Activist Tony Diaz and other Mexican-American activists are on a mission to bring confiscated Hispanic history and literature books back to Arizona schools.
Supporters have dubbed the movement "Librotraficante," loosely translated as book trafficker, and will embark upon a week-long road trip from Houston to Tucson, Ariz., in March, making stops for "Banned Book Bashes" in San Antonio, El Paso, Mesilla and Albuquerque.
The trip culminates on March 16 when the travelers reach Tucson, where they will have a literary showcase and distribute free copies of allegedly banned books from a taco truck.
Diaz, a Houston Community College professor and founder of the nonprofit Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, and others devised the book-toting caravan in response to the dissolution of the Mexican-American studies program at the Tucson Unified School District.
The school district was forced to end the Mexican-American studies program classes in literature, art, history, government and general Chicano studies to be in compliance with Arizona's House Bill 2281. The law includes a statute that prohibits classes in public and charter schools that promote overthrow of the government, incite resentment toward a race or class of people, are focused primarily for students of a specific ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity.
What incited Diaz was an incident in January in which school administrators walked into a Tucson high school and began boxing up the prohibited
books in front of students in class.
"That really hurt us," Diaz said. "To us, that was a cultural offense that pushed us to get organized. I think people don't realize how hurtful that action was to those students."
The textbooks were in a cabinet at the time they were removed from the classroom and students were not using the books, said Cara Rene, director of communications and media relations at the Tucson school district.
"I'm not saying that still wasn't upsetting for a student," Rene said. "We understand this is a confusing time. Principals are working with teachers to help through this transition because we want to make sure learning is minimally disrupted."
In June, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal ruled the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson violated state law because it promoted racial resentment by being designed primarily for one ethnic group and advocated ethnic solidarity instead of students as individuals.
Despite that, an independent audit conducted by Cambium Learning of Tucson's Mexican-American studies curriculum, which Huppenthal's department commissioned, found that the classes did not violate state law.
Huppenthal could not be reached for comment because he was off site attending an Arizona Board of Regents meeting, a spokesman said.
The district appealed the superintendent's ruling, but an administrative law judge upheld the decision.
Failing to follow the law and thus end the classes would have amounted to a $15 million state funding loss a year, Rene said.
Tucson school district officials insist there is no book ban in their schools.
Seven books that were used as supporting materials for curriculum in Mexican-American studies classes were moved to the district's storage facility after the classes were suspended, but are available in campus libraries, Rene said.
Those books include "Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement," by Arturo Rosales and "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," by Paulo Freire.
It's possible that those books could be considered for use in future curriculum, Rene said.
Diaz said the district was playing semantics games by not calling the books "banned."
"The Tucson Unified School District has pushed back and obviously they're trying to avoid the direct term 'banned' but all you have to do is look at the law," Diaz said. "The law is to identify prohibited classes, so we don't need to mix any words. Latino studies is prohibited in Arizona based on their law. It sounds like they were trying to come up with a law that would go after Mexican-American studies and I think this is the evolution of Arizona anti-immigrant laws. Arizona has become very skillful at making humans illegal; now they want to make thoughts illegal."
About 700 middle and high school students took classes in the district's Mexican-American studies program.
The Mexican-American studies department, which was the only ethnic studies program in the district that offered classes, still exists to provide student advocacy, support, mentoring and tutoring. The district also has departments in Native-American, African-American and pan Asian-American studies.
The debate in Arizona over the law that prohibits ethnic studies has pitted academics, parents and teachers against political conservatives "who feel ethnic studies is a waste of taxpayer money," said Anna Ochoa O'Leary, a professor at the University of Arizona's Department of Mexican American and Raza Stories.
Ochoa O'Leary said she strongly disagreed that the Mexican-American studies class promoted overthrowing the government.
"This is really quite abrasive," Ochoa O'Leary said. "I don't know where they got that idea, and it's almost like the red baiting of the 50s. Conservative forces have done this for the last 100 years."
Well-known Chicano writers are joining with the librotraficante's cause.
Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, Dagoberto Gilb and Luis Alberto Urrea have signed on to participate with the caravan through public readings at each stop of the trip.
Gilb, author of "The Magic of Blood" and "Woodcuts of Women," said he is planning to join the Librotraficante caravan in El Paso and will travel to Tucson with the group.
Gilb, who now works as a writer in residence and as the executive director of Centro Victoria at the University of Houston-Victoria, lived in El Paso off and on for 15 years between 1976 and 1997. During that time, he worked as a carpenter, and released "Winners on the Pass Line," a collection of short stories, which was the first book published by Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso.
He called the Arizona law prohibiting ethnic studies "raw, anti-Mexican racism."
"The Irish people are known to love literature because they love their Irish poets and writers and people," Gilb said. "People from the American South love their culture and literature and history of the South and no one objects in the slightest- the contrary. The people objecting in Arizona are not Mexican-American people, and I'll bet if anyone looked into it they'd find that they are not even long-term residents of the state or region."
John Byrd, managing editor Cinco Puntos Press, which published Gilb's "Winners on the Pass Line" as its first book Gilb's first collection of short stories. The publishing company is planning to donate books to Librotraficante and participate in the El Paso reading.
Byrd said he thinks what's happened in Arizona has brought attention to books about Hispanic issues in a good way.
"Most are relatively old and have been in publication at least a decade, maybe longer," Byrd said. "They weren't books at the front of people's conversations. By banning the books, Tucson has done the great service of getting people taking about these books again." Hayley Kappes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6168.
Librotraficante stops in the Borderland El Paso: 7 p.m. March 14 at the Mercado Mayapan, 2101 Myrtle. Authors including Dagoberto Gilb and Luis Alberto Urrea and others will read some of their works. Mesilla: 10 a.m. March 15 at the Cultural Center de Mesilla, 2231 Calle De Parian, Mesilla. The caravan will have a breakfast press conference and have a "quick lit throw down."
Banned books The attached list was gathered by the group Librotraficante, which is calling the books banned. Tucson Unified School District officials said only seven books were removed from classrooms after the Mexican-American studies program ended.
The district said the books are available in school libraries. "Critical Race Theory" by Richard Delgado "500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures" edited by Elizabeth Martinez "Message to AZTLAN" by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales "Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement" by Arturo Rosales "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos" by Rodolfo Acuna "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paulo Freire "Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years" by Bill Bigelow
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