Books can save your life.
Especially if you are growing up in a rough area, faced with discrimination, racism, poverty, violence and a dominant culture that seems to belittle your family’s history and your very existence.
That’s how celebrated author and community leader Luis J. Rodriguez described his youthful relationship with books. Growing up in a tough L.A. neighborhood where a gang attack left him with a damaged chin at age 11, Rodriguez was a young heroin addict and gang member. He eventually left that life and became an internationally-known writer, artist and youth advocate. The shift started with a book of Mexican murals given to him by a counselor who was also a Chicano activist with the radical Brown Berets.
Now, Rodriguez’s books are among those banned from public school curriculums in Tuscon, Ariz. as part of an attack on Mexican American studies by the city’s school board and a state law. On Sunday, at the Taller Mestizarte gallery in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, Rodriguez read from one of his own books and spoke about the larger importance of books dealing with politics, Chicano culture and popular movements.
There was much attention last year to the removal of a long list of book titles from Tucson schools after the school board became afraid that ethnic studies violated a 2010 state law prohibiting courses “designed primarily for pupils of one ethnic group” that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” or promote “resentment toward a race or class of people.” In These Times covered the efforts of Tucson student activists to organize their own ethnic studies classes, as well as a month-long “No History is Illegal” campaign to incorporate the banned Mexican American studies curriculum into classrooms across the country last February.
But Chicano, Latino and other activists and educators in Chicago feel that the issue has now dropped off the public radar. They fear that attacks on free speech, education and ethnic studies will spread around the country if people don’t continue to fight the Tucson school board.
That’s why Rodriguez – who previously lived in Chicago and founded Tia Chucha Press here – joined local artists, activists, students and teachers in the small Pilsen gallery to read from books on Tucson’s banned list. Appropriately, the event was held on 18th Street in Pilsen, a hotbed of Chicano organizing in decades past.
Rodriguez remembered how, along with receiving the book from the Brown Beret, “an Anglo teacher opened up the world of books for me.” He also recalled how librarians would watch him with an eagle eye, suspecting he intended to steal books. At an independent bookstore owned by a Jewish-American man in his own rough neighborhood, Rodriguez said the owner would “watch me not because he thought I would steal but because he wanted to see what my interests were.”
While homeless and living beside the Los Angeles River, Rodriguez would stow books in little “cubby holes” and other secret spots. “Books, man!” he reiterated. “They save your life … This is why the battle in Tucson is important.”
On the gallery walls between bright abstract paintings were cardboard signs reading, “Save Ethnic Studies” and “History is not Illegal.”
Antonio Zavala, one of the Pilsen event organizers, invoked Ray Bradbury’s famous Fahrenheit 451 as a cautionary tale. He paraphrased the Tuscon school board members’ contentions that the Chicano and other ethnic studies programs teach hatred toward Anglos and foster an “us versus them” environment.
“They want to promote this idea that ‘Just work hard and you’ll make it,’” he said. “But that’s a big fallacy – just look at the African American community, they’ve worked hard through so many conditions and they’re still looked on as second class citizens … This is a designated attack on the rights of Mexican Americans and their culture and right to education.”
Two participants read from Laura Esquivel’s book Like Water for Chocolate, pointing out the important cultural symbolism and mocking the fact that the school board saw such tales of food and desire as threatening.
“What do they have against chefs … what do they have against love?” asked participant, after reading stanzas from the book. After reading a fragment about “punish[ing] Tita for her willfulness,” she said, “Ah! Maybe that’s it, willfulness.”
Another participant read from 500 Years of Chicano History, pointing out that she could see why it might be seen as threatening in a state rife with anti-immigrant and racist dynamics…and that is all the more reason to make sure students have the chance to read and discuss the material. She pointed out how “Anglos put the label of bandit on our resistance heroes.” Several others read from Paoulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
The next step for Tucson organizers will be a three-day “Tucson Freedom Coalition” convergence in November, where they hope to unite a national movement around the battle for ethnic studies in Arizona.
Dr. Teresa Cordova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said at Sunday’s event, “I had the opportunity to go to the university because of the Chicano movement…So I always felt like my education was not my own but belonged to the community.”
“One of the reasons they’re afraid of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the idea of using education as a way for people to understand the context under which they live and the possibility for transforming it,” Cordova continued. “That we are not just victims but agents of transformation.”