As Arizona Mulls Mexican Studies Ban, Texas Latino Group Rallies to Action

Arizona's ban on Mexican American studies caused books by Latino authors to be pulled off of public school shelves, but Tony Diaz, co-founder of Houston's El Librotraficante, is determined to fight any such laws and keep giving people access to banned books.
Arizona's ban on Mexican American studies caused books by Latino authors to be pulled off of public school shelves, but Tony Diaz, co-founder of Houston's El Librotraficante, is determined to fight any such laws and keep giving people access to banned books. Photo by Liana Lopez
When Arizona's ban on Mexican American studies was first enacted in 2011, Tony Diaz, the founder of El Librotraficante, a Houston nonprofit, heard stories of public school officials combing classrooms and yanking books by Latino authors from the shelves. They made him furious.

Since then, Diaz has worked to oppose any and all efforts to keep Mexican American studies out of public schools and has used every opportunity he can to get those same sorts of books – by Sandra Cisneros and Sherman Alexie, James Baldwin and Junot Diaz, any author, Latino or not, who has been banned – into the hands of readers in Latino communities.

On Wednesday morning, Diaz will ride again.

He and about 15 people from Houston – and more than 300 books – will pile into a van bound for Arizona. Along the way the members of El Librotraficante, a nonprofit organization in Houston, will stop off to deliver books, mostly by Latino authors, and try to whip up interest in a case slated to be taken up by the Arizona Supreme Court next Monday.

The case examines whether the Arizona law banning Mexican American studies from being included in Arizona public school counts as discrimination. Diaz is hopeful.

"We were in the courtroom when a federal judge told America that if you have proof that a course helps a particular group of students succeed, yet you outlaw the course, that looks like discrimination," Diaz stated. "We hope that the upcoming Arizona Supreme Court ruling will drive a stake in the heart of this un-American law that tramples on intellectual freedom."

But he might not want to bet any money on this issue being resolved anytime soon: The Arizona Supreme Court hearing is just another step forward in a fight that has been dragging on for years now.

It all started innocuously enough when the Tucson Unified School District created the Mexican American studies department in 1998. Initially, the department offered only a few classes, but within a few years there were more than 40 different courses being offered to students in elementary, middle and high school throughout the district. Some studies found that the program helped to raise graduation rates and lower the dropout rate.

You'd think that Arizona officials would have been eager to expand the program to other school districts across the state, but that's not what happened. Instead, in 2010 a law penned by Tom Horne, the then-superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, proposed to make it illegal for public schools to offer classes that cater to any specific ethnic group, that go against any other ethnic groups or that advocate overthrowing the government of the United States.

Despite the absolute comedy of equating classes in which students studied Mexican American culture to a petri dish nefariously aiming to inspire students to topple the U.S. government, this legislation wasn't laughed out of the state capital. Instead, the bill was signed into law by then-Arizona governor Jan Brewer and went into effect in 2011.

School districts who defied the law and continued offering the programs risked losing 10 percent of their funding, but Tucson Unified School District officials initially chose to ignore the new law and continue the program, so Arizona took the district to court. After a judge ruled that the Mexican American studies program was indeed not in accordance with the law, the school board voted to end the program, banning a few books from the schools along the way, since it was deemed the books also violated the new law.

Students who had been involved in the Mexican American studies program filed a lawsuit against the officials who had killed the program.

The case has bounced through the court system since then. In 2015 the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on one aspect of the case and kicked the rest of the case back to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Now, more than a year later, the Arizona Supreme Court is preparing to hear the case. This time around, justices will look at new evidence that the plaintiffs claim shows that the law was "motivated, at least in part, by discriminatory intent." This is a crucial point because if the court decides that the law was a deliberate attempt to discriminate against certain students, the whole law could be found to be unconstitutional, which would bring the ban on Mexican American studies to an end.

Since Texas has had its own share of public and political scrapping over similar issues in the Lone Star State — the Texas State Board of Education actually created a Mexican American studies class, but then tried to use a controversial textbook critics said contained racist passages — El Librotraficante started making a habit of heading to Arizona each time the case went to court.

Whenever the case has gone to court, Diaz says, he and other members of El Librotraficante have made a point of showing up. They even established small “underground libraries” at local Latino community spots in various cities along the way, filling these spaces with the very same books that were being yanked from the shelves of Arizona's public schools.

The latest hearing also gives the group a chance to restock the shelves of these libraries, Diaz says. “We want to make sure that our people always have access to our literature, no matter what the government does,” he says.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray