Book Smugglers in the United States

by Merritt Wuchina    /  May 21, 2012  / 7 Comments

Librotraficantes arrive at the Alamo

Librotraficante Bryan Parras films the Librotraficantes as they arrive at the Alamo.

Houston and San Antonio, January, 2012: Calling all Librotraficantes

After the books were confiscated in Tucson, Tony Diaz and Bryan Parras filmed a video for Librotraficante in front of Diaz’s garage in Houston and declared their intentions to act.

  1. A Movement’s Evolution: 2012, After Tucson
  2. January 10: TUSD votes to eliminate Mexican-American studies program.
  3. January 11: School administrators enter classrooms and begin boxing up books; federal judge declares students may challenge constitutionality of the law.
  4. January 16: Bryan Parras tweets “Calling all Librotraficantes.”
  5. January 17: Tony Diaz “El LIbrotraficante,” Bryan Parras “Librotraficante HighTechAztec,” and Liana Lopez “Librotraficante Lilo” announce the launch of the Librotraficante Caravan to Tucson through their “Wet Books” video, the website www.librotraficante.com, and by taking their Librotraficante monikers on the Nuestra Palabra radio show.
  6. March 8: New York Times writes about Librotraficante.
  7. March 9: Tony Diaz interviewed by Democracy Now!
  8. March 12: Caravan begins in Houston, TX; Carmen Tafolla and others speak in front of the Alamo in San Antonio, TX.
  9. March 13: Caravan hosts school board review, a teach-in, and banned book bash in San Antonio.
  10. March 14: Caravan hosts a banned book bash in El Paso.
  11. March 15: Caravan joins Denise Chavez for a breakfast press conference in Mesilla, NM; visits Rudolfo Anaya to receive a blessing in Albuquerque, NM; hosts press conference and banned book bash at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
  12. March 16: Caravan enters Tuscon, AZ; hosts press conference at John Valenzuela Youth Center and opens underground library.
  13. March 17: Caravan builds underground library; hosts school board review and teach-in; passes out banned books in a low rider; hosts Literary Showcase; celebrates the San Patricio Battalion.
  14. April 3: Carmen Tafolla named first Poet Laureate of San Antonio.
  15. April 4: Tony Diaz releases “The Librotraficante Manifesto.”

“My name’s Tony,” he says in the video, wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses while standing in front of a black van in his garage.

“You may have heard that Arizona had the audacity to ban Latino studies.” The trunk of the van is filled with boxes, and titles like Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are visible.

“Well I’m here to introduce a few more words into the lexicon of Arizona,” he raises his right fist in defiance.

“First phrase: Librotraficante. Me and my fellow librotraficantes will be smuggling contraband books back into Arizona this spring, 2012.”

The Librotraficante movement started on January 16, when Bryan Parras read a story about the events in Tucson. He immediately sent out a tweet calling all Libro Traficantes: “The LT are headed to Tucson w/ more banned books than the ‘thought police’ can handle. Stay tuned…” He also sent the news to Diaz and Lopez, who sent it to their friends, and so on. Soon, the story was buzzing around the net.

Meanwhile in San Antonio, Chicana poet and writer Carmen Tafolla was following the news about Tucson and reading her friends’ reactions on Facebook. Then she received a phone call that shocked her.

“You’re on that list, you know,” a fellow writer told her, “for Curandera.”

Tafolla went to her bookshelf and pulled out the collection of poems she wrote almost thirty years ago. It was set to be reprinted by her publisher in September. “If I was a school administrator,” she thought, “how would I read this?” So with critical eyes, Tafolla slowly reread her own work, looking for any trace of offensive material.

She opened to her flash fiction piece “Quality Literature,” in which a student asks his professor if he can write an essay on a Chicano author. The professor replies, “Chicano literature simply isn’t quality…it hasn’t even been critiqued by the PMLA!”

“You know what,” she said to herself, “the Tucson administrators haven’t even read my book at all.”

She returned to Facebook. Seeing Diaz’s wall alert with stories from Arizona, she replied. “So what now? Does that mean I have to smuggle my books into Arizona in a brown paper bag?”

Diaz responded to her question in the Librotraficante video: “Second Phrase: Wet [Back] Books. These are books that we will smuggle illegally across the border to be used in underground classes where we will conduct Latino literary studies.”

Diaz pulls out Woodcuts of Women by Dagoberto Gilb.

“It’s a lethal dose of Dagoberto Gilb comin’ at you, Arizona.”

From Houston To Tucson, March 2012: Planning A Caravan

Along with two more of their colleagues, Lupe Mendez and Laura Acosta, the group began to plan a Librotraficante Caravan not unlike the US Social Forum Parras and Lopez had helped organize. The caravan extended the team’s 14 years of work with Nuestra Palabra and the 11 years they spent hosting the radio show. Through both projects the Librotraficantes already had an informal network of Latino writers across the country.

  1. Organizers
  2. Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say
  3. Tony Diaz: Author of The Aztec Love God and The Children of the Locust Tree, publisher of magazine Aztec Muse, co-host of Nuestra Palabra radio show
  4. Liana Lopez: freelance writer, social media consultant for the Gulf Coast Fund, co-host of Nuestra Palabra radio show
  5. Bryan Parras: co-producer of Nuestra Palabra radio show, writer for the Bridge the Gulf Project
  6. Lupe Mendez: poet, educator and performer
  7. Laura Acosta

Starting on March 12 in Houston, Texas, the caravan would pass through four Southwestern cities – San Antonio, El Paso, Mesilla, and Albuquerque – before arriving in Tucson on March 16. In these cities, the group planned to distribute a complete set of all of the banned books and other multicultural literature to local nonprofit organizations in an effort to create “underground libraries.” At each city the group would host readings by banned authors such as Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Carmen Tafolla.

After putting out a press release, receiving attention from the Huffington Post, New York Times, CNN, and Democracy Now!, and contacting friends and family, the group gained thirty-five individuals who agreed to travel with them on a bus for a week.

Up until the start of the Caravan, the group would go from their full-time jobs to Lopez’s dining room, which had been turned into a makeshift meeting space with a whiteboard and projector. The group received 1,000 books worth $20,000. But just to run the Caravan they estimated they would need $80,000. They received $15,000 in donations.

During the meetings the group also discussed their reasons for forming the Caravan. “The students make it worth it,” related Lopez. “Tony and I were the first in our families to graduate from college…for a lot of Latinos just getting through high school is a challenge.”

“If this kind of thing could happen in Tucson, where they had a solid, well-established, and exemplary program for years, with the full support of the community, it could happen anywhere,” said Tafolla.

Despite the project’s significance the group also had some worries about starting the Caravan. They wondered if the Tucson students would accept their help, if putting their ideas into action would be as easy as talking about them, or if their anger would get the best of them. But in the end, their personal maxims rang true.

“The laws might fail us, but we can always turn to art and push it,” said Diaz.

“If anyone was to do anything, we had the power to do it,” said Lopez.

Continue reading this article on page 3

About the Author

Merritt Wuchina is an editorial intern at Sampsonia Way and also assists with its Twitter marketing. In April 2012, she will earn a B.A. in English Writing and anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh as well as certificates in Latin American and global studies. She received third place in the University of Pittsburgh’s 2011 Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Writing Contest for her essay “Between the Sunlight and Salvia: The Life of Khet Mar and Sampsonia Way,” which was also published in Issue 8 of The Original Magazine.

View all articles by Merritt Wuchina

7 Comments on "Book Smugglers in the United States"

  1. Liam Swanson May 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm ·

    Great article! I love to see artists struggling for social justice. But I think it’s a mistake to couch this simply in the terms of censorship and freedom of speech. The Arizona government destroyed this Mexican-American studies programme because they felt the programme was potentially insurrectionarry. It taught people things they shouldn’t know, and it helped an oppressed race rise up. This threatens the US power structure.

    This is not an issue of artists saying whatever they wish in the geography of liberal-ideological social discourse. We ought to acknowledge that capitalism and its brothers racism and sexism practice a form of social censorship before one can even graduate high school, let alone become a published (marketable) writer.

    To speak solely in terms of censorship versus freedom of speech (a negative freedom) is to elide the greater issue, that of positive freedom. The freedom TO DO something. Most chicanos, most blacks, and so many women of any colour do not have the freedom to publish their works. Here is a socially imposed silence, not from the government, but from the entire system of the United States; everyone imposes this silence. It is a violent silence, a painful silence. These freedom fighters in SW America are fighting to break this silence, so let’s not contribute to the censorship by eliding the larger social issues at play.

    Peace and thanks,

    Liam Swanson

  2. Susie Moreno May 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm ·

    Liam, I totaly agree with you, this silance must be broken. To blame is the entire system of the United States. So very sad, it has gone on much to long. Many thanks to the young Mexican- American studies students from Arizona that decided to stand up for their Rights for all our Rights.

  3. Eric Hartman May 24, 2012 at 10:14 am ·

    Thanks for doing this story! I’ve started an online banned bookstore http://buildingabetterworld.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/love-literature-stop-censorship-buy-a-book-build-a-better-world/, specifically encouraging people to:

    1. Buy a banned book.
    2. Read it.
    3. Discuss it with friends and neighbors.
    4. Donate it to a librotraficantes library.

    So, please, visit the blog and banned bookstore, buy a book, read the book, discuss it, and ship it to a community library (addresses of librotraficante community libraries included).

  4. Easterine Kire May 29, 2012 at 5:39 am ·

    Thanks for this great article. I am compiling a list of banned books from your list and other lists and going to make sure my library buys these books and has them in a separate and prominent shelf.

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