Several weeks ago, I wrote about the Tucson Unified School District’s effort to remove nearly 100 books from its campuses, and the dismantling of ethnic studies programs by state officials. (The overwhelming majority of those banned books were by writers of color, primarily targeting Chicano and Native-American authors.) I also shared with you the story of the Librotraficante movement—a caravan of writers and volunteers gathering donated copies of the banned books, and “trafficking” them from Texas to Arizona, where they will be distributed to students. They also intend to establish “underground libraries” in several cities, repositories for these banished books, in an effort to assert their First Amendment rights and preserve their cultural identity.
Timed to coincide with Tucson’s spring break, this week the caravan will make its way from Houston to Tucson, with stops along the way in San Antonio, El Paso, Mesilla, and Albuquerque.
I spoke with author Tony Diaz, the chief organizer of the Librotraficantes, about the turn of events that prompted him to act. “From the wording of Arizona House Bill 2811, it is obvious that Arizona legislators put out a ‘hit’ on Tucson’s innovative and powerful Mexican American Studies Program. That’s a shame because the curriculum Arizona legislators have villainized should have actually been a great source of pride for the TUSD and all of Arizona. High school students were reading books like ‘Critical Race Theory,’ which I didn’t read until graduate school. This means that officials were either racist or inept, neither of which makes for good stewards of government. Arizona tried to erase our history. So we’re making more.”
Denise Chávez, a Mesilla author whose books are used in school curricula across the country, told me, “Arizona is not New Mexico. But we can see some of the same strains of intolerance here, past and present. It’s time to awaken. My father, E.E. Chávez, was punished for speaking Spanish here in the Las Cruces Schools. I have seen pictures of immigrants shackled and paraded through Main Street in Las Cruces. Read the Sound Off and see insecurity, contempt, fear and ugliness. The common denominator is that all of the books on the banned book list have to do with human rights issues, class issues, issues of justice and equality and yes, the struggle of all people for what should be the basic tenets and principles of human rights.”
I spoke with Rudolfo Anaya, whose “Bless Me, Ultima” is a staple in American classrooms—and is now banned in Tucson. “Unfortunately, I’m not new to this fascist problem that we have of people censoring books. I have a box of newspaper clippings from all of the times my books have been thrown out of schools. These writers that have been banned are, in most cases, the first generation in their families who have gone to college. Banning these books tells our society that the country is willing to use our labor, but not letting us get into professional fields—by blocking off our access to education. Look at what happened to the Dream Act.” (Anaya’s latest novel, “Randy Lopez Goes Home,” deals with this issue.)
“Destroying and suppressing books puts fear in the heart of people. In art, we incorporate our entire concept of ‘identity,’” said Anaya. “I trust that there are good people in Arizona, who will fight back against this censorship.”
Albuquerque poet E.A. “Tony” Mares, who has written a poem entitled “Ode to Los Librotraficantes,” told me, “Each and every book is a reminder that we are free, thinking, reflecting creatures. And no one, no government, no religion, no self-styled ‘leader,’ has the right or authority to tell us what to think, what to believe.”
The Librotraficante caravan will stop in Mesilla at 10am on Thursday, for a free event that’s open to the public.
You can read “Ode to Los Librotraficantes” here.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 03/15/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.