Tucson writer Patricia Preciado Martin used to tell camping stories to her son and daughter—the same Mexican legends she remembers being told about as a child, like "La Llorona," the crying woman of the wash.
One day, her husband, now a retired Pima Community College professor, told her that she should think about putting these legends in a book. That encouraged Preciado Martin to go into the old neighborhoods and sit down with elders to hear them retell these stories, some far more local than the ever-Mexican "La Llorona."
"I heard stories like 'El Tejano' and 'The Devil in the Carrillo Gardens,' and the more people I talked to, the more stories I heard about buried treasure, ghosts and what have you," Preciado Martin recalls. "But then these elders ... started telling me about their stories, and I realized they were talking about our heritage ... our history."
While Preciado Martin published The Legend of the Bellringer of San Agustin as a result, she also learned that each person she talked to was a link to the Mexican-American community's cultural heritage, and in turn, a part of Tucson's own history.
Preciado Martin decided to gather the oral histories of 13 Mexican Americans from Southern Arizona, and in 1983, they were published in the book Images and Conversations: Mexican Americans Recall a Southwestern Past, with photographs by the late Tucson barrio photographer Louis Carlos Bernal.
This year, her publisher—the University of Arizona Press—is celebrating its 50th anniversary of calling attention to writers like Preciado Martin, in the process garnering a reputation as both a scholarly publishing house and a strong general-interest publisher with a focus on the things that make life wondrous in the Southwest.
And in Tucson, that means a focus on environmental sciences and astronomy, anthropology, Native-American studies and Latin-American studies (including Preciado Martin's work for the last two decades), plus a growing number of border-related books.
Kathryn Conrad, the UA Press' interim director, has been with the house for 14 years and was first hired as the marketing director. During her tenure, she's enjoyed the awards and praise heaped on the press and its authors, but she says her true source of pride is far more basic.
"For me, it always comes back to the books. You feel so proud of individual titles and authors. Writers like Patricia Preciado Martin are a good example. We helped give her and the community a voice to celebrate Mexicano culture in Tucson. There are others where we've launched their careers. They may have gone on to other presses, but they got their start with us," Conrad says.
Preciado Martin says that thanks to the UA Press, she was able to sit down with people in the community who no one had ever really bothered to talk to before—preserving a history that could have been lost if not for Preciado Martin's interest.
Almost 10 years after her first book, the press published Songs My Mother Sang to Me, a book filled with personal oral histories of Mexican-American women from Southern Arizona, each with intimate details of family life in Tucson barrios or lives on family ranches, and often with themes of strong women just as connected to the land as the men they had lived with and raised.
Collecting the stories led her and some of her subjects—most of them in their 80s—to remote areas surrounding Tucson, to land that once belonged to their families. If the women were lucky, they'd find corners of adobe buildings remaining. With one woman, they found the family's shrine and some old fencing still standing.
"There were these places hidden away that I grew to look at as our monuments. I became a treasure hunter," she says. "... I knew my mothers and my grandmothers. I knew they didn't fit the stereotype that popular culture had of the Hispanic woman."
Today, Preciado Martin has six books published through the UA Press: three oral histories of the region's Mexican-American community and three-short story collections inspired by the tales she heard.
"I feel like I've given something to the community, sure, but they have given to me so, so much more."
Another writer published through the UA Press who has given much to the community is Tohono O'odham linguist and poet Ofelia Zepeda. A linguistics professor at the UA, Zepeda wrote the first O'odham language grammar book, published by the UA Press in 1983: A Tohono O'odham Grammar.
In her office on the UA campus, Zepeda sits at a table stacked with poetry and short-story collections by other Native-American writers from throughout the country—all published by the UA Press. A growing number of young Native American writers are published through its Sun Tracks series, of which Zepeda is editor.
The Sun Tracks series started in the 1970s as a journal written mostly by Native American undergraduate students at the UA. It grew from a journal into a book series thanks to an O'odham language class taught by Zepeda. She says most of the Tohono O'odham students in her class knew how to speak the language, but not to write in it—so she came up with a way to teach writing that resembled a creative-writing workshop.
Students brought in poems or traditional songs, and exchanged them with each other during the class. By the end of the year, Zepeda says, she ended up with beautiful original and reinterpreted poems and songs written in O'odham. She collected them in a folder and took them to Larry Evers, a UA English professor. To her surprise, he thought the work needed to be published.
The UA Press published that volume in 1984, and from there, Sun Tracks became a UA Press series dedicated to the work of Native-American writers. It's grown from one published book a year to three or four books a year.
"This is what is exciting, and I am proud I am a part of it, working with young writers and seeing how good their work is. It's exciting there is a place for this work at the UA Press," Zepeda says.
Her own poetry has been included in the series. Ocean Power: Poems From the Desert came out in 1995, and her latest, Where Clouds Are Formed, was released in 2008.
When asked what her relationship with the UA Press has come to mean, Zepeda once again looks down at the books before her and smiles wide.
"You know, when I came to the UA to go to college, I didn't have a plan for myself. Much of the success I've experienced has to do with timing and the fact that I arrived wanting to learn how to read and write O'odham."
Her quest to read and write in her native language took her to the Anthropology Department, and then to her final home: linguistics. That's how she was introduced to Larry Evers and the UA Press, and through her language students, it's where she discovered poetry.
"I know people who've been shown a door, but don't go in for different reasons. I look back and think, 'Maybe it was good that I just didn't know better.' Back then, there were few native people here on campus. I was fortunate enough to have non-native professors take an interest in me," she says.
It's fortunate she decided to go through the doors she was shown—especially those involving poetry.
"What's more surprising for me is the response to my work, especially non-natives. They relate and find connection to what I write about—family, the landscape, the history of the people—and feel it relates to the environment."
Steve Cox, who retired as director of the UA Press in 1998, says the Sun Tracks series is not only a source of pride, but a good example of the success an academic press can have when it chooses to focus on regional interests. Cox says he learned about the appeal of regional interests when he was a student at the University of Oklahoma studying English. He found himself in its press' building surrounded by books.
"I fell in love," Cox recalls.
The director of the Oklahoma press built a strong program by focusing on the West and its importance to Oklahoma. Eventually, Cox says, he interned at the press there, and when he was hired to lead the UA Press in the early '80s, he decided he'd use the model he learned about as a student.
Conrad says it was Cox who helped the UA Press refocus on scholarly books and general titles that focused on the university's backyard. These emphases transformed the UA Press into one of the best nonprofit publishers in the Southwest.
Cox came to the UA Press with other ideas, too. Because he got his start as an intern, he wanted the press to have an intern program, which still exists today.
"Many of those interns became publishers working in New York," he says.
He also brought the UA Press into the computer age. In 1983, Cox discovered that the press still maintained hand ledgers.
"The press couldn't grow with that system. Some were scared to death of computers. It was quite a time. It was hard work to make that change," he remembers.
He also remembers certain books that hold a special place in his heart. The Space Science Series, a special series on the solar system, is one example. But he also enjoyed books that came from biology and environmental sciences that focused on what Cox refers to as the "critters of the Southwest."
Beyond a regional reflection, Cox says what's important about any university press is the scholarship.
"It's not just about work that is important. Other publishers can do that, but university presses offer work you can't get in any other way: a stamp of approval by scholars who lead their fields, by people who care about their work. ... University presses do it in a way no other house can," he says.
While science is one of the UA Press' main focuses, books that focus on Southern Arizona have been some of the house's most successful works. Poet and UA professor Richard Shelton's Going Back to Bisbee, published by the UA Press in 1992, is about a day trip to Bisbee that unfolds into a story about the area's history, the environment and the poet's life. The book continues to be one of the UA Press' best-sellers, so far selling more than 30,000 copies.
"Technically, I think it is partly because I hit the audience I was aiming for: people who have come to this area or live in this area, but know very little about the desert and are eager to know more, (and are) unwilling or unable to read heavy scholarly works about it. The book is an easy and entertaining read but also contains a good deal of information presented in a nontechnical, often humorous way," he wrote in an e-mail about the book's success.
Shelton says the book came about because he was approached by Gregory McNamee, then an editor at the press, who asked him to write a nonfiction book about Southern Arizona. The book won the Western States Book Award and the One Book Arizona Award.
"Also, I think it is successful because it is basically a book filled with little stories, and I love to tell stories. Also, they tell me (it's been a success) because I have a sense of humor and enjoy poking fun at myself," he wrote in an e-mail.
Shelton's reputation as a writer rests in his poetry—which he has laid in the hands of the University of Pittsburgh Press since 1969. Shelton has published about a half-dozen books of poetry with the University of Pittsburgh while publishing his nonfiction work with the UA Press, including 2007's acclaimed Crossing the Yard: 30 Years as a Prison Volunteer, about Shelton's experience running writing workshops in prison.
Shelton says he feels lucky to have two strong presses publishing his work.
"Years ago, when the (UA) Press was trying to match a huge challenge grant, I did a considerable amount of fundraising for the press, because I believe in what it is doing. I know of only three university presses that have reputations for publishing books by Western writers about the West. The University of Arizona may be the best of the three. The range of their work is enormous, and they work hard at publicity. It's a great group of people to work with."
Shelton says the UA Press staff nominates books for awards and aggressively promotes their books. For example, staffers nominated Crossing the Yard for the Independent Publisher Book Award, which it won.
UA Press editor-in-chief Allyson Carter confirms that the press has made a concerted effort to nominate writers for awards, especially within the last few years, thanks in large part to Holly Schaffer, the UA Press' publicity manager. One recent award that was particularly exciting was the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry given to Juan Felipe Herrera for his book Half of the World in Light, one of the newest books in the press' Latino and Latina literary series, Camino del Sol.
Carter says taking pleasure in the success of the authors and the books is especially gratifying when working at an academic press.
"In a commercial press, you really have to think of the bottom line. ... For us, the bottom line is important, but really it's about the scholarship, to get that information out there to the scholarly community, and that gives us a little bit of freedom to not have to worry as much about selling copies."
Take a new book from 80-year-old author Mary Ellen Barnes as an example. Her book, The Road to Mount Lemmon: A Father, a Family and the Making of Summerhaven, published by the UA Press this year, is about her father, Tony Zimmerman, who developed the Mount Lemmon community, and about Barnes' childhood there.
Barnes says she's been writing for more than 20 years and started The Road to Mount Lemmon in 2000, but work stalled after the 2003 Aspen Fire. Watching the efforts of firefighters and seeing Mount Lemmon homeowners rebuild inspired her to write Forged by Fire, a self-published effort she put out in 2005. Once done, she went back to writing her childhood story and turned to the UA Press.
"I think (the UA Press) considered me, because my other book won (a Pima County Public Library Southwest Books of the Year Award) in 2005, but at first, it was rejected," Barnes recalls of The Road to Mount Lemmon.
When the UA Press is considering a book, it turns to other writers and scholars to read the manuscripts. Barnes' book was given to three people: two said no, and one said yes. Barnes says she decided to take a close look at the criticism and rewrite the book.
"I took their suggestions, and in seven months, I gave them a new book," she explains.
This book got approved, and Barnes has been riding a wave of signings, events and interviews ever since. What inspires her, she says, is the motivation she felt while writing the book: to tell her father's story.
Beyond inspiring regional books, the UA Press is also entering new areas, Carter says. One new project she is particularly excited about is an environmental science-law and policy series.
"It's a substantial series, and it's also something that's exciting because it's taking us in a slightly new direction," she says. "It's one example of being able to help bring new ideas out there through book projects. It's also a way I can be creative in this field and be proud of our work."
The UA Press grew out of the Anthropology Department in 1959 as part of the university's commitment to that field. Today, those studies remain a core of what the press publishes, but new directions are keeping the UA Press relevant.
New technologies—such as the Amazon Kindle and the iPod—are also a UA Press concern as the house celebrates its 50th birthday.
"Electronic formats are a chief focus of mine in this time period," Conrad says. "We need to be offering books in a variety of formats. I don't know exactly how that will take place, but in most scholarly communities, there is a real desire to make that scholarship as widely available as possible."
One trend is that libraries are decreasing print materials and increasing digital material.
"The electronic dissemination of scholarship—it's one of the new technological developments in the publishing industry," Conrad says.
Another new technology is the Espresso Book Machine, which can print books on demand in a bookstore in four minutes. Conrad says she hopes an Espresso comes to the UA campus, because she wants the UA Press to be part of that.
Of course, new technology means change; books in electronic formats will cost less to publish, for example.
"Expenses remain, so I don't think the costs are going to go as low as some people think," Conrad says.
To help the UA Press plan for these changes, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded the house a $282,000, two-year planning grant along with five other academic presses to work on digital publishing in archaeology.
"We do need this from foundations like Mellon to help scholarly presses address the future," Conrad says. "My biggest hope is that the press will still be here 50 years from now, provoking conversation about the place we live, the world we're in and putting scholarly positions forward.
"My job is to position us to continue to not just be relevant, but essential for a good understanding of the Southwest, anthropology, and indigenous studies. I want to be part of the conversation."