by Betsy Gomez
In late January, CBLDF joined a coalition of national anti-censorship organizations in protesting the dissolution of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, which led to the removal of books and anthologies by Latino and Native American authors from classrooms. Many of the authors who contributed to the books that were banned from classrooms have taken their protest a step further by participating in caravans that have “smuggled” the banned books into Arizona.
Tony Diaz, a literature professor from Houston, Texas, organized and led the Librotraficante Caravan, which traveled from Houston to Tucson, “carrying a payload of contraband books, creating networks of Underground Libraries and leaving community resources in its wake.” In the official press release for the caravan, Diaz says:
“Every great movement is sparked by outrage at a deep cultural offense,” said Tony Diaz, founder of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, which has led the charge, “When we heard that Tucson Unified School District administrators not only prohibited Mexican American Studies, but then walked into classrooms, and in front of young Latino students, during class time, removed and boxed up books by our most beloved authors — that was too much. This offended us down to our soul. We had to respond.”
Diaz added, “With their record of anti-immigrant legislation, politicians in Arizona have become experts in making humans illegal. We did not do enough to stop that, thus that anti-immigrant legislation spread to other states such as Alabama and Georgia. Now, these same legislators want to make thoughts illegal. If we allow this to happen, these laws, too, will spread. Other branches of ethnic studies will be prohibited, and other states will follow suit.”
In their coverage of the caravan, The Los Angeles Times describes the origin of the Librotraficante Caravan moniker and the Tucson school board’s motivation for ending the MAS program:
Diaz coined the term librotraficante, or “book smuggler,” for the movement. Activists started in Houston last week, making stops in Texas and New Mexico along the way to collect books and supporters.
The Tucson school board acted under duress. 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 resentment toward a race or class of people,” or that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.”
The board appealed that finding but lost. The only remaining challenge to the law is making its way through federal court, with two students as plaintiffs.
So now, works by Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya are being shared and discussed in a clandestine manner instead of in classrooms.
“The word librotraficante shouldn’t exist in America,” Diaz said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times Tuesday. “You shouldn’t have to smuggle books.”
Matt de la Peña, the author of Mexican WhiteBoy, a book that can no longer be taught in Tucson schools, recently visited Tucson High School at the behest of a student. The student and her school librarian worked for months to raise de la Peña’s speaking fee. In turn, he donated the fee to purchase 240 copies of his books to distribute to students at the school. The New York Times covered de la Peña’s visit, providing more background on the contention that has surrounded Tucson’s MAS program:
The conflict dates to 2006 when Dolores Huerta, a labor activist, gave a speech at Tucson High, telling students “Republicans hate Latinos.”
Tom Horne, the state education superintendent at the time and a Republican, sent his deputy to the high school to convey their concerns. But students saw the visit as an attack on free speech, and 200 walked out in protest.
Ka-boom. Mr. Horne accused the district’s Mexican-American studies program of using an antiwhite curriculum to foster social activism. At the time, the program served 1,400 of 53,000 students in the Tucson district, which is 60 percent Latino.
In 2010, after several attempts, the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Republican governor passed a law prohibiting classes that advocate overthrowing the government, are designed for students of one ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals. The state wanted Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program disbanded.
When Tucson officials resisted, the attorney general’s office issued subpoenas. Investigators obtained textbooks, PowerPoint presentations, teachers’ college theses, exam prompts, poems and lyrics from hip-hop songs.
Class lessons were singled out over apparent political bias, among them “From Cortes to Bush: 500 Years of Internalized Oppression.” Seven texts were ordered removed from all classrooms, including “Chicano! The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement” by F. Arturo Rosales and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire.
“Mexican WhiteBoy” fell into a category of books that could no longer be taught but could be used by students for leisure reading. To get an independent assessment of the program, the state hired a consultant, for $110,000, to conduct an audit.
The audit found that while some aspects of the program needed changing, it was doing a good job. It noted that students who took Mexican-American studies were more likely to attend college, and that the program helped close the achievement gap. The state ignored the audit, calling it flawed.
John Huppenthal, the new state superintendent, told a reporter that he was fighting a war. “When we encountered this situation, we did what Hannibal did to the Romans,” he said. “This is the eternal battle, the eternal battle of all time, the forces of collectivism against the forces of individuality.”
The Times article indicated that little of what de la Peña had to say was political, and instead he discussed his transition from a reluctant reader to writer:
He told them that if they were serious about writing, they had to be ready to accept lots of failure. He once wrote a poem for a girl he liked, but after reading it, she never spoke to him again. His goal as a writer, he said, “is to give grace and dignity to people from the other side of the tracks.”
“If you are Mexican-American, embrace it,” he said. “If the classes are offered, take them; if not, try to get them back.”
The Modern Language Association of America, an organization founded in 1883 to enable the sharing of research and teaching experiences related to language and literature, weighed in on the issue, supporting the MAS program. In their statement, they wrote the following:
Our beliefs about ethnic studies and about curricular reform generally have been formed by forty years of scholarly research, informed debate, and open-ended discussion. As an organization devoted to the study of language and literature, the MLA is allied with primary and secondary school educators who teach in this field and who participate in the long project of questioning and undoing the biases of the traditional curriculum, which for many years ignored or demeaned the histories and cultures of people deemed “ethnic.” We see that project as central to the mission of American education at all levels. As former MLA President Sidonie Smith wrote in her 2010 letter to Governor Brewer, “ethnic studies curricula have provided important gateways for students to learn about the diversity of heritages in the United States, a key educational goal of the liberal arts education that is the bedrock of American higher education. . . . Policies that curtail this vision will weaken the quality of education.”
Finally, we see in these actions a threat to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry. To pursue scholarly inquiries into the histories and cultures of the United States, teachers must be free from legislative and judicial interference. Allowing state officials to declare legitimate branches of history and culture out of bounds—to the point of seizing and sequestering books—is inimical to the principles on which the United States was founded. And to students in the Tucson Unified School District, such actions send a far more chilling message than anything they might find in the books that have been removed from their classrooms.
The law that led to the banning of books from Tucson classrooms is being challenged in federal court, and it remains to be seen if the law will be overturned. In the meantime, authors and organizations across the country plan to keep the fight in the public eye. For more on this story, visit The LA Times, The New York Times, MLA, and Librotraficante.
Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.