We’ve been through this before. I’ve written twice before about the Tucson Unified School District, and its disbanding of the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program. I’ve written about its removal of books by minority—predominantly Chicano/Chicana— authors from the school’s curriculum. I’ve written about the government-sanctioned attack on this wildly successful program, which sends 98 percent of its students to college.
Unfortunately, the situation is not improving. A few weeks ago, celebrated Chicana author Ana Castillo, who is a widely-sought speaker on the lecture circuit, volunteered to travel to Tucson to speak to former MAS students. (Two of Castillo’s books, “Loverboys” and “So Far From God,” were banned from the curriculum by TUSD.) In a stunning move, the District refused to sanction her visit.
According to TUSD, they denied Castillo’s request because she wanted to bring some form of media to document her reading. This, they felt, could disrupt classroom activities. It should be noted that, in March, Matt De La Pena, whose book “Mexican WhiteBoy” was also banned, spoke at the school. Not only was his media request approved, a long article chronicling his visit ran in The New York Times.
Castillo, never one to back down in the face of adversity, went to Tucson anyway. On May 4th, she gave a reading at the John A. Valenzuela Youth Center. She also donated copies of her books to students.
I spoke with Castillo this week about her visit. “When I gave the books to them, I told them, ‘Now it’s up to you to go and read them. We don’t have to show them to you in [a classroom], when you know that I exist. You know these authors exist. You know that there has been a generation fighting for bilingual education. This is an enormous opportunity, right now, at your age, for you to understand, and identify, the things that you will have to fight for in this society. We fight for a democracy—we don’t have a democracy, we’re fighting for a democracy. Moments of exclusion should always be seen as an opportunity to speak up, and fight for your right to be included.’”
She also stressed to the students the importance of knowing that these books exist—a knowledge they gained by participating in the MAS program. “If these books aren’t being taught, aren’t being discussed—in your classroom, or book club—call their attention to them, because these books exist. I’ve had women my age come up to me, privately, and say ‘Oh, Ana. I wanted to become a writer, but when I was growing up, there were no Chicana writers.’ And I tell them, ‘Well, there were no Chicana writers when I was growing up, either. I had to become one.’”
Curtis Acosta is a teacher at Tucson High School, whose Mexican American literature course is now outlawed. “Dr. Castillo’s visit inspired us all,” he told me. “She reminded us of our strength and that none of us are victims if we refuse to be labeled in such a way. She was deferential to our situation and the tragedy of losing classes that were so successful and meant so much to our community, but knew that we were strong enough to navigate through this tempest. She reminded us that, as long as we find value in every person, and all our stories, we will not only survive, but flourish.”
Ana Castillo’s reading was recorded by Tucson’s public radio station, KXCI. You can hear portions of her reading at KXCI.org, under the “Arts” tab. I’d encourage you to listen, and determine for yourself whether writers like Castillo are divisive, as the District contends.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 05/17/12.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.