Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso: Librotraficante Road Report #3
This is the third Free Press Houston Librotraficante embedded road report. For background, check out my previous articles: Books Are A Gateway Drug, Remember the Alamo, and Revenge of the Nerds. This picks up where the last post left off.
Forget your iPads and your Kindles, books are making a comeback! Have you seen this sexy new video from B*tches in Bookshops, yet?
Photo by Paolo Mossetti
By now you must have heard about Arizona’s ignorant ban on ethnic studies. It’s a cynical ploy to win votes by opportunistic politicians who are banning classes they have not even checked in on, despite invitations from teachers and students. Aside from coverage in the Houston Chronicle, the New York Times  and , the Los Angeles Times, the Texas Observer, The Nation, Alternet, and Newsweek; even the Daily Show has chimed in with a report this week.
The bus leaves San Antonio early and it doesn’t take long before the landscape begins to change. We are leaving the Hill Country and entering the Chihuahuan Desert. Ground cover dissipates. Hills become crags.
We listen to classic civil rights speeches by James Baldwin from the Pacifica Radio Archives over the bus PA. True to form, Baldwin is measured, passionate, and inspiring. With elders like this, having fought and endured what they went through, how is that we are still fighting this fight? It baffles the mind.
Following Baldwin we are treated to a showing of the documentary film Precious Knowledge, which is about the very issue we are traveling to Arizona to fight–their general ban on ethnic studies which all but explicitly targets Tucson High School’s Mexican American Studies program.
The film features moving testimony from students, teachers, and parents. It’s easy to see why opportunistic white supremacist politicians might be intimidated by this program which instills knowledge of self and self-respect in these students. With that “precious knowledge,” they can achieve anything. They’re not as liable to be bullied into thinking they’re losers who are only good for jail or minimum wage.
“In America,” the Horatio Alger, lift-yourself-by-the-bootstraps-types want to tell us, “anybody can achieve anything.”
That may certainly be true…to some extent. At the very least it is debatable–but can’t we all also, 100%, unequivocally agree with the old saying, “You cannot achieve what you cannot conceive?”
In the US, we look with distaste on the British system of education because it channels students into either a university track or vocational track early on, but here in the US, Congressman Raul Grijalva says in the film, second-grade children-of-color data is used to project the size of future prisons.
We are taken inside classrooms where teachers like José Gonzalez teach students humanistic concepts like the four Tezcatlipocas:
“Tezcatlipoca is critical reflection,” he explains to his class. “Any time something happens to you, you have to ask yourself ‘How am I at fault?’ Only through reflection and reconciliation: forgiveness. If you hate your dad, you are hating yourself, but by forgiving your father, who else do you forgive? Yourself! And now you become whole. Now we can create positive change…From there, you have this precious knowledge. What do you need to do? Take action. Positive action.”
If it is indeed “personal responsibility” that these Republican politicians want students to learn in school, then they should be supporting this program, not banning it. And it doesn’t just benefit Latin@ student, either. Dig this testimonial by Erin Cain-Hodge, an Anglo-American graduate of Tucson High’s Mexican American Studies program and current undergraduate at the University of Arizona who says that her high school classes challenged her even more than her current college courses are doing:
The film is interrupted for some good news, though. Caravanista Lupe Mendez, aka Librotraficante Lips, has received good news–he’s been accepted into a creative writing MFA program! And not just that, the school had tried to contact him the day before but we were out of cell phone range, so they checked his Facebook page and learned all about the Librotraficante Caravan and his role in it, which prompted them to reconvene their committee and offer him a scholarship!
The whole bus is elated for our fellow traveler. (Lupe will get two more such phone calls during the week–and I’m not sure how many more acceptances he’s received since returning home.)
The movie resumes and one of the politicians–Tom Horne–uses the words of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech to argue against ethnic studies. He is arguing for a “color-blind” ideology, which is its own form of racism. Another claims to be frightened by “militaristic” images of Brown Berets in brown shirts, bandanas, and sunglasses–“clearly revolutionary costumes”–which could easily pass for Eagle Scout uniforms., and you want to ask her if she’s ever seen the militarism suggested by marching bands and color guards–complete with “rifle” twirling and all!
I could go on and on about the film but you should just watch it on your own. Maybe I’ll include more quotes in subsequent posts. Back to the bus.
We arrive at our hotel around dusk in El Paso, and have a short while to rest and get ready before the night’s event at Mercado Mayapan in El Paso’s historic Chinatown, which dates back to–wait for it–the 1880s! Is that not “American” history? Would it be “subversive” and “seditious” to examine the relationships between the diverse communities which lived on this land, then?
Mercado Mayapan, our venue for the evening, has its own interesting origin. Before NAFTA, it had been a 40,000 sq ft factory, but after NAFTA sent the jobs across the border, the women who worked there were left with few options. So they organized and eventually founded this space where they provide job training, sell their handmade wares and food, and put on cultural events like ours. A crowd of over 400 people packs the main space for the night’s literary show, which includes a sultry performance by El Paso’s La RaNa:
and Ben Saenz:
Afterward, I meet a man named Amit K. Ghosh–a Bengali-American writer and publisher of the literary magazine Border Senses, which was one of the evening’s co-sponsors. And there you have it–a Sikh-American writer meeting a Bengali-American writer in a reclaimed Chicana space in El Paso, Texas’s historic Chinatown. Is this the “real” America, or is that bleached and whitewashed mythical fairyland that Sarah Palin likes to allude to?
That said, I leave you with another one of my tweets from the caravan:
— SuperbHerb (@SuperbHerb) March 16, 2012