The school board of Tucson, Ariz. recently banned several books that had been used by its Mexican American Studies program, including Zapata’s Disciple by local UMass professor Martín Espada.
Under threat of losing millions of dollars in educational funding from the state, the school board of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) voted 4-1 to end its nationally acclaimed Mexican American Studies program in order to be in compliance with Arizona’s law against teaching ethnic studies.
In January of 2011, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne declared Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program illegal. The school district had one year to comply with the ruling or risk losing education funding from the state.
“This despite the curriculum’s astonishing success,” notes The Nation’s Peter Rothberg, “in graduating 100 percent of its students from high school and obtaining college placement for 82 percent of its alumni.”
The Tucson Unified School District had until February 1 of this year to comply with the state’s controversial law.
“Less than two months away from the 140th anniversary of the opening of the first public school in Tucson, founded by Mexican immigrant and legendary Tucson mayor Estevan Ochoa in 1872,” Jeff Biggers reports at the Huffington Post, “the nationally celebrated Mexican American Studies teachers and their college-bound students will be removed from Mexican American history and literature courses and placed into unofficially approved ‘American’ literature and history courses, including European history.”
Books being banned as part of the Mexican American Studies curriculum by Tucson’s cash-strapped school district include Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson; Pablo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; Feminism Is For Everybody, by bell hooks; Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; and dozens more, including Zapata’s Disciple.
For Martín Espada, a poet, essayist, and translator who has published 17 books and a longtime professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, having his book banned because of its place in the Mexican American Studies curriculum is cause for a celebration, in an ironic vein, of solidarity.
“I am keeping company with the likes of César Chávez, James Baldwin, Henry David Thoreau and Howard Zinn, four great icons of resistance in this country,” Espada notes in a written statement. “I am keeping company with ancestors. I am keeping company with some of the finest Latino/a writers alive today.”
While Disciple was previously banned by the state penal system of Texas for concerns that it might cause an inmate riot, Espada is not convinced that Arizona’s actions have anything to do with his book’s contents.
“This book is banned because it appears on the reading list of the banned Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson. All I had to do to give offense was to appear on a list,” continues Espada. “They need not read the books they ban. Theirs is the logic of fear, the reasoning of racism.”
For Espada, opposing that form of censorship is always a struggle worth waging, and more than enough reason to carry on.
“May our words always trigger the sweating and babbling of bigots,” he concludes. “We will gather ourselves in the dark, and keep reading to each other in whatever light we can find.”