Illegal History: The Fight Continues in Arizona

“You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world.” -Sherman Alexie

In the words of Sherman Alexie, folks in Arizona — in particular, the state government, the Tuscon school board, and various and sundry Tea Party pundits — have officially announced their fear of an educated underclass. On February 1, the beginning of Black History Month, the law banning ethnic studies in Tuscon classrooms officially went into effect. Public schools in Tuscon that have the cojones to try and teach their students (61% of whom are Latino) some multicultural and Latino literature may be faced with having millions of dollars in their funding cut.

After dismantling its award-winning Mexican-American studies, and yanking a number of banned books off of classroom shelves, the Tuscon Unified School District (TUSD) had the gall to announce that this wasn’t really a book ban. District Attorney Tom Horne said, in a stunning display of white privilege and blatant cultural myopia, “We should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their dreams. Not teach them the downer that they’re oppressed and they can’t get anywhere.”

So, it’s better left as a surprise? Latino youth face high dropout and incarceration rates around the country. Arizona’s immigration laws have eroded the rights of anyone who isn’t white. Is it really a “downer” to be taught about oppression and the ways to dismantle it, especially when you’re already living in it?

Luis Urrea, a Chicago-based Latino author who had five books banned, wrote on his website, “The issue is the attempt to edit out an entire ethnicity and culture under twisted ‘patriotic’ propaganda. Ethnic Studies do not divide Americans–they unite. They offer a gateway INTO greater American culture for people who were locked out by the Jan Brewers, the Apartheid school boards, to begin with.”

Around the world, writers, teachers, artists, and activists have stepped up. In the weeks since the ban started, there have been a flurry of both planned and spontaneous responses; protests, walkouts, teach-ins, and social media campaigns. The Progressive offered a forum for the banned authors to respond to the ban, which included the above quote by Sherman Alexie, as well as statements from Winona LaDuke, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Kozol, and Laura Esquivel. (We at Gozamos have repeatedly announced our feelings on the subject.)

In Tuscon, local activists and educators have delivered a petition with over 15,000 signatures on it, demanding that the books be returned to classrooms and placed in school libraries. Another group has sued for outside intervention under federal desegregation laws.

Internationally, the No History is Illegal project — an offshoot of the Teacher Activist Network — has been encouraging teachers to facilitate workshops around the world. They have nearly 1,400 pledges from countries as far-flung as Finland and Kuwait to teach lessons that are inspired by the Mexican-American Studies. Even groups in Iran have condemned the book ban.

Possibly the most creative protest comes from Houston, Texas, and the Latino literary group Nuestra Palabra, who have created the Librotraficante caravan. They will be traveling from Houston to Tuscon, with stops in El Paso and Albuqurque, to deliver “wet books” to Tusconites.

Joining them will be a pantheon of Latino writers: Sandra Cisneros, Luis Urrea, Dagoberto Gilb, and Rudolfo Anaya. Urrea has been an enthusiastic supporter of the project, and wrote on Twitter: “I want a taco truck full of free books in the barrio.”

The group hopes to create underground libraries for the communities in the Southwest and to foster a network of Librotraficantes, smuggling books to the people who need them.

Though it certainly wasn’t their intention, lawmakers in Arizona have brought international attention on their narrow, racist scope of history, their politics of intimidation, and their decades out-of-date views on education. La lucha continues.

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