Thursday, August 5, 2010

VOYA Magazine: Cinco Puntos Press by Bobby Byrd

The following article appeared in the August, 2010 issue (Volume 33, Number 3) of VOYA Magazine. VOYA is the acronym for "Voice of Youth Advocates." We are honored to have the article published in such a well-established, national magazine. 

 
Cinco Puntos Press: 
Publishing Multicultural Books for American Teens
by Bobby Byrd

“The path has its own intelligence.”

I saw this quotation on the business card of Cherokee poet and performance artist Joy Harjo. Its wisdom makes a lot of sense to Cinco Puntos, especially as a way to navigate the business of being a small and very independent book publisher on the U.S./Mexico Border. In fact, I would argue that this motto epitomizes the Cinco Puntos approach to publishing. Twenty-five years ago Lee and I inaugurated our business in our home in the Five Points neighborhood of El Paso--hence, our company’s name. We had little or no idea what we were doing. And worse, we were doing it in El Paso, the edge of the republic and a long distance away from the accepted “cultural centers” of the nation and the American Southwest.

But independent publishing, we soon discovered is like writing, (Lee is a novelist; I am a poet). It’s local. And “local” in El Paso means the Chicano or Mexican-American experience. So as Cinco Puntos evolved we followed our own path through the cultural landscape and, because of our place, we began to publish books emphasizing the Mexican-American experience with a strong taste of the U.S./Mexico Border. Muy picante. It was natural to us. It was where we lived. And we were publishing books that the big New York City publishing companies ignored. They didn’t understand. How could they? They lived in the wrong place.  
But we were lucky. It was 1985 when we started publishing books. The country was waking up to find a new cultural lingo seeping into our shared vocabulary. America was experiencing the great Mexican Diaspora in an unprecedented way. American librarians and educators in Connecticut and Oregon, Nebraska and Mississippi began hearing their students speaking Spanish. They began needing bilingual books and books that spoke of the Mexican and Mexican-American experience. The rest of the country began to experience what comes naturally to people--especially artists and writers--living on the U.S./Mexico Border. They needed books that spoke to this new and growing demographic, especially for their Young Adults.


A perfect example is our book Vatos, a collaboration of poem and photographs between writer Luis Alberto Urrea and photographer José Galvez that has become one of our signature books. Even the story of the book’s inception is unique. One evening, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer José Galvez heard Luis Alberto Urrea read “Hymn to Vatos Who Will Never Be in a Poem” with its chant-like repetitions and its evocation of Chicano manhood. As Luis read each line, an image clicked in José’s memory, and he knew that he had already taken that photograph. Immediately after the reading he approached Luis about putting together a book. They agreed; José put together a mock-up of his vision and sent it through an agent to publishers near and far. For two years the book got nowhere, but in 1999, hearing about the Cinco Puntos Press reputation for publishing books rooted in the Mexican-American experience, José brought the book to us.

We understood immediately. These men celebrated in the book were like our friends and neighbors in the Five Points neighborhood of El Paso. We said Yes, certainly we will publish it.

“Vato” is one of those street terms that is just now entering through the backdoor of the larger culture’s lexicon. It means “dude” or it might be translated as “brother” on the streets of an African-American neighborhood in the Bronx or South Chicago. The lines of the poem, and their adjacent images, provide a collective voice for those Latino men who have been erased or ignored. The words pay tribute to all the fathers, uncles, brothers and others who have typically remained unheard or unnoticed. The entire text consists of sixty-one lines. Every line, except the last one, starts with “All the vatos” and follows with a six beat homage to the modern Latino man. The chant-like rhythm makes for a different kind of reading experience whether one is reading silently or aloud, by oneself or as a choral group. The book instills the belief that ordinary people are extraordinary, and the last line personalizes the main message, “All you vatos, you are not forgotten.”

Vatos was chosen as a YALSA Young Adult Reluctant Readers’ Quick Pick, received an award from the Latino Hall of Fame and was selected for the Texas Library TAYSHAS Reading List. It also has a huge underground reputation among Mexican-American kids who find themselves in the photographs and language of two men who come from the same place that they come from.

Vatos was our first really “Young Adult” book although many before had been used as cross-overs for teaching in the classroom. Yet, as is the way in independent publishing, its publication began leading us down the path toward other Young Adult books. Writers who knew and appreciated Vatos began sending us their manuscripts. And because of its “political” edge, other writers from around the country began contacting us about projects and ideas and manuscripts. Thus, our reputation as a YA publisher has grown immensely. We’ve done historical novels about Hispanics girls in rural 1930s New Mexico (the Abraham sisters Cecilia series), an immigrant Jewish girl in the East Village of New York City in the early 1910s (Eve Tal's Double Crossing and Cursing Columbus), a girl growing up in a barrio on the border and losing her father (The Smell of Old Woman Perfume by Claudia Martinez). We have published two very successful award-winning novels from Benjamin Alire Saénz, the first of which, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, really launched Ben into the YA marketplace. And now his brilliant novel Last Night I Sang to the Monster about a teenage alcoholic and victim of abuse. Just recently Cinco Puntos has entered the world of graphic novels. Our first was Pitch Black by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton about a homeless black man who lives in the tunnels beneath the subways in New York City. And just this May we published Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush written by Luis Alberto Urrea and illustrated by Brooklyn graphic artist Christopher Cardinale.

We’ve discovered during all this time that Yes, the path does have its own intelligence. Our job is to be attentive to where it’s going and to always publish good writing and good books that come from the roots of experience.

For us that’s always been a multi-cultural experience. We would have it no other way. It’s how we see America.

—Bobby Byrd
Co-Publisher
Cinco Puntos Press

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