Hyattsville poet makes impression as publisher


José Ballesteros, owner of Zozobra Publishing, a bilingual publishing company, shows of a copy of the company’s first book, “The Light of the Storm,” at his home office in Hyattsville. (Bill Ryan/THE GAZETTE)
August 7, 2013

José Ballesteros of Hyattsville said he wrote poetry for two decades without sharing his work beyond friends and family.

“As a writer, I always felt comfortable that the stuff that I was working on was a work in progress and that I would know when my writing personally would be ready to be sent out,” said Ballesteros, a Spanish professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Now Ballesteros, 42, is sharing his work as the founder and editor of Zozobra Publishing, a bilingual press featuring poetry and prose by Latino writers.

Zozobra is the only Spanish-English publishing company in the Washington region, said Judith Freidenberg, a University of Maryland professor specializing in Latino issues in Prince George’s County.

Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corp., said the Gateway Arts and Entertainment District — consisting of Brentwood, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and North Brentwood — would benefit from having a bilingual publishing group, citing the region’s growing Hispanic population.

According to the 2010 Census, Prince George’s had 57,057 Latinos, and Hyattsville’s Latino population was 5,972.

“The fact that [Zozobra] is intentionally bilingual, I think it really honors the large Spanish-speaking community we have in Hyattsville and Prince George’s County that is not always in the forefront,” said Abby Sandel, Hyattsville’s community services director.

In February, the company published its first book, “The Light of the Storm,” a poetry anthology by Carlos Parada Ayala of the District.

The book, available in English and Spanish, was translated by Ballesteros. Fernando Mancuello, Zozobra co-founder, designed the cover.

Ballesteros said he wants Zozobra to tap into the county’s championing of the arts by giving it a bilingual literary presence.

“One of the important things for me personally is that eventually Hyattsville feels like it has a press here,” he said.

Ballesteros, a native of Ecuador, studied at the University of Kansas and worked at St. Mary’s after receiving his PhD. He lived in Fredericksburg and the District before moving to Hyattsville in 2008.

Ballesteros read poetry at an open microphone event, and his work caught the attention of Parada Ayala of the District, one of the event organizers.

Ayala invited him to participate in a Spanish poetry anthology, “Al Pie de La Casa Blanca” (“At the Foot of the White House”), which features Hispanic writers from the Washington area. That prompted Ballesteros to become more involved with the region’s Hispanic writers.

Last year, Ballesteros put together a panel with the anthology’s writers at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in the District, where they discussed the empowering role of Spanish writing in the United States.

Ballesteros, a father of two, said he wants Zozobra to promote Spanish reading and writing at a sophisticated level, without neglecting English.

“Why wouldn’t you want to develop that kid’s Spanish as much as you could?” he said. “Even from an economic perspective, from a city planning perspective, we have this ability.”

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