Book Ban: a Reader & Writer Speaks

A feature I wrote for the VONA (Voices of Our Nation’s Arts) Newsletter of which I am co-editor.

When I first heard about Arizona’s recent book ban and elimination of the ethnic studies programs, my memory ricocheted to the spring of 1992 when, just sixteen years old and a junior in high school, a professor who was all too aware of my love for literature, gave me my first copy of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, the first book I’d ever seen or read by a Latina. My world shifted that day.

Like many of you, up to that point I’d received an education that privileged the stories, ideas and history of wealthy, western white men. I was taught by omission that the history of my people (and, for that matter, the histories of all marginalized people) was inferior and not worthy of study. Receiving that book made me question this, and led me to join the fight for ethnic studies at Columbia University, and major in Latino Studies. Would I be the proud Latina mother, writer and educator I am today had my education continued in the Eurocentric tradition? I dare say no. It jars me (and should worry us all, really) to wonder what will happen to those kids in Arizona, 60+% who are of Mexican heritage, who have been told outright that their history and perspectives have no place in American culture.

History demonstrates that when a government wants to control its people, the first people that are rounded up and jailed are the writers, intellects and artists because their work by its very nature is dangerous. This is how the flow of ideas and knowledge is controlled and reined in. As such, Arizona’s book ban can be seen as a revived war tactic in the ideological struggle between those who maintain that white Western thought should be predominant in public education and those who espouse a more inclusive education. What makes these 50+ books (that include books penned by VONA faculty Junot Diaz, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martin Espada, and Christina Garcia) so threatening? That they tell what the textbooks do not: our perspectives.

What does this say to us writers of color? It says that we must continue to write, that our stories are necessary to show our children that their histories are just as American as any other. Born here or not, here is where we’ve made our homes. Here is where we pay our taxes and raise our children. It is in the United States of America that we are penning our truths and it is this country that needs our tales most, especially during these volcanic times. It also says that VONA, the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation, is more crucial now than ever and deserves our support.

It’s why so many movements have sprouted in response to the ban, for as editor Marcela Landres said recently at a tribute for Piri Thomas at the famed Museo del Barrio, “Anger feeds activism.”

  • Librotraficante aims to mobilize a caravan of writers and activists who will cross Texas and New Mexico, organizing communities along the way, to “smuggle” books into Arizona by Hispanic authors that have been banned in Tucson public schools.
  • No History is Illegal: A Campaign to Save Our Stories invites educators across the country to teach lessons from and about the banned Mexican American Studies program.

What can you do? Buy those banned books for your friends, add them to your libraries and your children’s libraries. And, please do dust off those shelved manuscripts or start that narrative that’s been itching your fingertips. And, of course, spread the news about VONA and the nurturing environment it provides for us.

At the same aforementioned tribute to Piri Thomas, writer and activist Felipe Luciano remarked that “sometimes the best answer to an oppressor is a swift punch in the face.” Let your stories be that upper cut, folks. Let’s take this ban on as my dear second mom Millie always said, “con puños.” Word!

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