Liz Alarcón: Hey Pulso fam, we’re coming to you all this week with a topic that’s concerning for all of us, but especially those of us in the Latino community. You’ve been seeing the news. Our books are being banned, and we’re actually coming right off of the heels of Banned Book Week. Here in Florida, where I live, it is especially tough. We lead the country in probably one of the worst stats you can lead with – we have the most banned books out of the 50 states. 1,400 books have been banned since July 2022 and the bans keep on coming. Our governor and a lot of local officials really have a war on our freedom to read. It affects our schools, it’s affecting teachers, it’s affecting how parents are raising our kids. It is just such a tough time, Maribel for so many of us trying to make sure that our kids get the best education possible.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: And unfortunately here in Arizona, Liz, we’re not that far behind. The senate just passed a bill this year which would allow parents to request banning of any books that discuss things like gender fluidity or “any” gender pronouns, which is weird because essentially that means that any book that uses “he” or “she” or “they” could possibly be banned, according to this. I doubt that the governor Katie Hobbs will sign this into law, hoping that she will be the voice of reason here, but it is still awaiting House consideration. And that’s really scary.
Liz Alarcón: And Maribel, as long as those of us in our respective states don’t let these things happen, I think there’s always hope. As we grapple with all of these challenging affronts to our freedoms that we’re living in 2023, we can take a page from history and definitely gain inspiration from Latinos who were fighting these same kinds of issues and did it heroically, courageously, and make me so proud. This episode is a story from a dramatic and sometimes forgotten chapter in Arizona history. You all are going to hear about a time where the Latino community had to stand up and come together to protect our history, a time when students chained themselves to chairs and self-named book smugglers smuggled banned books through the state, all to fight a racist law and keep access to the books they called their own.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: You’re listening to the Pulso Podcast, we’ll be right back.
Liz Alarcón: The early 2010’s were a tough time to be Latino in Arizona.
Hank Stephenson: They were terrified for their communities. You know, they were afraid
that they were going to get pulled over, harassed by the police. It was just a real vibe of fear around Phoenix .
Liz Alarcón: That’s Hank Stephenson, a reporter who’s been covering politics in Arizona for the past 15 years. He remembers this period well.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: It was the era of SB1070, better known as the “Show Me Your Papers act” – a law that allowed police to racially profile Latinos, and arrest anyone without papers.
Liz Alarcón: And of course this was also when Joe Arpaio was the Sheriff of Maricopa County.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Yes, the same Joe Arpaio who was convicted of criminal contempt for disobeying a federal judge’s order to stop illegally profiling and detaining Latinos. He was later sentenced to prison before being pardoned by former President Donald Trump.
Liz Alarcón: It was a tough time for many of our community in Arizona. Queer Latino author Manuel Muñoz had just moved to Tucson to teach at The University of Arizona.
Manuel Muñoz: I was living in New York City when I took the job, and so when I moved, the change in political climate was really startling to me. The atmosphere in the state was one of intimidation.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Manuel was teaching at The University of Arizona’s campus in Tucson, right across the street from Tucson High School where one of his books, “Zigzagger” sat on the shelf of a classroom that was teaching a very special course, Mexican American Studies.
Liz Alarcón: In light of all the difficulty, division, and racism in the state, young Latino students at Tucson High School were struggling, and many felt completely disconnected from the school curriculum. But some of them found an oasis in the form of a new Mexican American Studies class being offered. Here’s Hank again.
Hank Stephenson: This gave them something to be excited about. It formed a community. It empowered students who generally didn’t feel like they had a whole lot of authority over their own lives or their own fates.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: This program, created by teacher Curtis Acosta in 1998 slowly picked up pace through the early 2000’s. It was initially created to fulfill an anti-desegregation court order, from a lawsuit filed against the school district in the 1970’s. The program was a way to help remedy “existing effects of past discriminatory acts and policies”.
Liz Alarcón: And for the first time, these students felt like school actually applied to their lives. They were learning about something they could relate to and made them feel like they belonged. They studied history from a Mexican American and Indigenous lens, Chicano Art & literature, they researched government policy and would even submit proposals to lawmakers. It engaged students on a deep level and taught them how to think critically.
Hank Stephenson: It was their first kind of interaction with these adult concepts of why is my neighborhood poor? Why are all the Brown neighborhoods poor? It was a framework to teach students about not only their history, but the history of racism, oppression.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: And the students who attended the Mexican American Studies classes saw significant improvements in their graduation rates and test scores.
Hank Stephenson: You even saw things like math scores increase. The only explanation really is that they care more about school, that they feel like, you know, they’re there for a reason.
Liz Alarcón: By all criteria, the program was a success. It was engaging & helping young Latino students and up until 2006 it wasn’t at all on the radar of lawmakers. But that was about to change. There was a storm coming. And the teachers & students who taught the class were about to be in the middle of a political hurricane. Dolores Huerta, the famous Chicano civil rights activist, paid a visit to Tucson High School to speak to the students. She gave a speech in the auditorium in which she said,
Hank Stephenson: “Republicans hate Latinos.” Those three words set off this fire of rage against the Mexican American Studies program and that kicked off this entire war.
Clip: State school superintendent Tom Horne wants to end ethnic studies programs. “I’m calling on the Tucson Unified School District to shut down the ethnic studies program. They won’t use my tax dollars to promote the teaching of hate speech sedition. The program is administered by vehemently anti-American zealots.”
Maribel Quezada-Smith: For the next few years The Republican establishment in Arizona went after The Tucson High School Mexican American Studies program. They publicly called it a training ground for Marxist Footsoldiers, and a sweatshop for liberalism. They claimed the classes were radicalizing students, and cried that even allowing an ethnic studies program to exist was a form of racism. The Mexican American Studies Program, which was itself created as a response to racist policies, was now in the crosshairs of another racist policy.
Clip: Thank you for joining us. I am Jose Cardenas. After signing the state’s new immigration law, Governor Brewer signs another controversial piece of legislation, House Bill 2281 ending ethnic studies classes.
Liz Alarcón: Tom Horne, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, led the charge, and finally in May 2010 just a month after the Show Me Your Papers Act was passed, the state legislature passed HB 2281, a bill aimed at crushing ethnic minority classes in Arizona.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Later in the year Tom Horne set his sights on becoming Attorney General and a state senator named John Huppenthal won the election to become the new State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Liz Alarcón: His entire campaign was run on a platform of quote “stopping La Raza” and promising to stamp out these programs. And once elected he ordered a special report to investigate whether the Mexican American Studies program did actually violate this new law. The report came back finding no evidence of the program being in violation of the law. But that wasn’t the answer Huppenthal wanted to hear. And as the superintendent, he had the power to decide what would happen next.
Hank Stephenson: The school district was essentially…it threatened to take away a huge chunk of the school district’s funding if it didn’t stop teaching these anti American classes. about 10% of their total state funding, which is a huge chunk of money for a district that is already pretty poor.
Liz Alarcón: So without any other options, the School Board scheduled a meeting to discuss the dissolution of their incredibly popular Mexican American Studies Program, in a district that was over 60% Latino.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: But the students, whose class was about to be taken away, had been studying civil rights movements and civil disobedience. The class that was supposed to teach them about movements of the past, was now a direct lesson on the civil rights of their own time. And the students didn’t take the assault on their education lying down.
Hank Stephenson: They stormed the school board meeting. They chained themselves to the dais. They locked themselves into the school board members chairs and started chanting Our education is under attack. What do we do to fight back? It was a hell of a scene.
Clip: PROTEST CLIP AUDIO
Liz Alarcón: Protests continued again and again as the Latino community gathered together to fight the ban. But John Huppenthal was determined to crush the program. This is a clip of one of the students from a Vice documentary.
Clip: We were in Curtis Acosta’s class when they walked in with boxes and they actually started taking some of the books and that was the point where a lot of my classmates were like, This is it. When are we ever going to see these again?
Maribel Quezada-Smith: The classes were ended, And administrators came through the classrooms and literally pulled books off the shelves of the classroom walls. Books like Elizabeth Martinez’s “500 years of Chicano History”, Sandra Cisneros’ classic “The House on Mango Street”. Even Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was banned from the school.
Liz Alarcón: Manuel Muñoz, the author and professor at University Of Arizona we met at the beginning of this episode, well his book “Ziggzagger” was also pulled off the shelf at Tucson High, right across the street from where he was teaching.
Manuel Muñoz: It was such an insidious thing to have happening, literally right across the street from our own campus. If we’re going to be in a space where access to literature is restricted to this degree, why do I want to live here? Why do I want to teach here?
Liz Alarcón: But what the book banners didn’t expect was that by trying to strip away the identity of Arizona Latinos, they were only activating the community even more.
Clip: They said, no, we’re not gonna let our books get taken, this is our identity, we’re not gonna let it be boxed up. And they packed these books away in their little backpacks that turned big and heavy.
Liz Alarcón: And like this the resistance was born. Students smuggled the books out of school to create underground libraries.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Manuel helped organize a banned book reading to a packed house at The University of Arizona.
Liz Alarcón: And as news spread throughout the country it reached the ears of Tony Diaz down in Houston Texas.
Tony Diaz: We found out that administrators were forcing educators to walk into classrooms and in front of our youth, box up books by some of our most beloved authors. in front of them.
Liz Alarcón: For Tony, this was an absolute crime, because books were his life and passion. He had his first writings “published” when he was…6 years old.
Tony Diaz: It was a rhyming poem and I think one of the classic lines was something like, “otherwise I would be a brat. I don’t think my parents would like that.” That’s all I can remember from this powerful epic poem.
Liz Alarcón: His teacher loved it, and told him that they were going to publish it in the school newspaper.
Tony Diaz: That didn’t mean anything to me at the time. I’m like, okay, she’s nice to me. Cool.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: But later that day, in the cafeteria, the reality hit him.
Tony Diaz: Just under the hot lunch menu for Sloppy Joe’s was my poem and all of a sudden teachers were coming up to me, Antonio, I didn’t know you were a writer. Wow, this is really fantastic. I didn’t know you were so smart. And it blew my mind because… I was the same person, but just this one piece of paper had changed their perception of me. I thought, okay, there was something to this thing called writing.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: And ever since then, he was hooked.
Liz Alarcón: And so Tony Read, and he wrote, voraciously. After finishing high school in his hometown of Chicago, he went to Houston and became the first Chicano to earn a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Then he founded a nonprofit organization called Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. That brought Latino writers together to organize, they led the largest book fairs in Houston which had over 30,000 people, they hosted a radio show and community events. And so when he and his fellow book lovers at Nuestra Palabra heard about what was going on, it was personal.
Tony Diaz: Personally, when I found out that our history and culture was banned in Arizona. I was enraged, humiliated, stunned, ready to act.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: So Tony and the other members of Nuestra Palabra… Brian Parras, Liana Lopez, Lupe Mendez, and Laura Costa all got together to decide what they could do about it.
Tony Diaz: We were mad, angry, and fired up. And we were brainstorming all this. Because I had benefited from the very thing that right wing Republican legislators are trying to ban. I had the intellectual capacity to think outside the box because I was surrounded by writers, by books. We had a way to creatively respond.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: And this is how the libro traficantes were born.
Tony Diaz: The term libro traficante, as you will recall from your Spanish class in high school, is composed of the word book for libro and trafficker.
Liz Alarcón: Tony and his crew became book traffickers.
Tony Diaz: My name is Tony Diaz and I’m a libro traficante. Iit makes people pause and say, why is the word smuggling associated with books?
Liz Alarcón: So the LibroTraficante team gathered together hundreds of what they lovingly referred to as “Wet Books” full of dangerous “Mind Altering Prose” and they went on the road.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: They drove a bus from city to city and hosted Banned Book Bashes, where they would have authors and poets read passages from their banned books.
Tony Diaz: We had about 20,000 worth of books on that bus. Like some of the seats were just full of books, right and left. People would keep bringing books after books, it was beautiful.
Liz Alarcón: They traveled from Houston to San Antonio, to El Paso, Mesilla, New Mexico, Albuquerque, and finally Tucson. On the stops they read banned books, created community underground libraries, and rallied the community.
Tony Diaz: People would come and donate books, donate money. Some people would hand us cash. Some people write a check. Some people would say, here’s some food.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: By this point the national media and the wider Latino community had become aware of what was going on, which raised the stakes even higher.
Liz Alarcón: Because the Mexican American Studies program had been put in place as part of an anti discrimination lawsuit, a court ordered that there had to be some kind of replacement, so a new watered down version of the class was reinstated under the close watch of John Huppenthal. Here’s Hank again.
Hank Stephenson: Huppenthal sent monitors to classes to keep an eye on the teachers and read their lesson plans. Some of the teachers had to undergo retraining to unlearn some of the tactics that they had employed during the height of the Mexican American studies movement. It was big government watching as these classes came back online.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: But meanwhile, a lawsuit against the order had been moving through the court system. The case was kicked around for years in district courts until it finally made it to the Federal District Court in 2017, where once and for all the fate of The Tucson High Mexican American Studies program would be decided.
Tape of court case
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Lawyers for the state of Arizona claimed that the Mexican American Studies program promoted ethnic solidarity over national unity, and provided an unbalanced curriculum. Lawyers in support of the program argued that the ban violated free speech & academic freedom, and provided a valuable culturally relevant education with a proven track record of helping Mexican American students succeed.
Liz Alarcón: During the hearings it was brought up that, yep, John Huppenthal, the main force behind the ban, had been posting deeply “troubling” comments on an anonymous blog. He had referred to food stamp recipients as “lazy pigs”, railed against spanish radio stations, billboards and tv channels, he even went so far as to call the Mexican American Studies program the Ku Klux Klan in a “different color” and referred to its teachers as “skinheads.”
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Finally, 7 years after Arizona Republicans passed the law, a Federal Judge Ruled that students’ First Amendment rights had been violated by the law because they were denied the “right to receive information and ideas.” And that their 14th Amendment rights were violated because the decision discriminated against Latinos, and that the law was motivated by racial animus.
Liz Alarcón: And Arizona was permanently barred from enacting the law.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: When Tony heard the news, he was thrilled.
Tony Diaz: I cannot really convey the joy I felt for, for so many reasons. It was a lifting of this oppressive veil that we had to suffer. It was amazing and powerful to see our power. But it still takes a toll, you know.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: For Manuel, it was a very bittersweet victory.
Manuel Muñoz: I’ll be honest with you, I was sad. I was sad. I mean, I was relieved, of course. But imagine somebody who’s 11 or 12 years old, who goes through a seven year process, at the end of it, they’re 18, 19. Those are lost years. That’s a whole generation of students who didn’t get that chance and it makes me sad and it makes me angry.
Hank Stephenson: There is no rebuilding a moment, you know. You can rebuild a program, but this was far more than a program and its height, it was a movement.
Liz Alarcón: In so many ways, we can call the Tucson chapter a victory for the Latino community. It was a time when we stood together and overcame a vicious attack on our culture. It raised the profile for Latino Studies Programs, which then spread to other states throughout the country.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: But today we are seeing a whole new wave of book bans, censorship and repression of education.
Tony Diaz: The attack on our history and culture is cyclical, it’s clear to me that those who want to take books out of the hands of our committee will never ban Mexican American studies directly again. Why? Because we united and we won. So then their answer is, let’s come up with a different way to stifle intellectual freedom. And this new wave is a whole different ball game.
Liz Alarcón: Today’s attacks look very different than they did a decade ago. 10 years ago the republican legislatures were attacking a specific program. Today they are attacking a ghost. A Critical Race Theory that isn’t even being taught in schools. Normal books from LGBTQ authors are labeled as sexually perverted. School boards are being taken over, even public libraries aren’t immune to the attacks on our books.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: But in some respects they are very similar to 10 years ago.
Hank Stephenson: It’s the same. It is the same kind of attempt to control what the students are learning about history.
Tony Diaz: What’s common then and now, there are folks that want to destabilize our communities. There are folks that want to get books out of the hands of our community.
Manuel Muñoz: You go to books for answers. You go to books for questions that you might have in private. Where do students go when they have questions and they trust books to give them those answers?
Liz Alarcón: There’s no easy solution to the challenges we’re facing today, censorship and book bans are dangerous, and they can have serious consequences for our democracy. Once we let them happen, it can be very hard to go back.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: One way to stand up for freedom of education is to vote in politicians who believe in the freedom of education, and vote out those who repress it. And just like the students and parents who stood up at Tucson High School, like the Manuel’s and Tony’s of the world, like the Chicano Activists of the 1970’s before them, and the United Farm Workers before them, we also can stand up for what we care about.
Tony Diaz: When people hear the word activism, they think that it has to be the six city tour smuggling bad books. It does not have to be that. If you have the capacity to get three books and donate them to three students, you should do that. If you can donate 25 bucks to someone fighting a court case, you need to do that. We, as LibroTraficantes, turned that rage into activism and that’s the power of art. Do we feel important enough to tell our story? That answer better be yes.
Liz Alarcón: This Episode was Produced & Written by Charlie Garcia. It was Edited by Jackie Noack. Audio Engineering and Mixing by Charlie Garcia & Julian Blackmore. The Hosts of the Pulso podcast are Maribel Quezada Smith and me, Liz Alarcón.