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Houstonians set up underground libraries in response to book ban

By Hallie Jordan     4/12/12 7:00pm

After learning about a law in Arizona that has gotten books about Mexican-American history banned from classrooms, a group of Houstonians responded by collecting over 1,000 of the banned books, packing them in cars and taking them in a caravan across Texas and New Mexico to Tucson, Arizona.

Known as "librotraficantes," or book traffickers, a group led by Houston Community College professor and author Tony Diaz has taken it upon itself to help the students in Arizona to have access to the books that have been part of their school district's curriculum for years.

In 2010 Arizona passed House Bill 2281 that specifies that public school courses must not teach material that conflicts with the United States government.



The first section of the bill which is being used to shut down the Mexican-American studies curriculum states, "A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that [...] promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, [or] advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

So far, the Mexican-American Studies curriculum in the Tucson Unified School District is the only program to be found in violation of this law, which was originally written by Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne while he was the state's superintendent of public instruction.

The bill is currently under review at the local level to rule on whether it is constitutional or not. In conjunction with the TUSD school board, the state ruled in January that a Mexican-American studies program for students from kindergarten through 12th grade was in conflict with the bill, Tucson Magnet High School senior Nicolas Dominguez said. As a result, current Mexican-American Studies classes were shut down on January 13, forcing teachers to begin teaching a different class in the middle of the semester, he said. Along with ending the classes, teachers and administrators boxed up the books that they had been using for the classes in front of the students, Dominguez said. About three percent of the district's 55,000 students participated in the Mexican-American studies program prior to its closure. "I still don't know why, but the Board told the teachers that they had to box up seven different books during class," Dominguez said. "It was so frustrating and angering, and I don't understand why." Eighty-five different books have been banned as a result, Diaz said.

At a TUSD school board meeting last week, board members voted in favor of eliminating the Mexican-American studies program director position. Though the courses have been eliminated the program still technically exists, Dominguez said. As an author, Diaz said he feels that Arizona is doing a true disservice to its students and got the idea to bring the banned books back to the state after discussing the issue with his non-profit group, Nuestra Palabra, in Houston. "Forcing students to watch as books are boxed up in front of them is psychological warfare," Diaz said. Diaz went on to raise the $20,000 needed to cover the cost of 1,000 books, traveling through San Antonio, El Paso, Albuquerque, NM, and finally to Tucson, AZ. Along the way, the group held rallies and collected more books which they left in an "underground library" in each city. These libraries will be rooms in community service centers or non-profits that are already established and can house and protect the books. "We have unleashed an informal fight," Diaz said. "When they decided to erase our history we decided to make more." Diaz said he has been getting requests from other cities wanting help in creating the underground libraries, including New York City, he said.Dominguez attended the rally held by the librotraficantes and appreciates the support.

"I was so happy; it was a beautiful moment," Dominguez said. "I plan to visit the library as soon as school is out. They will have an impact. The librotraficates show a lot of love." The books that were taken out of the classroom focus on Chicano culture and history, Diaz said. Spanning nonfiction and fiction works, some of the books included in the ban include works by Sandra Cisneros such as

"House Mango Street" or histories of the culture such as "500 Years of Chicana History." "They told us we can't teach from the Mexican-American perspective, but our teachers are Mexican-American so I don't really understand what that means," Dominguez said. "The word 'perspective' is like a magical cover to keep them safe."



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