “Rain of Gold.” Bids have already come in in the high five-figure category, Kanellos says. He’s hoping by the time the gavel comes down, they’ll be up to six figures.

This week Villasenor sets out on a quest more challenging in some respects than the one his parents faced: public appearances, television interviews, the full-court media press.

It’s a heady, certainly satisfying experience for Villasenor. He is a dyslexic who was only able to read his first book at age 20 after going through a succession of public and private schools. He is a California Latino who realized that Mexicans could be doctors and teachers and even writers when he lived briefly in Mexico City as a young man.

Once he gets off the public-appearance circuit and sees his first book become a movie, there’s an additional major challenge waiting for him at his Oceanside home.

“Rain of Gold” is actually a 3,000-page manuscript, half of which will see publication as a hardcover book. The second half completes the family story up to the present. It is so far untitled.

But two things are certain: It will be published. And it will carry the imprint Arte Publico Press.

By Robert Epstein