Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Book Smugglers

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Book Smugglers

Article excerpt

As Arizona seeks to ban Mexican American Studies, a group of Latino artists and friends promises that making books disappear won't be that easy * by BELINDA ACOSTA

Author's Note: When Arizona House Bill 2281 was used to dismantle the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson public high schools earlier this year, books used in the courses were removed from classrooms-in at least one school as students watched. Most of the titles, but not all, were by Latino writers.

Instead of swallowing their dismay, several students documented what they witnessed through social media. That's how members of the Houston-based writers' collective Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Tlieir Say heard about what happened in Tucson. Incensed by the stifling of knowledge, they organized the Librotraficante (literally, "book traffickers") book caravan. Tlieir goal was to "smuggle" the "contraband" books back into Tucson, and bring attention to what critics contend is a troubling combination ofanti-intellectualism and the state's anti-immigration stance enacted earlier.

Nuestra Palabra members worked with partner organizations along the caravan route to hold press conferences and celebrate Latino arts and culture at several Librotraficante book bashes. In addition to the public events, the five-day journey stopped in six cities, seeding Librotraficante underground libraries along the way. This is a reflection on riding the Librotraficante caravan, which took place in mid-March.

SEEDS. My parents were farm laborers for part of their young adult lives. They did that body-leeching work in the hot Texas sun, picking and hauling cantaloupe, watermelon, onions, and anything else that required a human hand.

My life has been very different from theirs. I make a living working at a desk. But 1 keep an image near my computer: It's a black-and- white photo of farm laborers working a field. Bent at the waist, their arms hang from their torsos, grazing the ground like roots recently pulled from the earth. Whenever I start whining- about how hard my chair is, or that my computer is too slow, or that my agent doesn't love me as much as his other clients-I look at this photo. I work, but the kind of work shown in the photo is grinding and thankless.

Because the workers' faces are hidden in the shadow of broad-brimmed hats, I feel that I know even less about them. I don't know their story. What I do know is that the spinach, tomatoes, and onions I enjoy on a chilled plate are because of these faceless, distant people. And yet, I know I'm not that far removed from them. Besides our shared heritage, it's hard not to feel a sort of kinship to someone who makes it possible for food to appear on your plate.

SOWING. Earlier this year, I went on the Librotraficante caravan with 30 other activists, writers, artists, and book nerds. Officially, I was an embedded reporter for the Austin-based Texas Observer. My assignment was to write and post about the caravan on the road. I was exhausted during the day but energized by what I witnessed: an outpouring of concern for the future of books. The rallying cries focused on protesting censorship and the support of free speech. But at heart people were concerned about stories, whether in fiction or historical documents. It was clear that people's passion was driven by the recognition of story as sustenance. If our stories and our history could so easily be banished from the classroom (after many years of fighting for their inclusion), how will the world know about us? How will we know ourselves?

The caravan traveled from Houston to San Antonio, to El Paso, then into Mesilla and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Along the way we were fed. Chicana author Denise Chavez provided a spread that nearly took up the entire length of her Mesilla bookstore, while the godfather of Chicano letters, Rodolfo Anaya, welcomed the Librotraficantes into his home for a huge pot of posole and a few sips of tequila. …

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