The Decisive Act: On Orwell, Arizona, and 50 For Freedom
by Rich Villar, special to La Bola
They didn't show up, and I shouldn't be surprised. A press release was generated, an email address and phone number was distributed, the messages went to the right people, and my phone didn't ring, and no messages hit my inbox. None of them showed up, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, because there are always more important things to be discussed, like Mitt Romney's ignorance about the physics of airplane cabin pressure, or striking football referees, or the technical specs behind the iPhone 5.
There will be no articles written, no reporting, no witness from the press (except for what we do on our own, clearly). They've got to report on the Presidential election, and the issues surrounding our economy, and health care, and illegal immigration. No time for a bunch of rabble rousers talking about banned books, books you can still buy on Amazon. Because if you can still buy things on Amazon, then all is well.
Did you know that Amazon once banned George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm? Of all the books to ban. Supposedly it was a dispute over rights, but it led to a massive outcry—similar, it could be said, to the outcry over Tucson's book ban. But it's okay, Amazon said at the time, because it offered refunds to the buyers. Point being, the technology to control what you read exists. Point being, if Arizona had known this sooner, perhaps they wouldn't have to physically remove any books from the classroom.
Let's be clear. The issues in Arizona are only peripherally about books. Though it should be said, the first thing you do—if your aim to disappear a nation—is to throw their literature in the trash. Burn it, ban it, box it, just don't read it. And so they did just that, Arizona: they banned the books, and they boxed the books, and they made the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson disappear, along with their teachers, along with any mention of it in the schools. Ah, but they told us, they reassured us, that the books are not banned. They just can't be used to teach Mexican-Americans about being Mexican-American. And they told the rest of their teachers, that any attempt to teach any of the banned literature, all 80 titles on the list (it should scare you, to death, that there's a banned books list, and that it used to be a curriculum), could result in their termination, should any complaint about their rabble-rousing content be raised by a concerned parent. Or, anyone, really.
This is where the story ended, even after Tony Diaz and the group Librotraficante had the audacity to quote the law in public, show its unconstitutional application toward one group of people, report to us the students' discontent, and organize a series of panels and lectures around the years-long battle between Arizona and the teachers, which is still ongoing in the courts. They told us about the school district suing the former teachers for damages. They told us about the threats to other people's jobs, to keep them in line, to silence them. And they (meaning Luis Urrea) told us about the Orwellian implications of banning books, unbanning Shakespeare, and rewriting history, and covering themselves in doublethink and Newspeak.
|Aurora Anaya-Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore welcomes the SRO crowd, along with Rich Villar|
We gathered, though the press did not, last Friday at the 50 For Freedom of Speech reading, because this is not simply about banning books. Banned author Martín Espada knows that; which is why, when I asked him to do the reading, he brought himself from Amherst, Masschusetts, on his own dime, to be with us, the very night before another reading in Boston. And banned author Luis Urrea knows that; that's why he drove straight to La Casa Azul from the airport when Tony Diaz made the call. (And Tony flew up from Houston himself.) It's about freedom, the fundamental right to know that down is down, and up is up, and that 2 + 2 = 4.
|Sergio Troncoso, Tony Díaz, Martín Espada, Melinda Palacio, Luis Alberto Urrea|
What do you think it means when a government entity does not want you to read a book called 500 Years of Chicano History? Do you honestly believe it has anything to do with the ideology of the authors? Has anyone in the state of Arizona actually met these authors on the banned list? They are not concerned with how well the students do in school. They've admitted that much: despite the success of the program in sending children to college, the program was cancelled anyway. The state of Arizona is concerned with what, and how, children learn in school. But it is not the facts they're concerned about, specifically. It's the narrative they're worried about. The story. They are concerned, as Big Brother was concerned, with controlling the past; as Orwell points out to us, whoever controls the past controls the future.
The United States has a past that it would like to forget. The United States has, in its past, summarily executed brown people, Hispanics and Latinos from every walk of life. The trouble for Arizona, and everywhere else, is that there are history scholars, activists, students, thinking people, some with U.S. college educations, who had the audacity to write textbooks, and to think to themselves the following: Hispanics and Latinos did not drop from the clear blue sky, or from some mystical war-drawn border. In Arizona, we're actually learning the same story again, about whitewashed history, and changed facts, and misleading narrative. We're learning about context, the same kind of context that created activists like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebron, and James Baldwin, who was also banned in Arizona. Today, it's Mexican-Americans. Take you pick as to who's next. Who's due, as it were. Where the fire will be next time.
If Chicanos have a context, and a history, before the advent of white supremacy, before the advent of European conquest or Pax Americana, there might be a reason for them to walk a little straighter, to understand their histories in context, to see themselves in a continuum from Aztlan, to zoot suits, to The House on Mango Street. 500 years ago, Chicanos existed. Africa existed. Latinos existed. They had just different names. When will we learn these names?
And when will the media learn to write long pieces about the systemic dismantling of civil rights? When will they show up to poetry readings by authors on the banned list, in community spaces like La Casa Azul bookstore, in other states besides Arizona and Texas? When will they tell you about Latinos uniting against their own genocide? When will they tell you about the counterspells being cast by poets and writers, the ones who still believe in language, and history, and meaning, and roots?
Maybe when they find themselves being downsized, or commanded what to say, by their bosses, by their governments, by financial concerns. Maybe that day is already here.
What's left for us, poets, Latinos, is to wake up and understand what is happening, to understand it in the context of lightning-fast information being passed and passed over. We have to speak, and we have to speak often, in new ways and old ways, to keep these fights fresh. And we must always be ready to tell the world our history, never tiring of the truth, never weary when people tell you they don't get it. Never scared when the media doesn't show up.
|Rich Villar at La Casa Azul (Luis Urrea posing for another photo in background)|
And we have to remember love: that's what was present in massive amounts last Friday at the Casa Azul, and in many places around the country, reading banned literature out loud, casting counterspells into the universe to reverse the trends, defy conventional wisdom, and survive the way we always have. We have to remember love because our children thrive on it, because we thrive on it, because we will not become automatons unless we allow ourselves to be. We have to remember love, because love banishes indifference, and because love will keep us rooted, our histories intact, our people whole.
Remember love, now and until the day you die, by reading every book that the state of Arizona tells you not to. Read them, and quote from them, and steep your children in them. Love every day, and do not give in to indifference.
While you're at it, write some of these things down.
"To mark the paper was the decisive act."
–George Orwell, 1984
Some of Melinda's photos from last weekend's Brooklyn Book Festival
|Lucrecia Guerrero, Luis Alberto Urrea, Melinda Palacio, Toni Margarita Plummer, and Reyna Grande at the Brooklyn Book Festival|
|A trip to Brooklyn would not be complete without a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.|
|Melinda Palacio and Reyna Grande sightsee.|
|Toni Margarita Plummer and Melinda Palacio|
La Bloga's Melinda Palacio will make a return trip to New York for the Las Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference, Saturday, October 6 in Brooklyn, NY. Don't miss the poetry panel moderated by Rich Villar.