Manuel Muñoz's book, Zigzagger, is banned at the high school right across from the University of Arizona campus where he is a professor of creative writing. Munoz graduated from Harvard, received his MFA from Cornell University, and is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts. Apparently, the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) has found that all of that literary pedigree only led him to "promote the overthrow of the United States government." His collection of short stories was also found to be promoting the "resentment toward a race or class of people," and "ethnic solidarity." The book was among the titles blacklisted last month by TUSD, who say they're only looking to be in compliance of Arizona's HB 2281. The district maintains that the books were not "banned," but merely "confiscated" and/or "cleared" from classrooms.
Houston-based novelist Tony Diaz said he was more than a little baffled by the TUSD's decision. "There are schools across the country that would covet having Manuel Muñoz in their vicinity, yet Tucson squanders his talents, and puts at risk the education of our young. The school's student body is predominantly Mexican-American," he said. "His writing would have an incredible impact on the children in those classrooms."
Diaz is the author of The Aztec Love God and a graduate of the University of Houston's MFA program. He teaches English and Mexican-American lit at Houston's Community College. He is also the founder of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say - a Houston-based literary nonprofit established in 1998 to "promote Latino Literature and culture"
And Diaz is behind the Librotraficante movement, arguably the most creative of responses to the Tucson's School District's controversial decision.
The Librotraficantes believe it is "the cause of our generation" to protest Arizona's HB 2281, the law which bans ethnic studies and the books used to teach them.
It should be noted that despite the "ethnic" tag, Mexican-American studies is the only course prohibited. Ninety-nine percent of the books boxed by school authorities were the works of literature and critical theory by respected MexAm authors and activists. Though a few Amer Indian authors are among the banned/boxed/or unwelcome texts, despite the fact that the Arizona statute on prohibited courses clearly states "This section shall not be construed to restrict or prohibit: 1. Courses or classes for Native American pupils that are required to comply with federal law." The rest of the wording goes on to describe--more or less--several federally protected classes. So far African-American and Asian American studies remain alive in Arizona. (Someone double-check!)
The mission and vision of the Librotraficantes? The "smuggling" of "wet books" across state lines. The plan is for a caravan of "mind-altering prose," activists, and writers to make their way from Houston to Tucson for a mass reading. The caravan will be on the road for about a week and on the way they will stop in cities across the Southwest for readings by emerging literary talent and some of the authors allegedly banned. They plan to arrive in Tucson by March 18.
I asked Diaz to chat with me about his trade in "illegal literature."
PB: As the founder of Nuestra Palabra (NP), did you ever think the day would come when there would be a ban on the very books your organization has done so much to bring to the awareness of the reading public?
TD: This really is stunning. At this moment, in Tucson, Arizona, it is illegal to teach Sandra Cisneros's young adult novel, House on Mango Street. For the past thirteen years, I've brought to Houston, or interviewed on our radio show many of the writers who are on the Tucson Banned List, including Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, Manuel Muñoz, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Luis Alberto Urrea. We crossed state lines with them, maybe handling these contraband books is now a matter for the FBI? This is the cause of our generation.
PB: Unlike TUSD board member, Adelita Grijalva, most TUSD administrators have insisted that there is no such "ban" and that the titles were merely "cleared" from the classrooms and "stored" but remain available in libraries district-wide. Banned or cleared, what do you think is the not-so-subtle message that is being given to students?
TD: George Orwell lives. Double Speak exists. The TUSD administrators have actually pushed back hard to play with words to make this atrocity palatable to Americans. But let's make this clear, in Tucson public school classes it is against the law right now to teach Manuel Munoz's book. If his book is taught, the district loses 10% of its funding. That's hyper-banning. We must speak up for the well-being of our community. Books changed my life. I didn't read a book by a Latino until I was a junior in college. That book was Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas. Before then, I didn't know I could write about my background.
If that first book by a Latino had not come into my hands, I would not have gone on to leave Chicago to attend the University of Houston's Creative Writing program and become only the 3rd Latino to complete an MFA there. I would not have gone on to begin Nuestra Palabra. I would not have been able to unite the talented writers I have been blessed to work with. I can honestly say, our words have transformed Houston. We made the world a better place. Tucson is preventing this from happening to all our young.
PB: In the press release posted on your website it states "Children of the American Dream must unite to preserve the civil rights of all Americans." Who do you hope to hear from at this time? Who do you see joining NP's cause?
TD: I am shocked at how many people do not know about this happening. When people do find out about it, they are skeptical. Some think that the books are being eliminated because they are published in Spanish. All the books are in English. Some people think that this is being done because the students are undocumented. This is being done to American Citizens. When people realize that, they do get mad. But we need them to get involved. We will be extolling quantum demographics during our caravan. This means we will celebrate not just our culture, not just other cultures, but we will pinpoint and celebrate the bridges the already exist between us. All other groups need to unite behind us to protect the first amendment for all Americans.