Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies
Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

Banned Books Are the Theme of This Year’s ¡A Viva Voz!

Thu, March 8, 2018
Banned Books Are the Theme of This Year’s ¡A Viva Voz!

By Daniel Arbino

Authors Ana Castillo and Carmen Tafolla will be the guest readers and presenters at the 16th annual ¡A Viva Voz! Celebration of Latina/o Arts and Culture. “Questionable Content”: The Banned Books of Ana Castillo and Carmen Tafolla will feature readings by each author from texts that were banned in the State of Arizona, followed by a conversation with Professor Angela Valenzuela from the College of Education.

Banned Books in Our Time

In 2010, Arizona passed House Bill (HB) 2281, which banned ethnic studies in the classroom. The ban was accompanied by a list of over eighty books that students were not allowed to read in class. They included Carmen Tafolla’s Curandera (1983) and Ana Castillo’s So Far from God (1993) and Loverboys (1996), three texts that will be featured at this year’s event. The list was released in 2011 after Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, hired Cambium Learning, Inc., to conduct an audit of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. Though Cambium recommended that the program continue, Huppenthal decided to shut the program down anyway.

While no specific reason was given for the banning of Tafolla’s Curandera and Castillo’s So Far from God and Loverboys, the legislative language in HB 2281 states that “a school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following: (1) Promote the overthrow of the United States government. (2) Promote resentment toward a race or class of people. (3) Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group. (4) Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” The bill garnered interest from conservatives in other states as well; Alabama and Georgia followed suit with similar legislation targeting Latinxs.

Activists and writers continued to push back valiantly against HB 2281. Perhaps the most famous action was spearheaded by “librotraficante” Tony Díaz, who, along with members of Nuestra Palabra, began to “smuggle” banned books into Arizona. Despite these efforts, the ban would remain in place until December 27, 2017. It was overturned by federal judge A. Wallace Tashima, who had earlier declared the Arizona law banning ethnic studies to be a violation of constitutional rights, claiming “both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus.”

Why These Books?

The banning of books is hardly a new phenomenon, even in the Americas. In some cases, it was taken to the extreme. Chronicles show that upon arriving in the Americas, the Spaniards were quick to burn indigenous texts in order to impose their authority. Perhaps the biggest culprit, Diego de Landa, a Spanish bishop in what is now the Yucatán and a chronicler of pre-Columbian Maya civilization, burned nearly all of the Mayan codices in 1562 because “they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil.” In the New England colonies, Puritans banned Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan (1637) because it criticized Puritan ways of life while compassionately defending indigenous peoples. William Pynchon’s The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption (1650) is another title that was quickly banned for similar reasons.  

What, then, was so “radical” about Curandera, Loverboys, and So Far from God that they would constitute a banning? In Curandera, Tafolla, San Antonio’s first poet laureate, uses poetry with some prose to elevate Mexican Americans in the United States while discussing their hardships in society. In “Quality Literature,” a literature professor will not let a student write her final paper on Chicana writer Elena Martínez because according to him, “there simply hasn’t been any quality Chicano literature.” In “Cuilmas,” evoking an old Chicano nickname for San Antonio, Tafolla tackles issues that are still relevant today, like gentrification:

snaking rhythms of peopled heat
   shuffle-shove through daylight’s timeclocks
      stopping only seconds to sip air from
         the un-Angloed walls
            of some adobe, cedar-posted structure
               centuries too old for even urban
                  “Renewal” to destroy

The verses not only question urban renewal plans, but also establish a Mexican presence long before the land was part of the United States.

Castillo’s Loverboys is a collection of short stories focused on the complexities and fluidities of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. A number of the stories, such as “Vatolandia” and “Conversations with an Absent Lover,” put forth the idea of an imperfect, but strong, independent woman: “I am not polished. I am not whipped cream. I do it raw. . . . All the voices of those who call writing a craft, who speak grammatically correct, who studied with this name or that one, well up in my head and tell me once again, each time I sit to do it, that I have no business doing what I’m doing. I don’t have enough credits, awards, no Guggenheim, no South of France–New York poet in residence, nada, hombre. It’s just me, desperately cutting an unknown path with a machete, trying not to remember, but writing it all down anyway.” Meanwhile, So Far from God employs magical realism to follow a family in Tome, New Mexico, as they survive hardships and find love. The women characters in this novel often speak out against male dominance and racism while approaching controversial topics such as abortion, death and resurrection, and promiscuity.

Dr. Angela Valenzuela is a logical choice to moderate the evening’s events. A professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy here at UT Austin, her award-winning study Subtractive Schooling: U.S. Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring (1999) had an impact in the development of HB 2281, much to her chagrin. In fact, Administrative Law Judge Lewis D. Kowal used the text to rule against the school district, effectively dismantling the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson based on material in the book. Moreover, Huppenthal included the term “subtractive schooling” as a concept that “promote[s] resentment toward a race or class of people.” Yet Valenzuela’s voice was heard when she testified as an expert witness in favor of Mexican American Studies programs in the summer of 2017, noting that students who participated in the program often performed better than those that did not. No doubt, Dr. Valenzuela will lead a fascinating discussion on censorship, freedom of speech, and Mexican American Studies.

About the Event

LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections presents the 16th annual ¡A Viva Voz! Celebration of Latina/o Arts and Culture. At “Questionable Content”: The Banned Books of Ana Castillo and Carmen Tafolla, authors Ana Castillo and Carmen Tafolla read from their banned texts, followed by a conversation moderated by Professor Angela Valenzuela, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018 | 7–9 PM
Benson Latin American Collection, Main Reading Room
2300 Red River Street
The University of Texas at Austin

Free and open to the public. Reception to follow the event.

For more information, contact Susanna Sharpe. To RSVP and receive updates via Facebook, visit A Viva Voz 2018 – Banned Books.

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