An American Tale

Arte Público Press brings Latin-diaspora stories to readers in the U.S.

An American Tale

I am a third-generation American. My grandparents hail from Italy, Poland, and Ukraine. On my mother’s side, the Sicilian one, I grew up with loads of cousins in the New York City area. I had grandparents who often switched quickly from English so they could hide their secrets from us. Long after my grandparents died, I found out they had plenty of secrets to keep. I can’t read or watch The Godfather, or any other Italian-immigrant-Mafia story, without looking for clues to my family’s story, though I know it’s not my story — my Grandpa Joe was never a boss, I think. Too many secrets are lost to ever know the full truth. Capisce?

My Sicilian story is one of many immigrant stories told in books and movies, yet every generation, people make them new. Diana Rojas, a Costa Rican American writer now based in Washington, DC, has made hers utterly fresh and absorbing. Her debut work of fiction, Litany of Saints: A Triptych, features three novellas.

The first, “The Lives of Saints” is the closest to my heart because it brings the reader into the chaotic lives of one Costa Rican family in Queens. Told from Ruth’s point of view, and weaving the present day with the past, a picture of immigrant life emerges. These are lives balanced between traditional expectations — replete with Catholic saints — and America.

“The rules in my family were that you dated the guy you were going to marry,” explains Ruth. In turn, a series of bad marriages, thieving and philandering husbands, and Ruth’s alcoholic husband, Felipe, unfolds. Yet the characters have faith in the dream of America, even if America doesn’t return the favor. In a letter, Felipe shares his insights on the U.S. with Ruth:

“If you squint a little, this is pure utopia.”

Rojas makes this Costa Rican family feel as alive as my own. Arte Público Press, the University of Houston’s nonprofit independent press, will publish Litany of Saints: A Triptych on April 30th. In a lively email conversation with the press’ director, Nicolás Kanellos, and its deputy director, Gabriela Baeza Ventura, we discussed being a small press with a big mission.

As the oldest and most accomplished publisher of U.S. Hispanic literature, I wonder what you think of the news that one of the “Big Five” presses is launching a bilingual imprint. Do you see any larger publishing trends at work here?

Any number of large commercial houses, including the big five, have launched divisions to address the Latino reader in the United States. To date, they have all failed and ceased to exist, mainly because they have not researched the potential market adequately: 1) types of topics, 2) demographics as to the diverse Latino populations, 3) language preferences, 4) most convenient points of sales, etc. They have all attempted a top-down strategy in order to market, for the most part, books they were already publishing in English but now in Spanish translation, including Latin American authors (from Latin America, who do not reflect the life and culture of Latinos in the United States). The market segment they are most likely to succeed at is the educated Spanish reader who already knows how to get books, e-books, and audiobooks in Spanish from Amazon. But that is a small segment of the potential Latino market. 

They can issue as many books aimed at Latino readers as they please, but if they do not market them when, how, and where Latinos are likely to get books, they will fail. Additionally, if larger publishing houses do not work with editors (copy and proof editors) who are knowledgeable of U.S. Latino culture and history, they risk making changes that can seriously affect the Latino stories waiting to be told.

You were founded in 1979 and have a long and storied history of publishing U.S. Hispanic authors such as Sandra Cisneros. What makes Arte Público’s books continue to stand out to readers?

We strive to reflect the life, language, culture, social class, and diverse ethnicities of Latinos from around the country. Latino readers can see themselves in our books through the settings, the cultural contexts, the familiar types of characters portrayed, and, especially, our issues, be they political or psychological or religious. So, front and center, as themes, we have traditions versus generational changes; immigration versus growing up and identifying as American; life as a minority versus assimilation; and the psychology of biculturalism/bilingualism versus a monolingual, monocultural, homogenizing national culture.

Litany of Saints is a slim but powerful book. Fiction works under 250 pages seem to be all over the small-publishing scene these days. Why do you think this trend is underway?

In many ways, elite writing, like Litany of Saints, caters to professors and students; books like this are long enough to deal with significant, weighty topics but short enough to be included in the class syllabus along with other books. And when it comes to minority authors and publishers, reviewers often do not expect or want them to have long, epic narratives; they are more apt to commit to a shorter book. Likewise, teachers and professors are more likely to review a shorter book than one that will occupy much more time in reading. Of course, then there is the financial consideration: It is much cheaper to print and ship a shorter book. 

For authors, especially debut authors, interested in publishing with you, what advice do you give? And how many books do you publish a year? Are most agented or un-agented?

First, advice for an author: Don’t talk about writing the book; do it. Second, do not send queries for book ideas or unfinished manuscripts. About 60 percent of our books came in as unsolicited manuscripts, mainly through our web portal, where authors get to upload their entire manuscripts for our evaluation. While most authors have a hard time finding agents, Latino authors in particular have encountered many more barriers to acquiring representation — call it the traditional bias that says Latinos don’t read, much less buy, books and that Latinos cannot write the King’s English nor the language of Cervantes. So, we keep our doors open to un-agented work because that is where Latino literature is to be found today. We publish 25 books per year.


The two other novellas in Litany of Saints are just as compelling as the first. In “Las Tres Marías,” three sisters in a Costa Rican family meet financial difficulties in 1980s Boston and return to their parents’ homeland, only to be labeled gringas and to discover they no longer belong there either.

The last story, “La Familia,” draws its inspiration from a true story of turbulent politics in Costa Rica. It begins with a grandfather, a suffering grandmother, and an opening line resonant of the greats in Latin American literature who have written about socio-economic warfare:

“The story was legend in my family. In the beginning, when he was just a bourgeois doctor, Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia helped my grandmother die.”

Ultimately, Litany of Saints showcases the range and skill of Rojas in crafting vivid characters caught between their hope in America and the traditions of their homeland. Their stories are as unique to them as they are universal to so many of us.

Caroline Bock is the author of Carry Her Home, winner of the Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and LIE and Before My Eyes, YA novels from St. Martin’s Press. She is co-president of the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a nonprofit literary press based in Washington, DC.

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