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Book Trafficking

Published on February 2, 2012 by in Columns

There’s a battle heating up in the borderlands, and it’s starting to get interesting.

It all began a few weeks ago, when the Tucson Unified School District, in compliance with a new state law, voted to discontinue their Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program.  The district faced an ultimatum: suspend the program, or sacrifice 10 percent of their state funding—more than $14 million in state aid.

And perhaps, had the district taken a better approach, the backlash may not have been so severe.  But immediately, the course titles and curriculum were changed—from Chicano History to American History, from Chicano Literature to American Literature.  And then came the final straw: administrators went in and seized books that had been used by MAS, removing them from campus and placing them in storage.


The Librotraficantes, or “book traffickers,” have collected thousands of copies of banned titles, and plan to smuggle them into Tucson.

The objective, school officials later stated, was to remove any titles where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes,” a directive that significantly widened the criteria, and led to the removal of many more titles, including William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  Suddenly, it wasn’t just the removal of the five titles used in the MAS courses; officials were seizing any literature that might address those controversial themes—most of which, it should be noted, were written by Chicano and Native-American authors.

I have tried to track down a comprehensive list of the “banned books,” and have been unsuccessful.  Therefore, I’m forced to rely solely on anecdotal evidence when referring to specific titles.  That being said, everything suggests that “The Tempest” was anomalous, and most of the books were by writers of color.

Nearly immediately, the students revolted.  At Cholla High School, students staged a walkout, marching nearly five miles with a police escort to the District office.  They chanted as they marched, “Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back!”

This story has piqued my interest for several reasons that may not be obvious.  As a student at UNM, I spent a lot of time studying Chicano Literature and Chicano Studies.  I developed a passion for it, and have come to know several of the genre’s best writers personally.  I am also a fan of activism, for virtually any cause, but it’s particularly exciting to see these students fighting the system for access to literature—for the right to read these books.

Luis Urrea

Luis Alberto Urrea: “The answer to institutional hatred and racist idiocy is to rise above it and smite it with wit, soul [and] talent.”

  Instinctively, I’ve been drawn to this story as it unfolds.  But when a group of Chicano and Latino authors and activists banded together, organizing an effort to symbolically “smuggle” banned books into Arizona, I became enthralled.  They call themselves “Libro Traficantes,” or “Book Traffickers,” and the movement is being organized by a Houston-based non-profit, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say.

During the week of March 12-March 17, they’ll be making their way from Texas to Arizona, “trafficking” banned books that have been donated.  They plan to freely distribute as many as possible.  The project was seeded by a donation from Sandra Cisneros, the famed author of “The House on Mango Street.”  Many other banned writers have gotten on board, and will participate as well.

I reached out to Luis Alberto Urrea, a best-selling author whose current novel, “Queen of America,” has been receiving fantastic reviews.  “I fell down the vortex when they took FIVE of my books away,” Urrea told me.  (Though some reports suggest they actually removed eight of his books.)  “I am totally in support of Libro Traficante.  The answer to institutional hatred and racist idiocy is to rise above it and smite it with wit, soul [and] talent.  These are true power.  And eternal.”

You can find out more about the Libro Traficante project at  You can also make a donation there, if you feel so compelled, as this war wages on.

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 02/02/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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