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Banned-book caravan enters Tucson ethnic studies controversy

March 21, 2012|By Dalina Castellanos
  • In this file photo, candles are placed on a poster in front of Tucson Magnet High School to protest an Arizona law banning Mexican American studies and other ethnic study programs.
In this file photo, candles are placed on a poster in front of Tucson Magnet… (James S. Wood )

Si se puede leer. Yes we can read.

Tucson's ethnic studies quandary just won't go away. Months after the school board suspended its Mexican American studies program rather than lose more than $14 million in state aid, a caravan of writers and activists brought an "underground library" to town.

The small but substantial collection of books by Mexican American, Chicano and other minority authors was banished from Tucson classrooms after the board's January vote.

"We wanted to hand these love letters in the form of books to these students," said Tony Diaz, a literature professor at Houston Community College, who led the weekend protest. "We're defending our culture and freedom of speech."

Diaz coined the term librotraficante, or "book smuggler," for the movement. Activists started in Houston last week, making stops in Texas and New Mexico along the way to collect books and supporters.

The Tucson school board acted under duress. Arizona's education chief had ruled the district in violation of a controversial state law banning classes designed for a particular ethnic group, or that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," or that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government." 

The board appealed that finding but lost. The only remaining challenge to the law is making its way through federal court, with two students as plaintiffs.

So now, works by Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya are being shared and discussed in a clandestine manner instead of in classrooms.

"The word librotraficante shouldn't exist in America," Diaz said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times Tuesday. "You shouldn't have to smuggle books."

This November, three seats on the school board are on the ballot -- potentially enough to reverse course.

"All art is breaking loose," Diaz said. "They knew we weren't going to overthrow the government through violence. We were going to overhaul the government by voting them out of office."

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