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That initial publication, the veteran poet’s passionate, cosmic, and fiercely political 10th volume of poetry, set the tone for the entire journey that Juan Tejeda and Anisa Onofre, the husband and wife duo behind the press, have been on over the past decade.
As Tejeda put it, they “started off with a bang.”
In August, Aztlán Libre marked the approach of its 10th anniversary with the publication of its 13th book, Pandemia and Other Poems, by poet and FlowerSong Press publisher Edward Vidaurre, a former poet laureate of McAllen.
According to Tejeda, the motivation in founding the press remains consistent with what has driven the pair’s tireless efforts in running the press by themselves all these years.
Aztlán Libre exists, Tejeda said, in response to a need for publishing opportunities for Chicanx writers who “haven’t been published or published enough.”
The name of the press itself indicates not only the scope of the work that the press publishes but also the important sociopolitical and even spiritual imperatives that Tejeda sees as embedded in the work of the press as a whole.
Aztlán, the mythical Aztec homeland, for many symbolizes a source of identity and a wellspring of resistance to colonial systems and thinking. From this stems the belief that Mexican Americans living in the Southwest United States don’t need to define themselves in terms of diaspora because they are actually living on land to which they have an ancestral claim.
The concept of Aztlán has long been important to many Mexican American and Chicanx movements and subcultures and often involves an attempt to look back and learn from the pre-colonial groups that lived in these areas, to regain some essence of identity that was stripped away.
Prior to the founding of Aztlán Libre, both Tejeda and Onofre had assorted involvements in publishing and the literary world: Onofre through her work as the marketing and publications director at Gemini Ink and Tejeda through his academic work, his work as music director at Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and his involvement with Chicanx activism. Tejeda also has been at the forefront of the local and statewide battle for getting a Mexican American studies curriculum approved for high school and college.
Though the press started out accepting submissions of manuscripts and publishing multiple books a year, Tejeda said they soon realized that the workload would be hard to sustain.
“We decided to publish just what we want to publish,” he said. The press stopped taking unsolicited submissions and focused on one publication every one to two years in order to “devote time to promoting the books and submitting them for awards.”
Over the years, the press has published works by former San Antonio and Texas poet laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero, San Antonio poet Vincent Cooper, Chicana journalist and columnist Barbara Renaud González, Chicana poet and spoken word artist Amalia Ortiz, and more. While much of the work published has been poetry, there have been a few scholarly and other works mixed in.
“Aztlán Libre Press is an illumination, much more than any Alamo monument can ever be,” González said.
“Every book they publish is a miracle … a testament to the value of story, to their own sacrifice, to treading on the status quo and letting everyone else leave a footstep wide and deep as Texas,” she said.
Vidaurre praised the press for welcoming and treating its authors like family. “They work with you to make sure your work is important and embraced, ” he said.
For Cooper, the power of the press is in the way it has inspired other Chicanos and Chicanas to “start their own presses, to submit their work, to showcase their art and stories told in a literary world that would normally not listen to these voices.”
But Tejeda still sees room for improvement.
“On the one hand, we’ve survived 10 years and done 13 publications, and I think we have some classic works that will stand the test of time. I’m proud of the works and the people that we’ve published,” he said.
“On the other hand, in terms of distribution and promotion, I would have hoped that we would have a further reach. I don’t think we have developed those mechanisms as well as we should have yet.”
Tejeda, looking forward, is specifically interested in working for a wider distribution of Aztlán Libre’s books, hoping to get them into the hands of as many people, especially young people, as possible by reaching more classrooms, libraries, and bookstores.
“Just so they can see themselves reflected positively, which in most cases they don’t get through the textbooks in the schools – that’s very important,” he said.
Tejeda is proud of the work that the press has done thus far, and he is heartened thinking that the press has made an impact.
He sees his work with Aztlán Libre as being as essential now as ever, a humble but powerful effort at making sure Chicanx books are there for people in the present and in the future to draw upon.