In a stunning rejection of celebrated author Ana Castillo's offer to read and speak with Tucson high school students next week, Tucson Unified School District administrators added a new chapter to the nation's most troubling censorship crackdown and dismissed any overtures for healing in the torn community.
A widely sought speaker on the national lecture circuit, the renowned poet and novelist, whose beloved stories are read throughout schools in Tucson and Arizona, had offered to waive her honorarium and travel to Tucson on her own dime, as part of a special effort to bring "healing to all sides."
According to Tucson High School literature teacher Curtis Acosta, whose now outlawed Mexican American literature courses drew praise on CNN for their healing role in the aftermath of the tragic Tucson shooting last year, TUSD Assistant Superintendent Abel Morado turned down Castillo's extraordinary opportunity over concerns that the national media would accompany the author.
Despite the fact that the New York Times recently profiled author Matt de la Peña's visit to Tucson High School, Morado applied a different standard to Castillo and her host teacher Acosta, a former Mexican American Studies teacher under unparalleled scrutiny and district/state surveillance. Last week, in fact, according to a Tucson High student that preferred to remain anonymous, Arizona Department of Education representatives made an unannounced visit to former Mexican American Studies classrooms, "looking over people's shoulders" and largely disrupting study with comments and note-taking.
Acosta called the denial of the author's visit "odd and hypocritical due to the exact similarities to Mr. de la Peña's visit, I am not sure how the situation is any different except for the fact that I was a former MAS teacher asking for permission, since I am sure that Dr. Castillo being Chicana could not be the reason. Certainly TUSD isn't going down the route of banning women writers."
Author of several celebrated novels, among other acclaimed collections of poetry, essays and stories, and a well-known artist, Castillo also earned a doctorate in American Studies. Former Tucson novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote in the LA Times that Castillo's So Far From God novel ranked alongside the work of Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and was "delightful."
In an email response to the TUSD debacle, Castillo noted:
My own world as a child opened through my love of reading. The greatest void was never finding books remotely reflecting my life, culture or experiences. I always tell young writers and poets I don't care what you read just read, read, read. Read what you love and read out of your comfort zone. This is how our minds grow and how we connect with the world. Humanity has much more in common than not. I will add that with my last novel (The Guardians, Random House, 2008) a story that deals with the disappearance of a man crossing without papers, I have experienced ongoing antagonism. I believe that people fixed on their prejudices and political agendas resisted the humanity in the story.
"Castillo's importance to Latina letters cannot be overstated," publisher and poet Bryce Milligan noted, whose fellow author Carmen Tafolla was recently appointed San Antonio's poet laureate. Castillo's "poetry," according to Milligan, "often seems more about healing those very wounds that invigorate her fiction."
In a reign of censorship and blatant racism carried out by TUSD superintendent John Pedicone, TUSD's extraordinary purge of Mexican American literature, on the other hand, has turned the once vibrant literary town into an Orwellian mess. Along with the nationally denounced confiscation and banishment of Mexican American literature and history textbooks, TUSD officials also attempted to derail the annual Cesar Chavez March, fired Mexican American Studies director Sean Arce at a nearly 3-hour school board meeting where an array of speakers spoke on his behalf and the importance of respecting the city's diverse literature and heritages.
In fact, in the face of TUSD's latest crackdown, the Tucson community rallied in support of Castillo's unique offer.
I am pleased to say that where TUSD failed to appreciate the opportunity for an American Book Award winning writer to teach and share her own writing expertise with our students, our community has not faltered. Save Ethnic Studies, Tucson-Pima Public Libraries, Casa Libre, Antigone Books, and other community members have been busy creating a wonderful literary experience for our students and all of Tucson for Cinco de Mayo weekend.
On Friday May 4, students will get to meet with Dr. Castillo privately receive books paid for by local sponsors. This will be followed by a free public reading and Q & A at 6:30pm with Ana Castillo at the John Valenzuela Youth Center 1550 South 6th Avenue, South Tucson.
Save Ethnic Studies will be having a private reception at 8:30pm that evening following the reading to raise funds for our continued legal challenge of HB2281 and to revive Mexican American Studies.
On Cinco de Mayo, there will be another opportunity for people interested in supporting Mexican American Studies, the lawsuit, and the student-plaintiffs. We will be having a casual breakfast and meet-and-greet with Ana Castillo from 9am-10:30am at Raices Taller before Dr. Castillo presents a private workshop for students and teachers who have been sponsored by donors for a three hour writing experience focusing on memoirs of school days.
This is an affirmation that TUSD has it wrong and that this community is firmly behind MAS and there should be no shame in our history, our culture, our stories, or our writers and artists.
"Once innocence -- an all too-brief state of being, if such a one exists -- encounters experience, it is transformed," Castillo wrote in her short story collection Loverboys. "If that transformation is understood, it becomes knowledge. And if that knowledge is employed, then it becomes wisdom."
Perhaps TUSD will one day embrace such wisdom instead of fear and censorship for their own students and community.
Follow Jeff Biggers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffrbiggers