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Bilingual Publisher Rayo Carries Torch For Hispanics


November 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Univisión network anchor Jorge Ramos is one of the best known faces in Hispanic USA.

When he writes a book, Hispanics buy it -- his four Spanish-language titles have sold nearly 150,000 copies in the continental United States. Readers pack his appearances -- from an auditorium at the Miami Book Fair International to a barber shop/book store in Santa Ana, Calif., where 2,000 people recently showed up for a reading.

But to the rest of America, ``I'm completely unknown,'' Ramos says.

That could soon start to change when HarperCollins launches Ramos as one of its new Hispanic celebrity authors. The Other Face of America, an updated edition of Ramos' book on immigration, La otra cara de America (Grijalbo), will be among the first titles to be issued by Rayo, a new HarperCollins imprint devoted to books that reflect the Hispanic experience in the United States.

``I'm calling it the last frontier because Latinos are everywhere in the mass media -- radio, television, newspapers -- and these publishing houses with millions of titles and dollars haven't realized the huge market potential, the very profitable venture in the Hispanic community,'' Ramos says. ``There is not one single company dominating the market. They are really behind.''

To many who have experienced the tradition-bound world of U.S. book publishing, slow to change in any aspect and slower to embrace the progression of Hispanics toward becoming the country's largest minority, the launching of the bilingual Rayo is a milestone.

Industry insiders believe it's the first Latino imprint established by a major house. Random House and Simon & Schuster have Spanish-language divisions, but they mostly publish translations of English-language bestsellers.

Rayo, which means a flash of lightning, is hoping to position itself as the premier publisher of top Hispanic writers in English and Spanish.

``We need to get our Latino authors up there in the bestseller lists,'' says René Alegria, Rayo's editorial director.

The imprint plans to issue approximately 12 titles a year, starting with the newly released Thirteen Senses, a family memoir by Mexican-American author Victor Villaseñor. Thirteen Senses and Villaseñor's preceding bestselling memoir, Rain of Gold, are billed as epic stories similar to Alex Haley's Roots. Villaseñor reads from Thirteen Senses Saturday at the Miami Book Fair International.

Modeled after successful African-American imprints, Rayo will better market Hispanic authors and their work, Alegria says -- by delving into the Hispanic community with the help of marketing experts and by introducing authors to mainstream America.


``Rayo is just a way to organize and create new voices and talents from the cultural trench that is Latino U.S.A.,'' Alegria says. ``We need to teach the industry how to get these books out there -- and get them to succeed. We have to get them to understand that the Hispanic community is a viable book-buying community.''

Some established Hispanic authors question whether it's a progressive move to publish Latinos under a separate imprint.

``Why not put them in there with the rest of American writers?'' asks novelist Julia Alvarez, a Dominican American who lives in Vermont.

Alvarez, who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, likens what's happening in publishing to the debate in English departments about where to place Latino and African-American literature.

``You don't have a course called White Male Southern Writers and put Faulkner [there]. That is always an issue -- whether you keep it in a separate category and as a special topic.''

But Alvarez also sees merit in the HarperCollins project.

``Now we are a brand name. I guess it's better than being ignored. It's like a foot in the door,'' Alvarez says. ``But aren't we past the foot in the door? That's why we feel ambivalent.''

Alegria says Rayo ``is more than a foot in the door.''

``It's pounding down the door and announcing in a big way that we are American voices, we are Latino voices.''

The imprint was Alegria's idea, fueled by his own experience as a Mexican-American from Arizona.

``As a Latino, I found myself going into stores and feeling that we were not represented by [publishing] houses the way we needed to be. There was such an absence,'' Alegria says. ``Sure, we had some of our Latino and Latina contemporary authors, and authors from Latin America who influenced all of us, but there wasn't an organized forum from where we could hear the voices and market them the way they need to be marketed.''

Some of those marketing strategies might mean doing a book reading off the beaten path -- like at the colorful Santa Ana barber shop where Ramos was a huge success, says Raquel Roque, owner of Downtown Book Center in Miami, the premier distributor of Spanish-language books in the United States.


``Somebody noticed this guy was doing very well in Spanish,'' Roque says. ``It's all business, and more and more people are noticing the sales numbers of Hispanic authors.''

Another challenge facing Rayo is addressing in its titles the diversity within the Hispanic community. To do that, Rayo has lined up a roster of authors that includes Mexican Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and an Anglo who writes in-depth articles about the Hispanic community.

``Filling quotas is not something I'm interested in, but I am interested in representing the diversity,'' Alegria says.




*Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas, by journalist and musician Elijah Wald, an in-depth look at the controversial Mexican ballads that hail the lifestyles of cross-border drug traffickers. The musical genre has become one of the most popular in Mexico and parts of the United States.

*An updated, new edition of Hispanic Condition: Future Power of a People, an exploration into the five major groups that make up the Hispanic community in the United States, by Ilan Stavans, a prominent Mexico-born novelist and critic.

*Los doce dones del nacimiento, a Spanish-language translation of Charlene Gorda Constanzo's originally self-published book, which sold more than 300,000 copies. The book celebrates children's individual qualities and offers upbeat messages on self-esteem and self-respect.

*Retrato en sepia (Portrait in Sepia), the Spanish-language edition of a new novel by Isabel Allende, a 19th century family saga that features characters from her previous novels, The House of Spirits and Daughter of Fortune.

*Next fall, Rayo will issue in English and Spanish a Jorge Ramos autobiography that details his story of emigrating to the United States from Mexico and his rise as a television journalist.

*Next summer, Miami-based novelist Carolina García-Aguilera, known for her Lupe Solano detective mysteries featuring the Cuban-American private eye, will publish with Rayo her first nonmystery novel, One Hot Summer. It's about three thirtysomething girlfriends who live in the ``hilariously glitzy, fast-paced world of single-Latina Miami.'' A Rayo press release says the book ``illustrates a new cultural literary genre that combines the glamorous drama inherent in Spanish-language soap operas (telenovelas) with true American feminist empowerment.''

``Very, very Miami,'' says Rayo spokesman Alberto G. Rojas.

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