Los Librotraficantes Fight To Smuggle Books Into Schools

Tony Diaz, the man behind the Librotraficante (or “book trafficker”) Movement, talks about smuggling banned books into Arizona and fighting to keep Chicano literature in American schools.

Tony Diaz El Librotraficante with student leaders in San Antonio during the 2014 NACCS Conference protesting Republican-authored SB 1128. Zeke Perez

As soon as it hit the road in March 2012 on its now-famous caravan, Los Librotraficantes rose to national prominence as a symbol of successful grassroots organizing in support of ethnic studies programs and freedom of speech in the public school systems. The Librotraficante (or “book trafficker”) Movement was founded to defy Arizona legislators’ prohibition of Mexican-American studies via HB 2281. The six-city caravan from Houston to Tucson essentially “smuggled” the banned books back into Arizona. Along the way, thousands of additional books were donated from around the country, allowing communities to open four underground libraries that unleashed a renewed interest in the Latina/o literary legacy. Though their efforts were concentrated initially in the Southwest (and Arizona in particular), their reach has since extended across the continental U.S. by building alliances with communities that also perceive the banning of ethnic literature from the classrooms as an act of aggression against ethnic culture; the gateway toward ethnic pride and political agency, Los Librotraficantes believe, is literacy. Its founder, Tony Diaz, who also serves as Director of Intercultural Initiatives at Lone Star College-North Harris in Texas, took a few minutes from his active schedule to answer a few questions.

Tony Diaz in a press conference in San Antonio in front of the Alamo during the 2012 Librotraficante Caravan to Smuggle Banned Books Back to Tucson. Liana Lopez

The Librotraficante Movement has been going strong for a few years now, bringing national attention to the assault against Chicano/Mexican-American studies programs and literature, an important component of American culture in this country. I always suspect these acts are expressions of fear of our community, which is growing exponentially — by 2050 the nation’s population will have a Latino majority. The push-back is palpable. The more clearly visible and politically viable a group, the more it’s seen as a threat. What’s going down in Texas recently and why is it more pressing than ever to get the word out about what Los Librotraficantes are fighting for?

Tony Diaz: Texas is facing the browning of America more dramatically than most states. Fifty-one percent of its 5 million students are Latino. Texas can either become the model of how a multicultural, multimedia era functions correctly, or it can become stifled like Arizona, where Democrats and Republicans are pitted against each other, and discriminatory laws are passed to overtly oppress Mexican-Americans. This is going to be decided one audacious act at a time, and our merry band of Librotraficante are happy to be in the middle of it, changing minds via art and mind-altering prose. One Republican’s campaign ad says: “Stop the invasion. Secure the border.” Why would they hate on Canadians like that? But seriously, retro clothes are cool; retro racism is not cool. Last March that same senator authored SB 1128 [visit www.StopTXHB1938.org for more info], which would have effectively dismantled ethnic studies. However, our community formed a statewide coalition to oppose and defeat that bill. And we won.

Last December, a principal at Hempstead Middle School, now 50% Latino, made a public announcement banning the speaking of Spanish in the classroom. The principal would have benefitted from a Mexican-American Studies education to appreciate that our elders suffered under similar ignorance — they were punished for speaking Spanish at school. 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.

Texas is your home base and I’m interested in how the Tejano/Chicano/Latino population sees its role as participants in the shifting political landscape. There’s so much talk — and I say this as someone from the outside looking in) — that Texan politicians are getting savvy about welcoming Latinos into the Republican Party in order to increase its membership. I’m a flaming liberal living in New York and I think it sounds like an insane proposition. As someone seeing this from the inside, what’s the temperature like in the Texan headquarters? Is there a Latino population out there that’s ready to embrace Republican values? Or is this yet another Republication disconnection from reality? And how is this a challenge or a benefit to Librotraficante’s efforts?

TD: When I meet a Tejano Republican, I have to make sure he doesn’t think like an Arizona Republican. I won’t have anything to do with Arizona Republicans who have passed laws to ban Mexican-American studies (MAS) and profile members of our community. Although the GOP has increased its reach among Mexican-Americans, they screw up every time they listen to guys like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. (By the way, if they don’t know the differences between Rubio and, say, Joaquin Castro, then that’s another argument for implementing Mexican-American studies in Texas schools.) The GOP’s approach to Mexican-American studies is the real make or break issue for Latino outreach in Texas. The Republicans got it wrong from the get go. The 2012 Texas GOP platform says, “We favor strengthening our common American identity and loyalty instead of political correctness that nurtures alienation among racial and ethnic groups.” The Texas GOP platform also says, “We believe the current teaching of a multicultural curriculum is divisive.”

We’ve learned from the struggles of our brothers and sisters in Arizona. The students and teachers of Tucson are taking their case against HB 2281 to the 9th District Court of Appeals this fall. Everyone’s freedom of speech is at stake. So are you the type of Republican who would prohibit the teaching of the story of war hero and Texas legend Roy Benavidez from the classroom? His memoir will fall under the rubric of multiculturalism. He’s an American hero. His life story is not divisive. With every additional offensive act toward Chicanas/os by the Republican Party, more and more Libroraficantes are created.

Group picture with Dagoberto Gilb, Denise Chavez, and Tony Diaz arriving in Mesilla, N.M., during the 2012 Librotraficante Caravan to Smuggle Banned Books Back to Tucson.

I’m curious about how social media has transformed political activism and how Los Librotraficantes are using it. I recall an impressionable YouTube video you made, Tony, in which you frame the act of resistance to censorship with the language of trafficking — smuggling books back into the places that banned them. Why this particular context and why is it important to utilize such vehicles as Facebook and Twitter (@Librotraficante)?

TD: The civil rights movement of the 1970s was taken into overdrive by the advent of broadcast TV news. Across the country, the little black box that would come to shape the American imagination was conveying images of African-American activists being hosed down, attacked by dogs, and other atrocities. Without seeing it with their own eyes, most Americans didn’t think such vile acts could happen in the U.S. Likewise, the students of Tucson let the world know via social media that Mexican-American studies was banned, that books about our history and culture were confiscated from classrooms before their very eyes, and that they wanted the literature back. We heard their cries in Houston.

Social media helped Los Librotraficantes organize a six-city caravan from Houston to Tucson in six weeks. Of course, our network of writers, activists, students, families was built on the 14 years of work we conducted through a nonprofit I founded in 1998 called Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. We had zero budget to pull this off. But we knew we were rich in cultural capital, in passion, creativity, and we work hard — crazy hard. These are all characteristics that have helped our community survive. Social media helps us use those skills to thrive.

The YouTube video you mentioned was the tip of that pyramid. We premiered it via the classic media of radio via our NP Radio Show, which started broadcasting in 2002, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, which airs on KPFT 90.1 FM Houston. Social media combined with the once overlooked talent in our community has allowed us to mount national and international campaigns that major public relations firms can only dream of.

You highlight on your website that critical vote on April 8 that will take place with the state board of education, which will decide the fate of Mexican-American studies. What do you foresee as the role of those of us, your friends and allies, who are not residents of Texas? And what’s going to be the next step should the SBOE vote to go the way of Arizona?

TD: From April 8 to April 12 the Librotraficantes and a statewide coalition descend on Austin, Texas, to liberate our history. We’re demanding that Barbara Cargill, Republican chair of the Texas State Board of Education, stop blocking a vote to implement Mexican-American studies in high schools. It seems like every spring Los Librotraficantes take on a far right oppressor. This spring we’re creating our own art car — the Librotraficante Think Tank — which will be covered in the books banned in Arizona, complete with loudspeakers and DJ turntables, a portable protest, and party. We’re driving the Librotraficante Think Tank to Austin for a #BookRave the night of April 8 then the next morning April 9, a march up Congress Avenue from César Chávez Street up to the Capitol Building to testify for Mexican-American studies. The Texas State Board of Education keeps moving the goal posts and just changed the dates of testimony for a second time, so check for updates at www.MASTexas.org.

Any final words for BuzzFeed readers?

TD: Absoutely! Visit www.Librotaficante.com to learn more about our cause. Mexican American Studies will be instituted in Texas. This can happen now and we do it together. Or it can happen later, and we do it without the Republican Party. It will take a bit longer, but in that case, instead of dealing with thousands of us, they will look up one day and discover they are surrounded by millions of Librotraficantes!

***
Rigoberto González is the author of 13 books of poetry and prose and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Literature. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

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