“Arizona banned our history. We decided to make more.”
By Anna Daniels
Editor Note: So here’s some good news in 2017–a Federal judge declared Arizona’s ban on Mexican-American ethnic studies unconstitutional. The legal battle took seven years, which goes to show that sustained resistance + access to legal remedies = progressive wins. The following article was published in 2014.
If you can ban one book, why not ban a whole bunch of them? Back in 2012 the Tucson Arizona public school system embraced the more is better approach when it eliminated the Mexican American Studies Program from the K-12 curriculum.
The LA Times reported that “The Tucson school board voted to end the program after Arizona’s education chief had ruled the district in violation of a controversial state law banning classes designed for a particular ethnic group or that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.” The Tuscon school district stood to lose $14 million in state education funds, which no doubt squelched a more robust debate on the topic of intellectual freedom and education.
The grassroots Librotraficantes (book trafficker) movement arose as a full-throated denunciation of Arizona Law HB 2281, which banned Mexican American Studies in the state. It didn’t matter to the lawmakers that Mexican American students account for more than 40% of the enrollment in Arizona schools, or that this curriculum was popular, or that it was successful in promoting literacy and critical thought–you know, educating students. It did, however, matter to the people affected by the decision.
Librotraficantes set up a book caravan, solicited donated books and funds, smuggled books back into Tucson and have been setting up underground libraries in Tucson and beyond. Founder Tony Diaz kicked off their efforts with the video “Wetbooks: Smuggling Banned Literature Back Into Arizona.”
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who wrote HB 2281, stated that the “Mexican American Studies Program in the Tucson school system promoted resentment toward a race or a class of people and advocated ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of people as individuals.”
Which books and authors were banned for promoting ethnic resentment and ethnic solidarity in our putatively post-racial, rugged individualist, everyone-is-equal world? Sandra Cisneros’ novel House on Mango Street. Rudolf Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, Denise Chavez, author of Loving Pedro Infante and five books by Luis Urrea. House on Mango Street consigned to an underground library, in the United States, in 2012?
Did the Tucson school board members actually read any of these books? Did they attend any of the classes? One school board member in the Daily Show interview below unabashedly states that he relied upon hearsay in making his decision.
Librotraficantes continue their smart, effective PR campaign from headquarters in Texas. In April of this past year they launched a successful campaign against proposed Texas legislation that would have replicated the Arizona law to eliminate Mexican American Ethnic Programs from school curricula.
They protested a middle school principal who made a public announcement banning the speaking of Spanish in the classroom in a school with 50% Latino enrollment. The school district got rid of the principal. Tony Diaz provided a nuanced response to her removal in a Buzzfeed interview earlier this year.
The Hempstead School District got rid of the principal, which is a quick answer, but not the most effective one. The correct answer is education, from the higher echelons on down. That’s why we organized the Librotraficante Caravan in the first place — it’s clear that only art and literacy can save us.
Librotraficantes draws upon a rich cultural heritage as well as a history of activism. It should come as no surprise that there is a corrido, a popular narrative musical genre, dedicated to the Librotraficante:
En el estado de la Arizona
Esta una gobernadora muy bocona
Pasando siempre la mala palabra
Encontra mi gente, linda mejicana
Con eso comenzo todo este guato
De remover lo nuestro con contrato
Por las escuelas entre los cuartos
Libros escribidos por nuestros vatos
Ponte trucha, chicas y chicanos
De aqui semos y no los vamos
Nuestra palabra es nuestra historia
Da le madre hasta la victoria … [Read the rest of El Corrido De El Librotraficante by Juan Manuel Perez here.]
It’s Banned Book Week, so un abrazo fuerte to Librotraficantes, who are making history– and making sure that we are able to read about it.
This article was originally published September 24, 2014