Viva los Librotraficantes!

by Jas Faulkner

author’s note: Many thanks to everyone who pointed out the number of times I misspelled “Tucson” and apologies for misidentifying John Huppenthal as Superintendent of TUSD. He is actually the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction

Imagine you are a teacher and you receive a memo from your administrator informing you that the curriculum you have been teaching is possibly illegal and will be reviewed by the school board.  Earlier this year instructors at a dozen schools in Tucson, Arizona were informed that the Mexican American Studies classes they had been teaching were in violation of a state law banning ethnic studies classes on the grounds that they could “cause resentment of a single group.”    The much lauded program, which had been credited with helping to keep statistically at-risk students in school was terminated, citing the fear that the TUSD could lose as much as ten percent of its funding if  they continued to teach the classes.   It would stand to reason that the state superintendent of public instruction might object to losing what could be considered by many as a crown jewel of progressive education in Arizona.

In the past, moves to take books from the hands of youngsters with a desire to learn have been couched some variation of the threadbare battle cry, “What about the children?  Think of the children!”  There has been no such pretense in the desert community that is struggling with what is institutionalized cultural apartheid on the part of the TUSD.  According to Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal, the issue is really one of dollars and cents.  A law on the books in the state banning ethnic studies on the grounds that such classes might cause resentment towards a particular group of people could cost the city school program millions of dollars in penalties.  Huppenthal, who is one of the authors of that law, has argued that he does not want to see Tucson lose much-needed funding.

Huppenthal’s response in an interview with National Public Radio’s Michael Martin revealed someone who was less interested in the impact the program has on Tucson’s Hispanic children than the political and professional expediency such a move could afford him beyond his tenure state education official.

Aside from slips that show political ambition and an eyeroll-inducing rush to defend the honour of a conservative politico whose tender sensibilities were affronted by a classroom full of teenagers (Oh, the horror!), there is his barely  sublimated Fear of a Brown Planet that comes through in the interview:

MARTIN: What’s the next step here? I mean, you used your authority. You raised an objection to the program. As we said, that the law passed and you used your authority as superintendent to – and your decision was upheld by a local – by a district judge. So what’s the next step here?

HUPPENTHAL: Well, the development of this law was a little bit more complex than perhaps it’s been described. It’s been described that I helped write this law when I was in the legislature. Actually, when they brought the law to me, I declined to be the sponsor of it and they went with another sponsor. I did help shape it when it came back to me, and it’s not generally the policy area in which I work in. I’m more of a policy wonk dealing with academic gains. But as I got into this area, realizing that I was going to play a policy role, I started studying intently Paulo Freire’s work and the influence that it’s had on South America.

And I think, far from banning these books, that a lot of liberals ought to read these books and understand them better. These issues are going to be huge philosophical issues for the United States as we become – as our whole racial makeup changes and we need to know that there are a lot of serious concerns about how you educate kids, the values that you pass on to them.

And so this is truly an area for serious policy discussions. It’s broken down into a simple conservative versus liberal kind of split or a racial demographic kind of split, but the consequences are going to be enormous for all of America as this thing rolls out over the coming decades.

The bolding in that last passage is mine.  That response encapsulates what is so rotten about this business.

“And I think, far from banning these books, that a lot of liberals ought to read these books and understand them better. “

Right now the TUSD sates that the books are not banned.  Librotraficante, an organisation based in Houston, Texas is claiming that is not the case.   There are also the issues that come with Huppenthal’s decision to create political divisions by calling out liberals with the misconception that they have not read or understood the materials in question.  What it reveals about Mr. Huppenthal is a lack of understanding of the nature of Latin American studies.  In another response he expresses alarm at the Marxist content of much of the materials used in the classes.

To put this in an historic context, Marxist ideas play a large part in the intellectual heritage of Hispanic arts, letters and social discourse.  At the very least, a rudimentary understanding of Marx is needed in order to understand the progression of ideas as they are presented.  Reading Marx or Marxists is not dangerous.  It is not contagious nor does it turn anyone into a Marxist by osmosis.   I can attest to this by dint of possessing an anthropology degree  which required, among other things, a pretty thorough reading of Marx. So far I have not felt the need to banish religion from my life or live on a collective.  (I am also a contributing editor of a news site that covers hockey.  I’ve worked there for going on four years and I have yet to have looked in the bathroom mirror in the morning to see Wayne Gretzky’s mug looking back at me.  It just does not work that way, Mr. Huppenthal.)

“These issues are going to be huge philosophical issues for the United States as we become – as our whole racial makeup changes and we need to know that there are a lot of serious concerns about how you educate kids, the values that you pass on to them.”

There are Hispanic people in Tucson Arizona?  I… Wait.  It’s…  No… You know…?  Where to start with this?

Uno.) Expressing the idea that the “racial” makeup is changing suggests that Mr. Huppenthal looked up one day and said, “What are all these brown people doing here and why aren’t they speaking English?”  For those of you reading in Canada, this is like someone who has lived in Quebec all of their life suddenly noticing all of the Francophones walking around.  Hispanic/Mestizo culture is an integral part of Arizona’s identity.  It has helped to make AZ what it is. It has been a part of the area’s identity for going on three centuries (more if you count the indigenous people who were here before the conquistadores passed through.

Dos.) There is no such thing as race.  Repeat: There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. Race.  It is a pseudoscientific fallacy created to balkanise people by suggesting nonexistent biological deviation.  There is, however, ethnicity and certain superficial traits that are often passed from one generation to the next.  These traits are not in and of themselves genus determinants.  Regardless of skin or eye colour, linguistic cognition or geographic adaptations, we are all of one species: homo sapien sapien.

Tres.) Shouldn’t the choice and adoption of values be something that parents choose?  True, there are social contracts that everyone is required to honor in order to function outside of the home?  These are instinctual.  Just ask Jane Goodall or Birute Galdikas.

I almost forgot Cuatro.) Huppenthal co-wrote the law that enabled his ability to do this.

What started out as grassroots outrage has spread as writers, editors and their supporters have begun trafficking books to areas where they have been removed. These guerilla educators refuse to accept what is essentially the eradication of Hispanic presence from school curricula and have undertaken a campaign to put books in the hands to children. According to Nicolas Kanellos, a professor of Hispanic Literature at the Uiversity of Houston and founder of UofH’s Arte’ Publico Press:

“Studies have shown that these Mexican-American, or ethnic, studies programs help students stay in school. Because they find something in the curriculum they can relate to.” -Nicolas Kanellos


Kanellos is not the only prominent figure on Hispanic arts and letters willing to take on Huppenthal. Author and activist Tony Diaz has stepped forward as the face of Librotraficante (sort of trans: “Book Traffickers”):


Diaz is a man on a mission. He and a number of educators, authors and others have organised caravans bringing books to Tucson as well as a few other locations where Hispanic students are underserved. On the press release page for Librotraficante, Diaz spells out what the organisation is about:

“Every great movement is sparked by outrage at a deep cultural offense,” said Tony Diaz, founder of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, which has led the charge, “When we heard that Tucson Unified School District administrators not only prohibited Mexican American Studies, but then walked into classrooms, and in front of young Latino students, during class time, removed and boxed up books by our most beloved authors – that was too much. This offended us down to our soul. We had to respond.”

Diaz added, “With their record of anti-immigrant legislation, politicians in Arizona have become experts in making humans illegal. We did not do enough to stop that, thus that anti-immigrant legislation spread to other states such as Alabama and Georgia. Now, these same legislators want to make thoughts illegal. If we allow this to happen, these laws, too, will spread. Other branches of ethnic studies will be prohibited, and other states will follow suit.”


As I write this, members of Librotraficante are on the road, making sure that the diversity of American academic and literary voices include the Hsipanic community. For more information on this story as it develops, visit Librotraficante at and Nuestra Palabra at

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