Street Smarts

Nicolas Kanellos uses his radical training to get books to the people

Reviewers are the gatekeepers between books and the popular audience. But because reviewers often don't reflect the tastes and interests of the Latino reader, Kanellos has to find a way to circumvent the gate. And that is where the book racks come in. Since April, they have been filled with Pinata Books, Arte Público's bilingual children's book imprint, and a few adult selections, and placed where their exposure to Hispanic families (as well as "non-Hispanics who are interested in multicultural food and expression") is guaranteed: Fiesta stores. The project has been promoted on TV public-service announcements featuring an animated version of Pepita, a spunky bilingual storybook character who has become the star of a series of books by Pinata.

"This caliber of material has never been so readily available to Hispanic people," Garza says. The lesson, so far, has been that Latinos don't stay away from bookstores because they aren't interested in books. According to Garza, the only problem with the Fiesta program has been keeping the racks well-stocked enough to satisfy demand.

This week, the project will expand to 15 other locations, when a company that distributes Mexican magazines and novelas to Latino mom-and-pop stores and carnicerias will begin stocking Arte Publico titles as well. Eventually, Arte Publico hopes to expand the project to cover the state and then the country -- but first the nonprofit publisher has to find the capital to print more inventory. (The Ford Foundation provided the initial funds.) And while books for children have been the fastest to leave the racks so far, Arte Publico plans to increase the selection of novels and memoirs printed in Spanish. And that could mean more shoppers will be filling their carts with books for themselves.

-- Shaila Dewan

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