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Tucson's Great Book Revival: "Freedom Summer" Celebrates Chicano Literary Godfather Mario Suarez

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As part of a series of "Freedom Summer" events challenging the Tucson Unified School District's nationally denounced banishment of Mexican American literature from its schools, four Tucson journalists and writers will host a special reading from the stories of the city's legendary godfather of Chicano literature, Mario Suarez, on Saturday, July 21st, in the heart of Barrio Viejo.

While Tucson music legend Lalo Guerrero may have been hailed as the "original Chicano," his neighbor Mario Suarez is arguably the "original Chicano author."

The first author to use the "Chicano" term in modern literature, Suarez's short stories and newspapers columns based in Tucson's Barrio El Hoyo in the 1940s-1950s have been described by literary critic Raymund Paredes as a "watershed in Mexican-American literary history" and compared to the work of John Steinbeck and Langston Hughes.

"Chicano writers realized, as Suárez had elegantly demonstrated, that they could write with conviction and openness about the barrios and the familias that nurtured them," Ernesto Portillo, Jr. noted in an Arizona Daily Star review of "Chicano Sketches", a collection of Suarez's works published by the University of Arizona Press in 2004. "To many Tucsonans at the time, like today, El Hoyo, located just south of the Tucson Convention Center, was an invisible place. But to those who lived there, it was real."

Tucson native Portillo, a newspaper columnist and editor, will participate in the special reading of Suarez's stories, along with poet and Tucson Weekly journalist Mari Herreras, Three Sonorans writer D.A. Morales and myself, in celebration of Tucson's extraordinary literary traditions. The free event, which will take place on Saturday, July 21st, 7:30pm, at the patio courtyard of 314 S. Convent, is also cosponsored by Sowing the Seeds writers collective and Tucson Freedom Summer, which has hosted a series of readings, book clubs and cultural programs in July.

Six months ago, the Tucson Unified School District's (TUSD) indiscriminate confiscation of Mexican American Studies books drew national condemnation from the American Librarian Association and representatives of the Association of American Publishers, American Association of University Professors, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of English, and the PEN American Center, among other national groups.

In praise of the Librotraficante "book smugglers," who defied TUSD's book banishment and created an "underground" library in Tucson, the New York Times called out the school district's disturbing hypocrisy and fumbling denials:

"School officials say the books are not technically banned, just redistributed to the library. But what good is having works from the reading list -- like "Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941" and "The House on Mango Street," by Sandra Cisneros -- on the shelves if they can't be taught? Indeed, the point of dismantling the curriculum was to end classroom discussions about these books."

Literary scholar Francisco A. Lomelí singled out Suarez for his "groundbreaking, even daring" stories, which captured the complexity of life in Tucson's historic barrios. First published in Arizona Quarterly in 1947, Suarez's work "seem to resemble the hapless paisanos of John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats," Paredes noted, "but far from imitating Steinbeck, Suarez consciously repudiates him. His Chicanos are not at all childish and primitive stereotypes, but authentic, intelligent fully-realized characters."

"Perhaps the humble appearance of El Hoyo justifies the discerning shrugs of more than few people only vaguely aware of its existence," Suarez wrote in his landmark story. "Yet El Hoyo is not the desperate outpost of a few families against the world." Suarez added: "Chicano is the short way of saying Mexicano. It is the long way of referring to everybody."

In "El Hoyo," literary scholar James Lilley once noted, "Suarez populates Tucson's barrio with "chicanos," a disparate assemblage of Mexico's "spiritual sons" who come together to form a rich and cohesive community."

Far from the divisiveness of Arizona's outlawing of Tucson's acclaimed Mexican American Studies program, and TUSD's reckless banishment of the Mexican American, Native American and Chicano literary classics from its classrooms, the Tucson Freedom Summer event with local writers seeks to bring back that "rich and cohesive community" to Tucson and its schools.

"The stories of El Hoyo will never leave us," Portillo concluded.