May 13, 2013

A year of Librotraficantes: where to read Arizona’s banned books


It’s been a little over a year for Librotraficantes, a movement that came out of the passing, in May 2010, of HB 2281, an Arizona bill that prohibited school districts from offering courses that, among other things, “promoted resentment toward any race or class” and “advocated ethnic solidarity instead of being individuals.” HB 2281 led to the closing of the Tuscon Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies program and the removal of books from school libraries, including such incendiary texts as The Tempest.

In 2012, a group of educators, headed by Houston Community College professor Tony Diaz, decided to protest the bill and fight the book removals by forming the “Librotraficantes,” a caravan carrying the banned books to cities around the Southwest, where they were made available in volunteer-run libraries. The group has since then been organizing readings, workshops, protests, and ever more deliveries of books.

Earlier this year, Diaz was honored with the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award, given by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and at the ceremony, he talked about another important aspect of the group’s activities, i.e. containment:

“One of my big concerns was that this anti-intellectual law would spread like SB1070 did in Arizona to other states,” he says. “But when the Texas GOP put questionable language in their platform that we saw as code words that could lead to banning, we contacted them to make sure that wasn’t the intention.”

Diaz wrote an Op-ed in the Houston Chronicle and contacted Texas GOP members who assured him they did not plan to ban Mexican American Studies in Texas, something Diaz says would have mobilized his group again.

“We were making sure they knew they were being kept in check,” he says. “We would have had 1,000 books at their doorstep and conducted readings in their living rooms.”

Meanwhile, the ban on the Mexican-American studies program (not quite technically a ban, but the Tuscon Unified School District was threatened with losing 10% of its state funding if it continued to offer MAS courses) has had the opposite intended effect: students nationwide have become more aware of and interested in ethnic studies programs.

This interest is in no small part due to the efforts of the Librotraficantes, not only because of their more conventional forms of advocacy, but especially because of their first brillant concept: to take the narrative of illegal immigration and turn it into a story about how ideas are spread— more often than not, through unsanctioned channels.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.