The Book Smugglers

Author’s Note: When Arizona House Bill 2281 was used to dismantle the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson public high schools earlier this year, books used in the courses were removed from classrooms—in at least one school as students watched. Most of the titles, but not all, were by Latino writers.

Instead of swallowing their dismay, several students documented what they witnessed through social media. That’s how members of the Houston-based writers’ collective Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say heard about what happened in Tucson. Incensed by the stifling of knowledge, they organized the Librotraficante (literally, “book traffickers”) book caravan. Their goal was to “smuggle” the “contraband” books back into Tucson, and bring attention to what critics contend is a troubling combination of anti-intellectualism and the state’s anti-immigration stance enacted earlier.

Nuestra Palabra members worked with partner organizations along the caravan route to hold press conferences and celebrate Latino arts and culture at several Librotraficante book bashes. In addition to the public events, the five-day journey stopped in six cities, seeding Librotraficante underground libraries along the way. This is a reflection on riding the Librotraficante caravan, which took place in mid-March.

SEEDS. My parents were farm laborers for part of their young adult lives. They did that body-leeching work in the hot Texas sun, picking and hauling cantaloupe, watermelon, onions, and anything else that required a human hand.

My life has been very different from theirs. I make a living working at a desk. But I keep an image near my computer: It’s a black-and-white photo of farm laborers working a field. Bent at the waist, their arms hang from their torsos, grazing the ground like roots recently pulled from the earth. Whenever I start whining—about how hard my chair is, or that my computer is too slow, or that my agent doesn’t love me as much as his other clients—I look at this photo. I work, but the kind of work shown in the photo is grinding and thankless.

Because the workers’ faces are hidden in the shadow of broad-brimmed hats, I feel that I know even less about them. I don’t know their story. What I do know is that the spinach, tomatoes, and onions I enjoy on a chilled plate are because of these faceless, distant people. And yet, I know I’m not that far removed from them. Besides our shared heritage, it’s hard not to feel a sort of kinship to someone who makes it possible for food to appear on your plate.

SOWING. Earlier this year, I went on the Librotraficante caravan with 30 other activists, writers, artists, and book nerds. Officially, I was an embedded reporter for the Austin-based Texas Observer. My assignment was to write and post about the caravan on the road. I was exhausted during the day but energized by what I witnessed: an outpouring of concern for the future of books. The rallying cries focused on protesting censorship and the support of free speech. But at heart people were concerned about stories, whether in fiction or historical documents. It was clear that people’s passion was driven by the recognition of story as sustenance. If our stories and our history could so easily be banished from the classroom (after many years of fighting for their inclusion), how will the world know about us? How will we know ourselves?

The caravan traveled from Houston to San Antonio, to El Paso, then into Mesilla and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Along the way we were fed. Chicana author Denise Chávez provided a spread that nearly took up the entire length of her Mesilla bookstore, while the godfather of Chicano letters, Rodolfo Anaya, welcomed the Librotraficantes into his home for a huge pot of posole and a few sips of tequila. Homemade meals made with encouragement and affection were plentiful, as were blessings by priests and elders. Even those who had little to give fed us.

At El Paso’s book bash held at Mercado Mayapán, a man hearing for the first time about the elimination of Mexican American Studies in Tucson and the wholesale removal of books from classrooms got so angry, he returned home, pulled books from his own bookshelves, and donated them to the caravan. A woman in Albuquerque said she had been unemployed for months, but she donated her last $10 to the cause. The caravan started with 200 books. By the time it crossed into Arizona, there were more than 1,000 books, donated by strangers who were sure books were as necessary as bread and water.

SEEDLINGS. One of my favorite snapshot memories from the caravan week was witnessing, again and again, someone discovering that a book—their favorite book, the book that nourished them in some way—was among the banished. I’ll never forget the expression on the face of the TV reporter in Houston who gasped, “They banned Bless Me, Ultima?”

While only seven titles were officially declared “inappropriate for student use” because they were said to (according to the language of the ruling) “1) promote the overthrow of the U.S. government; 2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; 3) [be] designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or 4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals,” other titles used in the Mexican American Studies curriculum also were removed.

Banished alongside Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima were books by Sherman Alexie and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz. Taken away were books by Luis Alberto Urrea, Dagoberto Gilb, and Carmen Tafolla—who, shortly after the caravan ended, was named the first poet laureate of San Antonio. Books that sustained spirits or filled a void in the way that only a good book can were boxed and taken away, purportedly for the children’s sake.

HARVESTING. Perhaps my favorite snapshot was in Albuquerque. It was near the end of the caravan, before we headed into Tucson. Books had to be sorted and repacked to accommodate new contributions and to cull books to seed the Librotraficante underground library in Albuquerque. Sent to collect the books for the Albuquerque library were two staff members of Los Jardines Institute, a community-based, multicultural educational organization. It was 7 a.m. The Librotraficantes tasked for this job were tired but eager to help Los Jardines get its books. The assigned sorters and packers were stooped over the boxes of books, picking and moving and hauling, unceremoniously but efficiently working in unison. “That book will change your life, brother,” someone remarked, as a sorter stood up, feeling the weight of a book in his hand.

As the institute’s Richard Moore was handed a box of books, he remarked, “We’re harvesting.” He was speaking of what was next on his agenda, but as I observed the hauling and packing, I remembered the photo I keep near my computer. I turned Moore’s words over in my head, moved by the multiplicity of meaning at that moment. We were harvesting: Shakespeare, Alexie, and Anaya. We were harvesting Lorna Dee Cervantes, Ana Castillo, Gilb, and Ronald Takaki. Howard Zinn, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Luis Valdez. Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martín Espada, Laura Es-quivel, Manuel Muñoz, Jonathan Kozol, and so many more.

Perhaps it’s a cruel irony that the historic drought that desiccated much of the nation this summer coincided with an eclipse of compassion and fear of critical thought, all driven by a suspicion of that which is deemed “other,” un-American, and evil. If there is a bright spot to be found in the events leading up to and following the Librotraficante caravan, it’s that this harvest was so fruitful—enough to sustain people of conscience for the long, hard winter ahead.

Belinda Acosta has published two novels, as well as nonfiction pieces that have appeared on NPR’s Latino USA and in Poets & Writers Magazine, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. This fall she entered the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Image: Books, Tatiana Morozova /

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