IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Librotraficantes' fire up to fight latest attacks on race, ethnicity, LGBTQ studies

Ten years after "smuggling" books to Arizona, Librotraficante leader Tony Diaz says "we have to up our game" to counter the latest "intellectual freedom attack."
Tony Diaz speaks to a crowd as the Librotraficante caravan made its first stop at the Alamo in San Antonio in 2012.
Tony Diaz speaks to a crowd as the Librotraficante caravan made its first stop at the Alamo in San Antonio in 2012.Liana Lopez

It’s been 10 years since a cadre of writers and creative minds “smuggled” forbidden Chicano history and other books from Texas into Arizona to defy a ban on Mexican American studies.

The 2010 Arizona ban was struck down as racist after a nearly decadelong court fight. But a new, wider attack on the history of Latinos and Black people, teachings about racism and discrimination and LGBTQ identity has emerged in its place in other states, including in Texas.

In response, the Latino activists who led the widely popular Librotraficante (book smuggler) book and literary caravans through Texas and Arizona are relaunching and upping their game.

Tony Diaz, a Houston writer, activist and professor and a founder of the Librotraficante caravans, said the latest attempt by states to pull books from shelves, ban teaching on race and censor LGBTQ literature is an “update on the attack on ethnic studies” in Arizona.

“We can’t respond to this current attack with the same approach we used 10 years ago because, clearly, the folks that want to erase our history and culture have studied the success of the Librotraficante movement, the ethnic studies movement, the Black Lives Matter movement,” Diaz told NBC News.

Tony Diaz.
Tony Diaz.Liana Lopez

“They’ve created this attack on intellectual freedom to dodge some of the tools we’ve created … so we have to up our game,” he said.

Diaz and others planned to launch the movement’s reboot and next chapter at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Librotraficante caravans Saturday in Houston.

“If the suppression weren’t occurring, we’d just have a birthday party, right?” he said.

The Librotraficante movement came about after Arizona passed a law prohibiting “the overthrow of the United States government” and “resentment toward a race or class of people” or advocating “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Book titles banned at the time included “The House on Mango Street,” by Sandra Cisneros; “Drown” by Junot Díaz, and “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya, considered the godfather of Chicano literature.

A federal judge deemed that racism and political gain were behind the Arizona ban when it was finally overturned.

The latest campaign against race and ethnic and LGBTQ studies is a reaction to the victories that followed the Arizona case, Diaz said. Some of these include:

— The Mexican American studies curriculum returned to Tucson’s school district and has flourished.

— In Texas, Diaz and others prevented a similar ban from taking root in the state as Arizona was adopting its law; kept the state from adopting a racist textbook, and won approval of Mexican American studies as an elective in 2018 and African American studies in 2020.

— Texas’ current state poet laureate is Lupe Mendez, who helped “smuggle” books to Arizona in Librotraficante caravans.

— Last year, California made ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

The Republican campaigns have proliferated following those advances and a national reckoning with racism following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of color.

For example, Tennessee enacted a law that allows the state to withhold funding from schools whose teachers teach about the impact of the legacy of racism in the country.

Among other things, the law prohibits "promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government," as the 2010 Arizona law did.

In Diaz's home state, Texas officials have targeted more than 800 books in local schools, many of them books with LGBTQ and gender identity themes, including several by Latino authors.

The list includes books on systemic racism, Black Lives Matter, police violence, violence against Native Americans, abortion, sex education and Latino culture, such as the 2010 book “Quinceañeara” by Ilan Stavans, exploring the origins, history and traditions of the traditional 15th birthday celebration of Latinas.

Texas’ latest law also prohibits schools from requiring an understanding of the “1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times project on slavery and Black Americans.

Diaz believes state officials have targeted the LGBTQ community after encountering the blowback in Texas from the Librotraficante movement and others.

The latest campaigns and book bans have been targeting the academic discipline known as critical race theory, or CRT, which is generally found in graduate and law school level studies, not in K-12, where the bans are focused.

Critics say schools are teaching children that white people are inherently racist, while opponents of some of the new laws and campaigns say critical race theory is being used as an excuse to shut down teaching about race and histories of nonwhite communities or from nonwhite perspectives.

Diaz said the newest laws have intimidated teachers and parents and tried to overwhelm opponents.

“But we can’t let their approach dictate our tactics,” he said.

“If we know our history, our culture, our stories, our voices, we’re rich and we’re powerful,” he said.

Because of the expansion of the campaigns into communities beyond Latinos, Diaz said the newest Librotraficante movement has brought in new allies and supporters.

Advances in social media since 2010 will also be instrumental in creating a response that reaches wider than the six-city Librotraficante caravan stops in Arizona and Texas, he said.

Diaz said this time, the plan is to create and strengthen literary chapters around the country modeled after Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, a community of Latino writers that has promoted Latino literature and literacy for nearly 25 years and that conceived the book smuggling caravans to Arizona.

Those groups would hold events and help distribute and provide the literature, history and ideas in communities that are being denied in schools and libraries.

Mendez, the Texas poet laureate, recounted the Librotraficante caravans in a Texas Observer article in January and criticized the newest GOP "culture war."

“Now, 10 years later, I’m still a Librotraficante," he wrote. "And I’m ready to do it all over again.”

The Librotraficante activists also created “underground libraries” at its caravan stops, in places such as community centers. There are plans to replenish them and create more, Diaz said.

The intent is to create what Diaz called “cultural capital” in the community.

Family libraries and oral history are how many people of color have passed on their culture and history, “which is what I say is part of our community cultural capital,” he said.

“One thing we were saying as Librotraficantes, once you read the book, they can’t ban it," Diaz said. "Once you read the book, they can’t take it from you. We become walking testaments to our history and culture."

Follow NBC Latino on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.