By Arthur DeVitalis
“I was always a translator,” Tony Diaz says about being an English-Spanish bilingual kid in Chicago. “Now, we’re translating for companies and our culture.”
It was April 22, 1998 and a gathering over Latino literature is close to starting in Houston, Texas, at Chapultepec Restaurant. Diaz tries to get more chairs. “Ehhh, we’ve kinda done this thing before in the ‘80’s,” the manager protests. “There just aren’t a lot of people into the Chicano book thing.” Diaz shakes his head at the 8 chairs provided on the floor. In thirty minutes, over 100 people fill the establishment.
In 2001, Diaz takes the group named Nuestra Palabra (Our Words) to 90.1 KPFT Houston, hosting Latino writers and their say on literature of all types. Now, it‘s his fourth show in and two of Diaz’s guests just called to cancel their seats. He frantically calls more: a Latino author could do a live book read or another can recite a poem in French about her Chicana heritage. Diaz fills the hour last minute, although connecting others through intellectual discussion becomes his forte. After months, the demand from writers becomes so high that Nuestra Palabra books guests several weeks in advance.
A year later, Diaz’s heart races behind the desk of an executive broker from Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. His final signature is scrawled at the end of a thick paper pile, making the 2002 Latino Book and Family Festival a reality. “He walks me to convention Hall A. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen 20,000 square feet of empty space before…” Diaz asks. “I walk in and was like, “I’ve gotta fill this thing.”
The audience’s chatter echoes in the expanse until the host takes the podium, pausing for brief silence. “Once you start taking away the literature of a people,” he begins, filling the half-empty convention center with sheer tenacity. “You take away their identity.” The voice speaks rhetorical absolutes over a celebratory crowd gone solemn. The steadfast belief in using education to unify different cultures empowers the audience. They are a part of Diaz’s story. He steps off the podium, ushering in the first lecturer. More people are fill, although the orchestrators charisma is notably absent until he calls another author.
Diaz emcees with starry eyes as seats fill to watch lecturers like Edward James Olmos and Cheech Marin; the “cultural capital” of the Hispanic community sold out the convention center. “That book fair was 15,000 people, for Latinos,” he emphasizes. To Diaz, “cultural capital” is the perceived value of cultural identity and the core motivator for Latinos acting on these issues.
Eight years pass and the immigration reform winds down. At midnight on Dec. 31st, 2010, the Arizona State legislature’s House Bill 2281 went into effect. Books covering topics of race, ethnicity, sexual content, and those that “promote the overthrow of the United States government” were banned in public school curriculums and libraries. Diaz speaks of weeks after the ban, mentioning school officials that “walked into classrooms and started boxing up books…in front of the students too.”
People were angry. This was more than the fear of deportation, xenophobia, or violation of citizen’s rights. The state was weeding out institutions of cultural identity and heritage from their roots; the Mexican American humanities. Nicole Cruz documents stories of Latino veterans and protest organizers in the VOCES Oral History Project for reference and recreation. “There is a need for the historical and cultural recognition of the [Hispanic] community’s contributions in U.S. society instead of just assimilation,” Cruz believes, calling to mind breakfast tacos’ popularity or Cinco de Mayo’s alcohol-oriented focus. Diaz fights for this recognition and “anti-intellectualism” that he believes are becoming more ingrained in society. In modern America, smart technology, political rhetoric, and apathy contribute to the “pro-intellectualism” he fights for. Decreasing attention spans in the last decade complement complacency toward socio-political identity, individual impact on government, and cultural self-worth. “Some apathy existed in Latinos on the immigration debate because of politicians’ political sleight of hand, disconnected or conflicting Hispanic identity, and immigrants’ inability to fight actively without risking deportation,” thinks Chris Cantu, a University of Texas at Austin graduate in International Relations. This contributed to larger uproar sparked by Arizona’s book ruling. Until House Bill 2218 Arizona had mandated Mexican-American Studies in the public curriculum, with studies showing that MAS implementation doubled graduation rates and statewide testing scores by over 50 percent for lower-performing students. When Diaz heard the news, he called four close friends, his Nuestra Palabra crew. Librotraficante was born.
In early 2011, Diaz got behind the wheel of a van filled with the exact books that Arizona banned. A couple of titles like “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros and “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” by Richard Delgado peeked out the tops of boxes. The books shuffled slightly before reaching their home in Tucson, in a nonprofit underground library that promoted the works by word of mouth in the Latin community
particularly via schools. Diaz’s libraries popped up as shelves filled, and groups like MAS Texas appeared to bridge the gap between long legal battle mandating MAS and Ethnic studies’ presence today in the classroom in Texas. On October 23 2013, the ban on MAS in curricula was reversed by the Tucson Unified School District, who faced a $14 million budget cut from the Supreme court if it wasn’t mandated. While MAS has been reincorporated in the classroom, 81 books are still banned in public school libraries.
Phones blew up with book donations, drivers, and people wanting to start their own libraries. “A lot of people sent in books in Spanish and we had to reject them,” says Diaz. “They’re great, but that’s not what we’re doing here. The students are citizens who speak English.” A newfound importance in building Latino identity through literature by the youth emerged. As Diaz got national attention in news media, inspired students became intellectual activists. The Mexican American Studies (MAS) and overarching Latino movement were in motion.
In April 2013, the Texas State Board of education (SBOE) approved bipartisan Proclamation 2016, which scheduled the use of Mexican American, African American, Asian American, and Native American Studies materials in statewide classrooms by November 2015. On Aug. 6, 2014, Governor Rick Perry approved a bill that gave $144 million to send the National Guard to the Texas/Mexico border for illegal immigration. That same week, the SBOE voted against mandating MAS in Texas schools while citing overwhelming “textbook expenses” as justification. The SBOE pushed the mandate to 2016 and Diaz was tired of waiting for legal results. He created the group MAS Texas to offer a 6-hour course for teachers to incorporate MAS into public classrooms on a personal level. Instructors receive materials and a curriculum plan that allow teaching MAS alongside required Texas history. Diaz first gave it a 2014 trial run at schools in Houston. Now, the group vows to implement MAS in 200 schools by the end of 2016. MAS Texas works with Librotraficante to expand the base of Hispanics interested in greater cultural education.
Today, Diaz sits before me in perpetual animation over coffee and stimulating
conversation. A clean-cut 48-year-old in a dark teal polo and black pants, Diaz’s appearance and enthusiasm reflect someone half his age. His presence fills the coffee shop, commanding knowledge relayed at lightning fast speeds but not domineering; a powerful charismatic force that knows its exact strength. “I grew up in Southside Chicago, where [Latino] men in the neighborhood would go door to door. They’d say, “Hey Tone! Want to grab a burger? Want to Vote?” Diaz reminisces. “They made sure you at least voted, then discussed interests of the neighborhood.” Diaz applied the same genuine interest in people that allowed Latinos to sway Chicago elections to MAS, although it took more effort to rally Texans in the beginning. As soon as I mention the widespread Hispanic pride movement that seems to be prevalent, his focused expression turns to enigmatic, inspired smile. This is his work, the work of a people, and work reminiscent of extinct tradition barely kept hanging alive: Storytelling. Both Nuestra Palabra’s congregation and commentary are the campfire, drawing people to the warm light of companionate wisdom. “20 years ago, to think there would be a Mexican American Studies Day in Texas was unheard of,” he says.
But that’s exactly what happens. Diaz works with Senators Sylvia Garcia and José Rodríguez to push a resolution through the Texas Legislature. The Senators successfully approve Senate Resolution 626 a week before May 2015. On May 1st Librotraficante, MAS Texas, and student groups gather on the steps of the Texas Capitol. They wait for the announcement to designate May 1st as Mexican American Studies Day.
San Antonio native Gyles Sonier describes MAS Day’s significance with “It’s appropriate, but not appropriat-ing. It’s nice to offer a new horizon to someone who wouldn’t have been introduced otherwise and celebrates those who already study Mexican American culture.” Although maybe only nominally significant, the acknowledgement through MAS Day reflects hope in the outcome of the ongoing battle that Diaz and others still face. For today, the announcement suffices as cheers and hands go up. Diaz is patted on the back and smiles abound.
While some argue that legislative success with massive organized rally is impossible, Diaz counters. “Protests don’t pop up overnight. It takes so much time, charisma, and nerve to put something like Librotraficante together.” Diaz started as a professor at Lone Star College in Houston. Before Nuestra Palabra and Librotraficante, Diaz’s ongoing creative writing class was practice ground for debate, encouragement and intellectual stimulation that would become these groups. When members worried about finding guests in the early days, he’d say, “You want writers? We have a surplus of writers. I’ll make some writers before we run out.” Promising student and academic writers filled the literary playbill until reputation preceded the movements. We went from our little book-reading series where Latinos are saying “I don’t think there’s an audience” to hundreds of people that first night,” Diaz laughs. He still uses Nuestra Palabra and Librotraficante today as a voice for bestselling writers and green authors alike.
After an hour, the rally at the capitol is almost over. A bigger rally celebrating MAS day is about to happen in Houston. Before leaving, Diaz offers this: “Today is the best time to be Mexican American, Latino, whatever you want to call it…We’ve got the power; the social media, the people, the cultural capital to change the country.” Diaz started as a bilingual translator. Today, he is closer to an intercultural ambassador of intellectualism in practice and thought. He shuts the car door, waving, as a permeable aura is absent once again.