Librotraficante and the New Latino Renaissance
It is March 17, 2012. I’m in the auditorium at the Cesar E. Chavez Building, University of Arizona, destination of the Librotraficante caravan, which has traveled by bus from Houston giving out contraband literature, holding press conferences, setting up underground libraries and forums with new school board candidates to replace those who have sold out Latino literature. The book smugglers have arrived in Tucson, where one of the country’s strongest Mexican American Studies programs was recently dismantled. They’ve brought the eyes of the nation with them.
There’s a buzz in the dimly lit hall. Writers from the caravan mingle with audience members--performers dressed for la danza, local teachers, students, other Librotraficantes. A row of books lines the stage: Rudolfo Anaya, Ricardo Flores Magón, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Sherman Alexie, Dagoberto Gilb, Howard Zinn. I find myself wishing my California high school had offered a Mexican American studies program, that I’d been encouraged to read these authors, learn about this history at a young age. It would have better prepared me for my college major in comparative literature. I am a European American of Irish, English, and German descent. Yet Superintendent Horne’s HB2281, the bill that has removed this learning opportunity from Arizona students, outlaws curriculum “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” assuming a one-to-one between a student’s ethnicity and cultural interests. It outlaws classes that encourage students to identify in terms of ethnic solidarity rather than as individuals. It relegates these books to the margins of our education system, claiming they are divisive when taught together as a core curriculum rather than a sidebar.
The house lights go down, and one by one, Librotraficantes take the mic in praise of their culture with poems, stories, and dance. People of all ethnic backgrounds are welcome to participate, because in their sophistication, which far exceeds that of Tom Horne and the Arizona legislature, the Librotraficantes know that ethnic solidarity strengthens the bonds between individuals. I haven’t yet heard the term “quantum demographics,” but as an Irish American celebrating Latino culture on St. Patrick’s Day, I’m experiencing them. I am part of something stronger than the fear behind this legislation. The Librotraficantes have traveled hundreds of miles to show us we’re not alone, and we’re going to win.
The Librotraficante movement has helped bring sustained national attention to an issue of national significance, calling the fight for ethnic studies in Arizona and Texas “the cause of our generation.” At the time of this writing, the constitutionality of HB2281 is still in question, the case against it on its way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The judicial branch will soon decide whether states may legislate the presence of issues like race, gender, and class in primary and secondary education, or whether a student’s access to such information is constitutionally protected.
Meanwhile, high school students in Tucson who watched administrators march into their classroom and box up their literature have lost their Mexican American Studies courses. Teachers inclined to initiate similar ethnic studies programs may think twice before risking a similar firestorm. But groups including Save Ethnic Studies, La Raza, Latino Rebels, Nuestra Palabra, and the Librotraficantes continue to advocate. Curtis Acosta, former MAS teacher at Tucson High, has founded The Acosta Learning Partnership, supporting educators alongside associations like Teachers of Social Justice, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, Rethinking Schools, and more. Literary journals like Huizache, Sonora Review, and Drunken Boat continue to showcase Latino literature, with special issues in response to HB2281 and the Librotraficante movement. Together, our efforts are transforming Arizona’s legislative attack into a New Latino Renaissance.
With this portfolio, featuring twenty-nine pieces by twenty writers, Drunken Boat adds to the Librotraficantes’ collection of underground libraries an online space where new voices debut alongside established writers, some of whom were on Arizona’s banned book list, many of whom were not. Our contributors responded to a call for work that honors our country’s Latino heritage, in solidarity with the Librotraficante movement. Their poems, stories, and essays explore contemporary Latino cultures from New Jersey to Chesapeake Bay, Arizona, and Sonora. They celebrate the bridges between cultures and investigate divisions. They pay homage to previous generations of writers, poets, and activists who passed the torch.
It’s been an honor to work with my coeditor, Librotraficante founder Lupe Mendez; Librotraficante founder Tony Diaz; and all our contributors to bring you this portfolio. May the talent here encourage and inspire you.
Erin Wilcox is a writer, poet, musician, and editor. She is the nonfiction editor for Drunken Boat: An Online Journal of Art and Literature, a former copyeditor for Alaska Quarterly Review, the founding coordinator of the Editorial Freelancers Association’s Arizona chapter, owner of Wilcox Editing Services, and a staff editor at The Editorial Department. Erin's creative work has been featured recently in Praxis: Gender and Cultural Critiques, Short and Twisted, Spiral Orb, Soundzine, Stoneboat, Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska, Veil: Journal of Darker Musings, and in radio broadcasts in Alaska and Arizona. She writes for various trade and scholarly publications, including Copyediting and Text: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses.