Tony Diaz's underground library and Los Librotraficantes

First aired on As It Happens (20/03/12)

tony diaz.jpg

Earlier this year Arizona officials shut down classes in Mexican culture that were being taught in the Tucson Unified School District. As soon as that law was passed, schools in that district were forced to box up the books that had been part of the course curriculum, making those books very difficult to come by. But Chicano writers, scholars and novelists aren't taking this lying down. Tony Diaz has organized "Los Librotraficantes." Diaz is a novelist and a professor of literature in Houston, and he spoke with As it Happens about his "underground library" of Chicano literature.

According to Diaz, "Librotraficante" translates to "book smuggler" or "book runner" in English. "[That] should not make any sense in the United States of America, but alas, the Arizona legislators have engendered this word to my imagination," he said.

The attorney general in Arizona, who created the controversial law, declared that the banned books and courses "encouraged the overthrow of the U.S. government." But Diaz thinks that is absurd. "I've read many of these books several times," he said. He cited a scene from one of the books in question, The House on Mango Street, in which the young Chicana protagonist breaks some Barbie dolls. "Maybe if you don't know how to analyze literature, the subtext might have implied something to you there, but otherwise, they're just scared of us," he said. "At the end of the day, it's this constant cultural tension that is being fuelled by racist people telling people that 'Mexicans are overrunning Tucson,' etc. ... If we're perceived at violent and savage and irrational, of course you'll be worried, but if we're perceived as novelists and scholars, you'd be happy to have us around -- you'd break out cheese and wine, not take away our books."

So how is Diaz trying to thwart this institutionalized racism? How does "Los Librotraficantes" work? "We smuggled all these 'dangerous' books back and did a huge caravan across the south U.S., and ended up bringing about 1,000 of these books back," he said. "That's about $20,000 worth of books. We started four underground libraries, and the best part of this whole thing was when our caravan rolled into Tucson and we could hand copies of the books to these young intellectual leaders...they are defying censorship."

That was phase one, said Diaz. "The whole world can get involved in phase two by visiting," he said. "We're going to be launching more caravans, we're going to be helping six cities elect six different school boards so that they're full of people who have broad minds and broad imaginations. On top of that, we're bringing in these wonderful the end of the day, it really is about teaching kids to embrace books."

Diaz's ambition is to unleash "a Latino literary renaissance in the United States." But if these books are available at public libraries and bookstores, does Los Librotraficantes really need to smuggle them in? Diaz thinks so. "Let me put it this way. I'm very smart, but I didn't learn to read Shakespeare or James Joyce unless they were taught in the classroom," he said. "At the end of the day, you will not find [these books] in most main stores."

And what kind of response has there been from non-Latin Americans in Arizona? "What's very powerful is that this movement has galvanized people from across the board," said Diaz. "On the tour, we had a gentleman from India, we had Anglos, we had Native Americans." Diaz believes the movement is getting widespread support because when the Arizona government first passed anti-immigrant measures, "they could still hide the fact that the laws are discriminatory. But now that they went after American citizens -- which I am -- it's clear that it's an anti-Latino racist agenda. And Americans don't tolerate that."