When Mexican-American studies courses were discontinued in Arizona and certain books were removed from classrooms, Tony Diaz and his group of literary rebels mobilized. Coining himself, “el Librotraficante,” or book trafficker, Diaz and cohorts including authors, thinkers, poets and supporters started “underground libraries” and began a librotraficante caravan from Texas to Tucson, to “smuggle” books into Arizona.
Now, Diaz is being honored with the 2012 Downs Intellectual Freedom award by the faculty of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for the movement “to oppose the censorship of ethnic and cultural studies materials in Arizona.”
“It’s a double-edged sword, ” Diaz says of being recognized for the award founded in 1969. “I’m very touched and ecstatic that the work and efforts of so many of our supporters is being recognized but on the other hand I’m sad and concerned that Arizona house bill 2281 still exists.”
Diaz’s DNA is imprinted on the clever phrases he comes up with, like book trafficker and smuggling books into Arizona, but the issue is very serious to the librotraficantes. Diaz says he and many others involved in the movement have ties to his first efforts with Nuestra Palabra, founded in Houston 15 years ago, which sought to bring Latino literature into the mainstream.
“I’m just a frontman for this cool band,” he says of the librotraficantes, laughing. “But what really touches me are the abuelitas who dragged their kids to our readings in Houston and now those kids have Master’s degrees. We’ve gained this audacity that we can really do anything we put our hearts and minds to.”
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Diaz says he has seen a change in rhetoric concerning Latino issues and credits the librotraficante movement with an important win in Texas.
“One of my big concerns was that this anti-intellectual law would spread like SB1070 did in Arizona to other states,” he says. “But when the Texas GOP put questionable language in their platform that we saw as code words that could lead to banning, we contacted them to make sure that wasn’t the intention.”
Diaz wrote an Op-ed in the Houston Chronicle and contacted Texas GOP members who assured him they did not plan to ban Mexican American Studies in Texas, something Diaz says would have mobilized his group again.
“We were making sure they knew they were being kept in check,” he says. “We would have had 1,000 books at their doorstep and conducted readings in their living rooms.”
Diaz has brought underground libraries and events featuring banned books to much of the corridor between Texas and Arizona, but the movement has spread to places like Kentucky and Milwaukee as well.
“The books are even more sought out by our young than ever,” he says. “They covet and want to protect the books and it has energized our people because they’re like, ‘Wow we were taking this for granted.'”
He is most proud of the award because of who is honoring him. “This is non-Latinos noticing a Latino issue,” he says.
“But what they’re saying is the broader issue is civil rights and freedom of speech.”
A reception to honor Librotraficante will take place during the American Librarian Association Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, Washington, on Saturday.