‘El Librotraficante’: Getting banned Latino books into readers’ hands

by Henry Gass, CSM Staff writer @henrygass from Austin and Houston, Texas

149296Henry GassThe Christian Science Monitor

September 11, 2022

Lupe Mendez was a self-described hobby poet when he first met Tony Diaz. Today, Mr. Mendez is the poet laureate of Texas, and he looks back at receiving Mr. Diaz’s business card that day as one of the first turning points in his career.

The name Tony Diaz didn’t mean much to him, nor did the organization, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. What jumped out to him was the picture of the Mayan calendar on the card.

“I thought, ‘This is dope!’” recalls Mr. Mendez. “At the time I hadn’t run into anything that was very pro-Latino.”

Mr. Diaz is, if nothing else, “very pro-Latino.” Over the past two decades, he has grown into one of the most active and exuberant advocates of Latino writing and writers in Texas. He’s a marketer and a spokesman; a writer and a promoter; an activist and, as he’s known around the state, “El Librotraficante.” The book smuggler.

It’s a nod to one of his defining acts: helping organize a 2012 caravan to Arizona with books outlawed as part of a state ban on Mexican American studies. Today, as school boards and state legislatures around the country, particularly in Texas, debate what children can read and learn, this aspect of his work has renewed significance.

But Mr. Diaz has long seen his work as both cultural and political. Highlighting and amplifying Latino writers and stories is a means of empowering their communities. Whether organizing a protest against book bans, or organizing a poetry reading, it’s all to help Latino communities treasure their stories – and themselves.

“We don’t think our stories are important. We feel intimidated. We’re not sure if our English is perfect. We’re not sure if our Spanish is perfect,” says Mr. Diaz. “All those things come together to keep us quiet.”

149296Tony Diaz/Courtesy of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts CenterTony Diaz takes a selfie with students at the October 2021 grand opening of the Latino bookstore at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. The bookstore is part of the network he’s helped build in Texas.

A “jaw-dropping” first

After years of picking crops all over Texas, the Diaz family found their first community on the south side of Chicago. And because his father had a full-time job, and his family had a fixed address, Mr. Diaz was able to go to school.

Still, he got his first job in second grade: translating for his parents. It was a lot of pressure for a child, he says, but “it showed me the power of words early on.” The youngest of nine, he was the first in his family to go to college. Then he became the first Mexican American to get a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Houston, even though it was the mid-90s by then – something Mr. Mendez calls “a jaw-dropping piece of data.”

“For him to have been the first Latino to get an MFA in the fourth-largest city in the country – in Texas – that’s crazy,” he adds.

But it was in breaking that ground that Mr. Diaz says he first started to see how literature and politics intersect. He formed Nuestra Palabra in 1998, and over the next decade the nonprofit hosted showcases of Latino writers, started a weekly radio show, and organized book festivals at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

The Librotraficante crew formed over those years. Mr. Mendez went to his first showcase in 2000 – featuring actor Edward James Olmos – and became a volunteer organizer for the book festivals. Upwards of 30 activists and writers would socialize before and after radio shows. Connections and networks expanded – facilitated in no small part by Mr. Diaz’s gift of gab – to the point that when news broke of Arizona’s Mexican American studies ban, it felt personal.

“That [ban] can just [look like] a list of books. But we knew all those writers,” says Mr. Diaz. “We had worked with all of them in Houston over those 12 years.”

“They were like family,” he adds.  

Long-lasting networks

“We always had this in-house joke that we were book smugglers,” recalls Mr. Mendez. “We always had books in our cars.”

But then in 2012, the Librotraficante caravan – literally a bus and a few cars – journeyed across the Southwest with stacks of books from the banned Arizona curriculum. They stopped in cities like San Antonio and El Paso to hold literary events, culminating in an event in Tucson.

The ban ultimately ended, declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2017. But the networks the Librotraficantes formed for that caravan remain in place today, and have expanded. 

In San Antonio, when Cristina Ballí became executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in 2016, she wanted to revive the center’s Latino bookstore and knew exactly whom to call.

“Tony is such a part of the regional arts world,” she says. “It always feels like he’s right around the corner.”

“I knew Tony wouldn’t just put together a list of authors. He does more than that,” she adds.

The center’s bookstore, which is now part of a Texas network that includes what Mr. Diaz likes to call “underground libraries,” serves as a permanent foundation for literary and political activism in the state. As conservative activists and officials in Texas campaigned this year against certain ways of teaching race, gender, and sexuality in schools – targeting hundreds of books with bans – Mr. Diaz led another banned-books caravan across the state in protest.

149296Henry Gass, The Christian Science MonitorLa Peña Cultural Center, located a half-mile from the Texas Capitol, is part of a network devoted to promoting and preserving Latino literature and culture in Texas.

“This is not bragging”

Months later, the libraries were hosting a more traditional, but equally important, event: a book tour for Salvadoran American poet Claudia Castro Luna. The book title alone – “Cipota Under the Moon” – thrilled attendees at events in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio because cipota is a Salvadoran word for young girl.

“I never saw cipota on a book title, and I can’t tell you how much that means,” said one woman, a Salvadoran American, at the Austin reading.

Mr. Diaz sees that moment as a product of decades of work using words to bridge linguistic and cultural differences – from translating for his parents, to forming Nuestra Palabra, to helping start the Librotraficante movement.

“This is not bragging, this is a fact: We did that,” he says. “Now what’s going to happen is we’ll do that more, and more often.”

“I really think [the country] needs us,” he adds. “At the end of the day, we [just] want to read and write and share our writing.”

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Last edited 9/12/2022 5:56:51 PM

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