Arizona, we’re throwing the book at you,” says novelist Tony Diaz in a video released online this past spring. In the video, the author of The Aztec Love God (Fiction Collective 2, 1998) and founder of the Houston, Texas–based arts advocacy group Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, wears aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket and stands near the open cargo area of an SUV. Chin tilted upward, he exudes a streetwise, mildly defiant posture as he showcases the goods in his vehicle. The implication is that he’s hawking something illegal—and he is, in a sense. He’s pushing what some consider dangerous books, literature effectively banned from Tucson, Arizona’s public high schools when the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program was shuttered there earlier this year, part of a statewide elimination of ethnic-studies curricula.
“Me and my fellow librotraficantes will be smuggling contraband books back into Arizona,” says Diaz, referring to a network of writers and other supporters who decided to respond in a concrete way to reports from Tucson Unified School District students that MAScourse books had been removed from their classrooms.
Within a few weeks of the video’s posting, and aided in part by Diaz’s active presence on Twitter (@Librotraficante), a quartet of Nuestra Palabra members organized the Librotraficante Caravan, hitting the road with two hundred books and thirty educators, activists, journalists, and self-identified “book nerds.” Receiving endorsements from notable Chicano and Latino writers such as Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Sandra Cisneros, and Dagoberto Gilb, the caravan departed Houston on March 12, stopped in San Antonio and El Paso, Texas, then traveled to Mesilla and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In each city, the librotraficantes facilitated press conferences, caucuses, and “banned-book bashes” to inform audiences of what was happening in Arizona and collect additional books to seed a Librotraficante Underground Library in Tucson. By the time the caravan reached Tucson on March 17, over a thousand books had been amassed.
While social media played a major role in igniting the Librotraficante Caravan, it was the passage of Arizona House Bill 2281 that provided ample kindling. The state legislation made it illegal to teach books in public and charter schools that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or a class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” The law went into effect in January 2011, and was ultimately the justification to end the MAS program this year.
School-district officials deny that any books have actually been banned, though they did classify seven titles as “not approved for instruction,” including Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (Rethinking Schools, 1991), edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, and Message to Aztlan (Arte Público Press, 2001) by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. Critics contend that the wholesale elimination of the MAS program creates a de facto ban on the more than fifty other titles used in the curriculum, such as Anaya’s classic novelBless Me, Ultima (Grand Central Publishing, 1994) and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz’s debut story collection, Drown (Riverhead Books, 1996).
Tony Diaz remains hopeful. “This is a case of new media saving the classic media of books,” he states in a press release. “Had Arizona done this ten years ago, we most likely would not have heard about it until it had impacted a second generation of youth.”
Diaz and his crew have now moved to phase two of the Librotraficante movement, releasing a laundry list of goals that includes opening more underground libraries across the Southwest, creating a speakers bureau that will identify experts equipped to give lectures or lead workshops, and organizing a book festival in Tucson modeled after the Latino literary fair that Nuestra Palabra organized annually in Houston from 2002 to 2007. The group also aims to build a First Amendment fund to support freedom-of-speech activists.
For more information about Librotraficante activities and where to locate an underground library, as well as a list of banned books, visit www.librotraficante.com.
Belinda Acosta is a freelance writer and novelist. This fall she will enter the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.