Q&A: Francisco Aragón of Letras Latinas

Emily Pérez
From the March/April 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In 2004, Francisco Aragón launched Letras Latinas under the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at the University of Notre Dame. As the institute’s literary arm, Letras Latinas has a mission to “enhance the visibility, appreciation, and study of Latinx literature” at Notre Dame and beyond. The organization pioneered the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, a first-book award for a Latinx author; a collaboration with Red Hen Press to publish books by Latinx writers; and Curated Conversations, recorded interviews with Latinx poets. Aragón recently reflected on his work and what’s next for Letras Latinas.

Francisco Aragón, director of Letras Latinas. (Credit: Notre Dame Studios)

You’ve spent twenty years building Letras Latinas. How did it begin?
I was a grad student at the University of California in Davis, and a few experiences I had there were instrumental. I had the privilege of studying with the poet Gary Snyder. He devoted significant time to teaching us about small press publishing. He said, “Start small; start for your immediate community.” Then Gary Soto published me in his Chicano chapbook series. That’s what led me to start Momotombo Press, my own first venture into small press publishing. I also studied with Sandra McPherson and was on the ground floor of a chapbook press she started called Swan Scythe Press. And those experiences planted the seeds of what would eventually become Letras Latinas.

At the time that I joined the ILS in 2003, it was about four years old. [Director Gil Cárdenas] brought me on board with the implicit understanding that I was going to create a literary component [for ILS]. At the time, I conceived of trying to start a first-book prize. And that’s how the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize came to be. I eventually brought that small press [Momotombo] that I’d founded at UC Davis to Notre Dame, and it became another initiative that I began to oversee [until the press stopped publishing in 2009].   

The third thing that happened when I joined the ILS was that we were visited by the then new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA], Dana Gioia, and I was able to broker a breakfast meeting with him, myself, and my boss. Gioia encouraged us to pursue initiatives that fostered conversations among the arts. That led to our next big-ticket project, “Poetas y Pintores: Artists Conversing With Verse.” It got funding from the NEA, and it consisted of curating a group of poets and a group of visual artists and assigning each visual artist to create new work from that engagement [with poetry]. The resulting exhibit traveled around the country for several years.

Those three—the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, Momotombo Press, and Poetas y Pintores—served as a cornerstone trio of initiatives for Letras Latinas.

Describe the landscape of Latinx literature twenty years ago. What needs did you want to address with Letras Latinas?
In the poetry world the big news was the $100 million bequest that Ruth Lilly gave to Poetry magazine. There was an article in the New York Times that quoted the poet Richard Tillinghast, who said, “You can pick up an issue [of Poetry] and see a very representative selection of what’s going on in poetry.” And I remember reading that quote and thinking, “Well, let me check and see.” I wasn’t seeing any Latino or Latina voices, especially in the area of book reviews. Monthly, Poetry published on average about ten micro reviews. In the fall of 2003, I began to track those reviews. I would ask people, “Guess how many books by Latinx poets have been reviewed in Poetry?” Up until 2011 that number was zero. That became a fixation of mine—that phenomenon of all those years when Poetry erased our entire community. Around that time the University of California Press started a California poetry [book] series, and I began to notice who they were publishing. Year in and year out, no Latino or Latina poets. Those two manifestations became my touchstone in terms of trying to create opportunities and venues for [Latinx] poets to be published and to be reviewed.

Tell me how you define Latinx when you are curating projects.
I always want to err on the side of inclusivity. I’ve also understood in more recent years that even the term Latinx and all manifestations of Latino and Latina can enact a certain kind of erasure, especially for Black Latinx people. I am most interested in and endorse something that poet Urayoán Noel said in a blog post a number of years ago. To paraphrase, he said, I’m less interested in trying to define what the term [Latinx] means, and I’m more interested in the conversations surrounding that term with all of its contradictions. In more recent years, in the wake of the summer of 2020 and the George Floyd protests, I’ve tried to become more sensitive to make sure that the term Latinx is not used to mute and erase the variety in our community.

Letras Latinas creates opportunities for Latinx writers and artists to build community with one another. How have you seen those relationships ripple out into the world?
Back in 2010 when I was living in Washington, D.C., and I learned that the Smithsonian American Art Museum was going to inaugurate a multiyear traveling exhibit called “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” I began to conceive of master-level workshops—Pintura : Palabra, a Project in Ekphrasis—in the first four stops of this exhibit. [In partnership with the Smithsonian, Letras Latinas hosted workshops] in D.C., then Miami, then Sacramento, then Salt Lake City. The workshop facilitator in Sacramento was the late Francisco X. Alarcón. He curated a group of seventeen poets from the Bay Area and Sacramento, and the people who came together for that weekend master-level workshop became Círculo de Poetas and Writers, which now has an annual conference.

Why have partnerships been important to the work of Letras Latinas, and what is a good strategy for cultivating them?
Partnerships became super important to Letras Latinas because we are a small organization. I began to test my chops in that area when I moved to D.C. [between 2007 and 2012]. During that window I had a very unusual situation. I was affiliated with [University of Notre Dame], but I wasn’t teaching; I was a full-time arts administrator. I was able to cultivate more meaningful and substantive initiatives that led to a more national footprint. That was when I [and Letras Latinas] began to collaborate with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Poetry Society of America. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how crucial Letras Latinas’ ties are with Notre Dame’s creative writing program. We typically tap MFA students to introduce our visiting poets as well as conduct our oral history video interviews.

Entering into a partnership you have to bring a healthy dose of humility. You have to listen to who your stakeholders are. I’d recommend good faith, humility, transparency—making sure you don’t make any assumptions about what the terms of the partnership are, because if you do you can have misunderstandings. Really valuing and prioritizing the relationships with your interlocutors more than, for example, becoming too fixated on certain protocols, regulations, or rules. If you don’t exercise any flexibility or compromise, that could make partnerships challenging.

What advice would you give to the Francisco of twenty years ago, as he brought Letras Latinas to life?
Be prepared to teach yourself to cultivate relationships, because you never know who you might meet who might have ideas for future collaborative partnerships. Also, you might meet someone who might eventually become a donor. I wrote one major grant in 2004, and I quickly realized that my time was utilized better in cultivating private donors. Now I have a cadre of private donors who annually give gifts. I’m not talking major bucks—my annual operating budget is under $50,000. Do take advantage of your network of friends, both writers and nonwriters alike. Whenever I have an idea for an initiative, what I’ve found over the years is that when I run the idea by someone, that person or persons inevitably improves it.

What keeps you inspired?
What keeps me inspired is when I’m in community with other writers who also value this work and whom I can feed off of, specifically, Laura Villareal and Brent Ameneyro, who are my associates at Letras Latinas, which is now a team of three. They are young; they have a lot of energy, and I foresee a scenario of Letras Latinas needing to have a succession plan. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and at some point I hope to pass the baton.

What’s next for Letras Latinas?
Part of what’s next is mentoring and encouraging and empowering Laura and Brent to do more that frees me up in the medium- and short-term to do more fundraising and more big-picture thinking. One of our recent initiatives, Curated Conversations, concluded this past year with a conversation featuring U.S. author Vickie Vértiz and a poet in the United Kingdom. My interlocutor in the U.K., a poet named Leo Boix, and I have been brainstorming about maybe taking some U.S. Latinx poets to some U.K. poetry festivals in 2025.  Laura and I are coediting an anthology titled Together We’ll Be a Song, which is a line of poetry from Andrés Montoya. It’s going to be an anthology in the neighborhood of twenty-five to twenty-eight poets, which is going to consist of the first ten winners, the first ten final judges, and the screeners of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. So we’ll use the prize as a lens to offer a snapshot of contemporary Latinx poetry. By including judges and winners we’ll be establishing those two wings of the equation. And that is something the University of Notre Dame Press is going to be publishing.

What would “mission accomplished” look like for Letras Latinas?
My personal mission accomplished would be for Letras Latinas to continue after I cease being its director. Letras Latinas’ mission is to amplify and support our storytellers—poets, playwrights, fiction writers, essayists. As long as our community is producing storytellers, and as long as we live in an environment in which communities are battling being erased—think about the political climate we’re currently in in the U.S., with the attempted banning of library books by LGBTQ and Black voices—I don’t envision the scenario where it’s “mission accomplished.”


Emily Pérez is the author of What Flies Want (University of Iowa Press, 2022), winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, and coeditor of The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood (University of Georgia Press, 2022).