Outside Casa Ramirez, a Houston, Texas, cultural center, a group of friends feasted giddily on pan dulce and café. It was the morning of March 12, a Monday. Nothing about the assembly seemed subversive. Yet 28 of them would soon cram a commuter bus with boxes of prohibited books and drive toward Tucson, Ariz., calling themselves librotraficantes -- book smugglers.
The caravan was a response to Tucson Unified School District's January decision to dissolve its acclaimed Mexican American Studies program, which taught U.S. history from a Chicano perspective. Eighty-eight titles were removed from classrooms to libraries or campus warehouses, and teachers were prohibited from using them in lessons. Among them were Luis Alberto Urrea's Into the Beautiful North, a novel about a Mexican girl's attempts to reclaim her village from violent drug traffickers, and Rethinking Columbus, a history of the discovery of North America that is used in classrooms in at least 14 other states.
The controversy started in 2006, when Tom Horne, then superintendant of state schools, took offense to a speech Dolores Huerta gave to Tucson High Magnet School students. Huerta, a farmworkers' rights activist, asserted that "Republicans hate Latinos." When Horne sent an aide to offer a response, some students protested, raising their fists and turning their backs. Horne blamed the Mexican American Studies course for politicizing the students and making them feel victimized. So he went to the Legislature, which in 2010 outlawed ethnic studies programs that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of ... pupils as individuals," "are designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group" or "promote the overthrow of the United States government."
A 2011 independent audit found that the Mexican American Studies program did not violate the new law. But Horne, now Arizona's attorney general, and Superintendant of Public Instruction John Huppenthal contend that the study was compromised by an auditor who also helped create the program. A state judge upheld their decision to scrap the program.
"Things have made me feel victimized, but it's all this literature that helped me feel empowered," says novelist Tony Diaz, a self-described "book geek" who teaches literature at Houston Community College. Diaz leads Nuestra Palabra, a group promoting Latino literature that spearheaded the book smuggling. Removing these books from classrooms insults Latino history and culture, Diaz says. "It's not the books, it's (Arizona lawmakers') brains that bend it to something negative."
The librotraficantes' first stop was San Antonio, where they established an "underground library" at the Southwest Workers Union, a barbershop transformed into a community center for dance classes, art shows and a community garden. Swiveling chairs, sinks and mirrors still occupy the space, alongside a new permanent collection of Latino literature that includes the books targeted in Arizona. At a cultural center that evening, cloaked in a cayenne-colored shawl, Sandra Cisneros read to 300 people from her novel The House on Mango Street, a coming-of-age story about a girl named Esperanza, who lives in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. It too had been expelled from Tucson classrooms.
Wednesday morning, Dennis Castillo, 18, joined the bus unexpectedly, after meeting the librotraficantes the day before. En route to El Paso, organizers fielded media requests, filmmakers scurried about, queues formed for three out lets to charge cellphones. Gloria Rubac, a retired teacher who came along to "shine a light on things," called Huppenthal's assistant, who was surprised to hear of the "wet-books" shuttling toward Tucson.
On Thursday, the librotraficantes pulled into Mesilla, N.M., to meet Denise Chavez, a novelist, playwright, poet and actress. Chavez had prepared a "love fest" of homemade bearclaws and croissants on the patio of the small bookstore she manages. Under crisp blue sky in a light breeze, locals mingled and donated books for planned "underground" libraries in Albuquerque and Tucson. Chavez stocked the bus with chile rellenos, brisket burritos and soda.
"It was like setting off on the river," says Chavez, who watched the librotraficantes depart from her adobe bookstore. "There was great hope and expectation."
Later that afternoon, the travelers met Il Padrino, Rudolfo Anaya, the father of modern Chicano literature, at his Albuquerque home. He stood in the driveway, bracing himself with a cane carved into a serpent's head. A microwave-size box full of copies of Bless me, Ultima -- a Chicano classic that was removed from Tucson classrooms -- rested at his feet. The book has inspired controversy before; its mystical themes and profanity have sometimes offended religious conservatives and school officials. The traficantes relaxed, eating posole and drinking tequila before Anaya gave them a farewell blessing.
Once in Tucson, they spent Friday meeting with two progressive school board candidates and hosting a teach-in to encourage parents to read literature with their children. On Saturday morning, they met former Mexican American Studies students at the John Valenzuela Youth Center. Earlier in the month, lawyers for two of the students argued in federal court that Arizona's ethnic studies law violates students' First Amendment rights. Some believe the case will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a candy-coated purple drop-top Impala, Diaz and the students rolled through Tucson's barrios, handing out books door-to-door in hopes of creating un pueblo unido -- a united community.
The smugglers distributed over 1,000 books during the weeklong trek. But the impact of the effort is hard to gauge. Media attention was roused over two months of planning, but the tour never drew the thousands of followers that Diaz hoped for. Yet he persists: "Arizona tried to erase our history," Diaz is fond of saying, "so we made more."