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Students and activists set up “Underground Libraries” of books prohibited in suspended Mexican American Studies classrooms

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VOICEOVER: On Friday, March 16th, a caravan of students, teachers, and activists calling themselves “librotraficantes,” or book traffickers, rolled into Tucson, Arizona bringing boxes of “smuggled” books that have been prohibited in the classrooms of the Tucson Unified School District following the controversial suspension of its Mexican American Studies program. The caravan traveled more than 1,000 miles over the span of 5 days after departing from Houston, Texas, with additional caravans arriving from other locations like Los Angeles. On Saturday, lead librotraficante organizer Tony Diaz and others staged a literary teach-in at the John Valenzuela Youth Center in South Tucson, where they also established one of several new “Underground Libraries” where the banned books will be available to community members.

TONY DIAZ, EL LIBROTRAFICANTE: Of course Arizona has become expert at making our people illegal now they’ve turned their sights on our art, literature and culture, the anti-immigrant laws spread to Alabama, Georgia, and other states and I have no doubt if we tolerate this law it too will spread and I also want to warn other Americans that if there is a pattern or template here to eliminate Mexican American Studies they won’t have to institute Asian studies and then at some point they’ll go after African American studies as well…(cut)…The lesson is if we rest for one moment, if we let our democracy get taken over, things like book bans happen, courses are prohibited, we can’t tolerate that, I think at the end of the day we should have been extolling the cutting edge curriculum that was being instituted at TUSD.

VOICEOVER: Curtis Acosta used to teach Chicano Literature at Tucson High before the Mexican American Studies program was disbanded. He says the librotraficantes event helps to further publicize the void created in Tucson classrooms which he says has already had an enormous impact on student engagement and quality of education.

CURTIS ACOSTA, TEACHER, TUCSON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT: Well I think my students and myself we were all heartbroken and despondent about the fact that such an engaging academic space, an engaging curriculum and pedagogy everything was firing it was college prep it was rigorous it was loving it evoked issues of peace but it also really challenged my students as well as their critical thought and skills for college when that got ripped from us and in midstream and now it’s replaced with material that I’m not even familiar with yet you see a drastic drop in not only engagement with my students but my own ability to be an instructor we went from college prep curriculum to a remedial one it’s an absolute tragedy and how any educators or lawmakers think that’s to the benefit of our society is ludicrous.

VOICEOVER: TUSD board President Mark Stegeman maintains that the books that were physically removed from classrooms have not been banned, but instead are just some of the many books that are regularly not approved for instruction.

MARK STEGEMAN, PRESIDENT, TUCSON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT: Any district approves certain books for use in curriculum it might be a couple hundred books and it would be silly to call all the millions of books that are not on that list banned books, so these books are off of that list and so they’re out of the classrooms but they are still in the school libraries and if they don’t have them we’ll take them out of the repositories and put them in.

VOICEOVER: A number of students who were enrolled in the Mexican American Studies courses at the time they were prohibited attended the librotraficantes events. In spite of the school board’s insistence that the books have not been banned, some Tucson students like Asiya Mir feel that a critical learning resource has been lost with the removal of the texts from their former Mexican American Studies classrooms.


I felt like, disbelief because that’s the kind of thing that happens in a dictatorship, you know like that’s what happens under fascist regimes, the books are taken away from the people to prevent them from feeling this independent spirit and I felt like that’s what was taken away from us as soon as our books were taken away and although they aren’t officially banned in Arizona, they are still available to students in libraries, it’s just that our teachers can’t teach them to the students in the Mexican American Studies classes which I think makes it all the more ridiculous than an official ban, it’s like we are specifically targeted we can’t read these books out teachers can’t teach them and they definitely can’t teach them in the way that they used to be about to teach them…(cut)…the fact that they were taken away form us I think is a reflection of our school district’s incompetence and lack of respect.

VOICEOVER: The librotraficantes caravan exemplifies some of the ways that Tucson, Arizona’s student-led civil rights struggle has captured the imaginations of distant communities also seeking to defend the history and knowledge contained within the pages of books like those now banned in Tucson classrooms.

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