Educators in the Houston metro area are readying a “book trafficker” caravan that would travel March 12–18 from Houston, Texas, to Tucson, Arizona, to donate books about the Mexican-American experience to four volunteer libraries. The donations are meant to counter the January removal of at least seven titles from Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) classrooms, where they had been taught as part of the district’s now-outlawed Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program. Reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street Library movement, the book traffickers, or Librotraficante, organized by Houston Community College professor Tony Diaz, plan to contribute titles to underground libraries in Houston, San Antonio, Albuquerque, and Tucson.
The TUSD school board voted 4–1 January 10 to disband MAS so the district wouldn’t lose 10% of its state funding. The penalty would have been imposed by an Arizona statute enacted in 2010 that bars public and charter schools from teaching ethnic studies programs that “promote the overthrow of the US 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.”
At its 2012 Midwinter Meeting, the American Library Association denounced the disbanding of MAS as “the suppression of open inquiry and free expression . . . on the basis of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” A joint resolution signed January 30 by ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation and 26 other free-speech groups, booksellers, and academic organizations also condemned the decision.
“Taking away these courses is far more likely to ‘promote resentment toward a race or class of people’ than any title in the MAS curriculum,” Office for Intellectual Freedom Director Barbara Jones told American Libraries.
Expressing a similar argument, US Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have asked the Justice Department to investigate HB 2281, which they contend (PDF file) is “bad public policy and fundamentally flawed.”
Banned, or just boxed?
Critics of the program’s termination decry it as censorship, a characterization that district officials dispute. “None of the books have been banned by TUSD,” district Communication Director Cara Rene said in a January 17 statement, noting that every title taught in the MAS program “is still available to students through several school libraries” or interlibrary loan. “But how easy is it for students to get the books? How many copies are available?” Diaz asked in the February 10 Houston Chronicle.
Also in dispute is the number of titles removed from the classrooms of MAS teachers. Rene stated that “seven books that were used as supporting materials for curriculum in Mexican American Studies classes have been moved to the district storage facility.”
The seven books Rene listed are: Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado; 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, edited by Elizabeth Martínez; Message to Aztlán by Rodolfo Corky Gonzáles; Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales; Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña; Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire; and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson.
However, Diaz claims a total of 88 titles were pulled from MAS classes on literature, US history, and social justice. The list at librotraficante.com includes works by Sherman Alexie, Luís Alberto Urrea, Sandra Cisneros, and Jane Yolen.
Whatever the definitive count, TUSD teacher Norma Gonzalez is seeking to put the books back into circulation. On February 9, she presented 15,000 signatures on an online petition she created at change.org asking for the MAS books to be reissued to classrooms.
“The First Amendment is all about letting people be exposed to different ideas. I don’t think we want to be censoring books out of our libraries,” TUSD board President Mark Stegeman told KGUN-TV in Tucson February 9. “Outside of the classroom, people are entitled to study whatever they want and come to whatever conclusions they want.”