Latin literature: putting books – banned or not – into the hands of readers


Over the past two decades, Tony Diaz has become one of the most active and exuberant advocates of Latino writing and writers in Texas. It is a marketer and a spokesperson; a writer and promoter; an activist and, as he is known throughout the state, “El Librotraficante”. The Book Carrier.

It’s a nod to one of his defining acts: helping organize a 2012 caravan in Arizona with books banned as part of a state ban on Mexican American studies.

Why we wrote this

Breaking down the barriers of the literary world, Tony Diaz has spent two decades building a network that encourages Latino writers and readers to cherish their stories – and themselves.

As activists and conservative officials in Texas campaigned this year against certain ways of teaching about race, gender and sexuality in schools – targeting hundreds of banned books – Mr Diaz led another caravan of banned books across the state in protest.

Months later, the libraries held a more traditional but equally important event: a book tour for Salvadoran American poet Claudia Castro Luna. The title of the book alone – “Cipota Under the Moon” – thrilled attendees at events across Texas because cipote is a Salvadoran word for maiden.

“I never saw Cipote on a book title, and I can’t tell you what that means,” one woman, a Salvadoran American, said while reading Austin.

“It’s not bragging,” says Diaz. “It’s a fact: we did it.”

Austin and Houston, TX

Lupe Mendez was a self-proclaimed amateur poet when he first met Tony Diaz. Today, Mr. Mendez is the Poet Laureate of Texas, and he considers receiving Mr. Diaz’s calling card that day an early turning point in his career.

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

“I thought, ‘That’s drugs!’ recalls Mr. Mendez. “At the time, I hadn’t come across anything very pro-Latino.”

Why we wrote this

Breaking down the barriers of the literary world, Tony Diaz has spent two decades building a network that encourages Latino writers and readers to cherish their stories – and themselves.

Mr. Diaz is, to say the least, “very pro-Latino”. Over the past two decades, he has become one of the most active and exuberant advocates of Latino writing and writers in Texas. It is a marketer and a spokesperson; a writer and promoter; an activist and, as he is known throughout the state, “El Librotraficante”. The Book Carrier.

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

But Mr. Diaz has long viewed his work as both cultural and political. Highlighting and amplifying Latino writers and stories is one way to empower their communities. Whether it’s organizing a protest against book bans or hosting a poetry reading, everything is done to help Latino communities cherish their stories — and themselves.

“We don’t think our stories matter. We feel intimidated. We don’t know if our English is perfect. We don’t know if our Spanish is perfect,” says Diaz. “All of these things come together to silence us.”

“We connect with a community that feels neglected,” he adds. “And we also ignite.”

Tony Diaz / Courtesy of Guadalupe Cultural Center for the Arts

Tony 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 helped build in Texas.

A “breathtaking” first

After years of picking all over Texas, the Diaz family found their first community in South 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.

Yet he got his first job in second grade: translating for his parents. It was a lot of pressure for a kid, 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 earn a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Houston, even though it was then the mid-1990s – what Mr. Mendez calls “breathtaking data.” “.

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

But it was in exploring this ground that Diaz says he began to see how literature and politics intersect. He formed Nuestra Palabra in 1998, and over the next decade the nonprofit organized showcases of Latino writers, launched a weekly radio show, and held book festivals at the George R. Brown Convention. Center of Houston.

The Librotraficante team was formed during these years. Mr Mendez went to his first showcase in 2000 – starring actor Edward James Olmos – and became a volunteer organizer for book festivals. More than 30 activists and writers socialized before and after the radio shows. Connections and networks grew — facilitated in large part by Mr. Diaz’s gift of gossip — to the point that when news of the ban on Mexican American studies in Arizona broke, it felt personal.

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

“They were like a family,” he adds.

Sustainable networks

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

But then, in 2012, the Librotraficante caravan — literally a bus and a few cars — drove through the Southwest with stacks of books from Arizona’s banned program. They stopped in cities like San Antonio and El Paso to hold literary events, culminating in an event in Tucson.

Prohibition eventually 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 who to turn to.

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

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

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

Henry Gass / The Christian Science Monitor

The La Peña Cultural Center, located half a mile from the Texas Capitol, is part of a network dedicated to promoting and preserving Latin American literature and culture in Texas.

“It’s not bragging”

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

“I never saw cipote on a book title, and I can’t tell you what that means,” one woman, a Salvadoran American, said while reading Austin.

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

“It’s not bragging, it’s a fact: we did it,” he says. “Now what’s going to happen is we’re going to do it more and more often.”

“I really think [the country] needs us,” he adds. “Ultimately, we [just] want to read and write and share our writings.


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