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VL Field Organizer Joins the Librotraficante Caravan in Arizona

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By Viva Samuel Ramirez

Have you ever felt like you were watching history unfold before your eyes? Like the words you were hearing and the people you were meeting were constructing historically significant events for generations to follow? That was the feeling I had in Tucson on March 17 when Tony Diaz and a busload of Librotraficantes rolled into the parking lot of the John Valenzuela Community Center unloading $20,000 worth of contraband books. Looking nervously over their shoulder the whole time--a metaphor for the threat of knowledge--the librotraficantes transferred boxes from one another and dramatically ran them into the building before they could be caught. The organizers were part of Nuestra Palabra, a Houston-based group made up of writers dedicated to showcasing Latinos' contributions to literature. The Librotraficante caravan traveled across the southwest to smuggle banned "wet books" back into Tucson, Arizona, stopping along the way to pick up riders and raise awareness about TUSD's attack on Ethnic Studies

The room was filled with veteran Chicanos from across the country, authors, activistas, filmmakers, artists, and reporters who gathered to meet the students that were in the now banned Mexican American Studies Program and literally had their school books pried away from them during class. These students turned into activistas and enthusiastically took up La Causa, fighting for the right to command their own future by owning their own history. 

Tony Diaz is the man behind Librotraficante, a relic of the Chicano Movement, and posed for photos with his chin up in the defiant "Q-vole"-style Chicano pose. Former Mexican American Studies (MAS) professor Curtis Acosta mused about the Four Tezcatlipocas and the spirit of Huitzilopochtli as Diaz glided across the floor like El Pachuco, invoking the spirit of the Movimiento as he showed solidarity with the students through a touch on the shoulder or a nod of his head. The students took turns speaking about their experiences in the MAS program and how having access to their own history made them feel whole.

I was in the crowd of people watching. I, like so many others, traveled from my home in Phoenix to meet these inspiring people and be part of this historical day. It was all very personal to me because my dad was a Chicano from the founding generation and gave birth to the identity and the movimiento. He was also an educator and an activist.  He was determined to see things change for his children and his people, and Chicano Studies represents the cross-section of what he believed in. The opportunity to study my own culture in a true academic space is a gift handed down to me from my father's generation. After 500 years, Chicana/o mothers and fathers once again have something to bequeath to their children other than the shame of conquest--the pain of subjugation. It was the tool we needed to release ourselves from the chains of our own history and we used it.  The generations that flourished under this era of knowledge and freedom went on to change the space that Mexican Americans and their descendants occupy in mainstream American culture. This generation gave Arizona our first Chicano elected leaders, councilman, congressman, and even a Chicano Governor. 

For me, Chicano Studies was a great equalizer. It brought the cultural nuances of my home, my family, and my child's heart into academia, which to me, meant reality. It ignited my soul like nothing before and nothing since. Until then, my education had always centered around  some other person's experience. Some other country. Some other race. Some other time. Some other culture--not mine.  It was when my intellectual freedom began. 

There's no question in my mind why former Superintendent Tom Horne and his successor Huppenthal are threatened by my freedom. This type of policy is not out of character for Horne. He spent his career attacking Spanish education, Spanish speaking in schools, and even Spanish speaking people.  The only surprise was that he won an elected seat which gave him the power to leverage such an impact on specific groups of people; a people who apparently didn't see him coming. 

People have said the Librotraficantes is reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement. I agree that it is a struggle for civil rights, but in the 60s people were fighting to achieve rights and status they never had. Today in Arizona, Xicanos and Mexicanos find ourselves fighting again for the same rights our parents and grandparents fought for; rights other Americans continue to enjoy without question. The truth is that the current situation is much worse than that of the 60s. It's a shame that people have to fight for others to see them as human beings. It's a tragedy when the reverse happens and members of our American community are singled out and stripped of the well-deserved rights which were purchased with the lives of those who came before.

There is something pure and simple about the way a child communicates. On this day, a child said a few poignant words that will reside in the deepest part of my heart forever. He is a 6-year-old that was searched before entering a TUSD board meeting and treated as if he was a known terrorist on the No Fly list a few days before. He was a special guest that day, and when asked what it was that he liked about his culture, he replied: "Because it's mine, and I want to be it."  I couldn't agree more. 

Viva Ramirez is a Voto Latino representative and contributing blogger, and Director of the Arizona Montessori Association. He resides in Phoenix, Arizona and provides an insider view on the heated immigration debate happening in the state.