CMAS, CMAS Books, and Víctor Guerra
The Center for Mexican American Studies and CMAS Books share a proud history at UT and nationally.
The esteemed UT folklorist and literary scholar Américo Paredes founded UT's Center for Mexican American Studies in 1970. Like other ethnic-studies centers at universities across the nation, CMAS was a hard-won intellectual and cultural space in a previously hostile or indifferent academy; but without the means to publish and thereby legitimize the relevant scholarship and other intellectual and artistic production, the center's battle had just begun. The center scholars, like those at other Chicano and Mexican-American studies centers from UCLA to the University of Arizona, recognized the need to create a publishing component to CMAS. Not only would it provide a forum for Chicano authors, but it would help create a written legacy at a time when mainstream publishing houses were still ignoring or marginalizing work from ethnic-studies scholars and writers.
CMAS Books (originally known simply as the publications program of the center) was launched in 1975. Since that time, the imprint has issued 28 books -- and several, meticulously edited by Víctor Guerra, have gone on to become seminal works in Chicano and Mexican-American studies.
"To eliminate [CMAS Books] would be tragic, there's no doubt about it," said Devon G. Peña, professor of anthropology and Chicano studies at the University of Washington. CMAS Books published his critically acclaimed book, The Terror of the Machine: Technology, Work, Gender, and Ecology on the U.S. Mexico Border, in 1997. "I think when you look at tier one universities like UCLA or Texas and the history of Chicano/Chicana studies, those two are naturally part of that story," Peña said. "It's hard to envision a center at a tier one university without a publishing unit."
When Víctor Guerra decided to leave his native Texas to accept a publishing internship at Harper & Row in 1980, he had local poet raúlrsalinas to thank for encouragement.
"Raúl had just recently come back to Austin ... and he would tell us these stories about how he'd been in [Leavenworth] prison for so many years, and I remember thinking, man, if Raúl can spend 10 years in prison, I surely can spend a few months in New York City."
The three months the Laredo native spent in New York soon stretched into nine years working in other well-known publishing houses like Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, St. Martin's Press, and Macmillan Publishing Co. But in 1988, his career took what might seem to New Yorkers a surprising turn: He moved from the center of the publishing world to return to Austin, in order to take the reigns of the relatively tiny CMAS Books, which had been mostly known for publishing academic monographs.
"My whole intention in going to New York was to learn everything I could learn about the business and the craft of book publishing -- to learn it from the people in this country who knew it best, Guerra says. "And then come back and be able to produce work written by Mexican-Americans."
Asked to name his proudest achievements, Guerra replied, "It's like your children -- you can't have a favorite. Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border [Américo Paredes, 1993] and Puro Conjunto, an Album in Words & Pictures [edited by Juan Tejeda & Avelardo Valdez, 2001] are nearest and dearest to my heart. The Terror of the Machine [Devon G. Peña, 1997] and The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border I'm proud of, and then En Memoria de Américo Paredes, 1915-1999" -- a collection of essays by past students and colleagues composed in honor of Paredes.
The publication of Puro Conjunto was a special milestone, as it was the first title in a new CMAS Books series, Colección Cultura. The series was to feature general-interest works on popular culture, as well as essays, memoirs, biographies, and other forms of expressive culture of interest to a wider audience yet forgotten in mainstream publishing. But what would the reaction be among die-hard conjunto fans?
The book was released at a small party during the San Antonio Book Festival.
"My guess was that a lot of those people may have rarely bought books because they were conjunto music fans and not necessarily readers," Guerra recalls. "People were picking it up, and they would say, 'This is beautiful.' There was something real hard to describe that I was hearing from people, when they would say, 'This is a work of art.'"
On his own art, Guerra likens the best editing to jewel-making. "I think there's always a place for things that are well-crafted," Guerra says. "Editing a manuscript is like taking something that's a gem and polishing it to make it as beautiful as it ought to be."