Having recently returned from Seattle where Librotraficante received the prestigious 2012 Downs Intellectual Freedom Award, group founder Tony Diaz reflects on his efforts over the past few years to launch what he calls the Latino renaissance.
“This was all in reaction to the Arizona law House Bill 2281, which was created to prohibit courses that promote the overthrow of the government,” Diaz told VOXXI. “We heard about students lamenting books had been taken out of the classroom while class was in session. We were terribly offended.”
Using his Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say network, which promotes the work of Hispanic artists and writers, Diaz organized a city caravan opening four underground libraries from his hometown of Houston to San Antonio, Albuquerque and Tucson.
Librotraficante, which is Spanish for “book smuggler”, sought monetary and book donations to keep Mexican-American studies alive. House Bill 2281 was pulling classics such as Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Dagoberto Gilb’s Woodcuts of Women off library shelves and out of school classrooms, as well as eliminating Latino literature classes.
“The law was meant to prohibit books that promote the overthrow of the government but anyone familiar with those books knows it’s ridiculous to think that,” Diaz said. “I think people in Arizona are scared of our culture. So when right-wing reactionaries further that fear, we are able to say, ‘Wait a second. The books you’re talking about include House on Mango Street, which is required reading in most states in America.”
“The irony is that actually if you take the ACT, there are questions about House on Mango Street on the test to get into college. So they’re not only infringing on civil rights but they’re sabotaging their students’ ability to compete on college entrance exams.”
From the start, Diaz said Librotraficante’s biggest fear was the “anti-intellectual” Arizona House Bill would spread to other states. He cites a galvanization of activists and non-Latinos for keeping this from happening, specifically noting Texas’ anti-immigration movement in the past election was kept in check.
Librotraficante: Educating on Mexican-American culture
As for Arizona’s House Bill 2281, Diaz said he believes it’ll be decided eventually in the Supreme Court.
“It hurts me to my soul to know that law is still active,” Diaz said.
Having witnessed Mexican-Culture being systematically erased from schools and libraries in Arizona, the Houston resident said Librotraficante is focusing its efforts on opening underground libraries and spreading awareness on a national level.“The goal is we never want our culture to be in this position again,” Diaz said. “We want to guarantee our communities have access to our books. “
Diaz said Librotraficante possesses what he calls “cultural capitalism.” What the organization lacks in funds, it makes up for in cultural capital it can leverage with the non-profit world where many Latino communities don’t have a literary component.
So far the group has teamed up with non-profit Latino institutions in Phoenix, El Paso, Milwaukee, Louisville and San Diego to open libraries. Another one is scheduled to open soon in Los Angeles.
Overall, Librotraficante efforts are attracting the attention of the mainstream, including the Downs Intellectual Freedom Award. Looking ahead, Diaz talks as if the battle is far from over.
“The message is that the civil rights of all Americans are at stake and being defended in the front lines by Mexican-Americans,” Diaz said. “Even as the Latino frenzy hits, we have to know there are contraband thoughts that the government wants to keep from our young, and it’s just really all about intellectual freedom. These are books about the American dream.”
He added, “Arizona wanted people to think that we wanted to overthrow the government through violence. No, we’re going to overhaul the government by voting folks like them out of office and we’re going to keep smuggling this mind-altering prose to every part of the country. They thought they were going to erase it, we’re actually going to guarantee it’s even more widely accessible to people.”