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The Hunt for 'Who We Are' : Project Hopes to Define U.S. Latino Heritage Through Rediscovered Writings

March 04, 1992|ROBERT EPSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mother Jones and Andrea Villarreal were contemporaries, forceful advocates in social and political campaigns that erupted across the American Southwest in the early years of this century. In 1909 they shared a speakers' platform at a rally in San Antonio, Tex., calling for freedom for two Mexican revolutionaries imprisoned there.

In reporting the event, the San Antonio Light and Gazette on Aug. 18, 1909, identified Mother Jones as a person "of national fame."

Villarreal, a San Antonio resident, was described as a "Mexican 'Joan of Arc.' "

Today, although much is known of the life and times of union organizer Mother Jones, little is known about Villarreal, a feminist, an activist, a writer who could inspire revolutionary fighters to battle and women to recognize their destinies.

Only recently have her writings and those of hundreds of other generally unknown or forgotten Latino writers been rediscovered. Much of the work was either personal, including diaries and letters, or written for short-lived, non-mainstream publications.

Through the work of university scholars and researchers, these writers and activists are beginning to re-emerge--people like Isidra T. de Cardenas, who in 1907 started a series of pamphlets called La Voz de la Mujer in El Paso, and Teresa Villarreal, who with her sister Andrea founded the newspaper La Mujer Moderna 82 years ago in San Antonio.

Literary works in other fields also have been found: a 19th-Century novel, the first known American book with a Chicano theme, and El Missisipi, believed to be the earliest Spanish-language newspaper in the United States. It was published briefly in the New Orleans of 1808.

Ignacio Lozano, who in 1926 founded La Opinion in Los Angeles, now the nation's largest Spanish-language newspaper, emigrated from Mexico in 1913. He first settled in San Antonio, where he published a political weekly, La Prensa, and published books by Hispanics throughout the 1920s and '30s.

Scholar Nicolas Kanellos sees three centuries of stories, poems, songs, prayers, diaries and journalism waiting for rediscovery and preservation, the literature of Spanish-speaking immigrants and of unknown women writers, a literature largely unknown beyond its close circles of early readers.

Kanellos is a professor of Hispanic literature at the University of Houston and publisher-founder of Arte Publico Press. He is heading up an ambitious national project to find, preserve and make available to researchers anything written by Latinos in the continental United States from the American Colonial period through 1960.

The project, called "Recovering the Hispanic Literary Heritage of the United States," is a voyage of discovery into new and old worlds.

Kanellos and others call it the search for lost works, lost chapters of American literature.

It is the first national, coordinated attempt to find and preserve Latino writing. It potentially is on a scale greater than the earlier projects of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. that found and anthologized African-American writings from the slave period onward.

Kanellos says the effort will require 10 years and $20 million to complete. Earlier this year, the project received its first major grant, a significant start-up of $2.7 million from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Kanellos has been researching Latino writings for 20 years, particularly in theater. Over the years he and other scholars have discussed the idea of a repository for Latino literary works, sketching out an organizational plan while expanding on the earlier work of Raymund Pareles, a UCLA vice chancellor for academic affairs who, through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, identified thousands of literary items by 19th-Century Mexican-Americans.

Two years ago, after a series of meetings and national conferences involving specialists in Latino writing, Kanellos told the Rockefeller Foundation of "the pressing need to locate and make accessible three centuries of Hispanic literature."

The structure of the future literary search already is taking shape.

Maria Teresa Marrero, formerly a UC Irvine professor, has been hired as the project coordinator in Houston.

The University of Houston has given Kanellos additional office space. A national team of scholars has formed a board of editorial advisers with subcommittees on preservation, publications, archives and fund raising, and several members of this editorial board, most of them academics, have made proposals to their universities for financial support in developing specific projects.

In November, a conference will be held in Houston to institute the program.

"The grant," Kanellos says, "allows us to set up the administration of the project, to continue fund raising and to create a pool of money to fund scholars around the country to do the necessary research.

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