Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Decisive Act: On Orwell, Arizona, and 50 For Freedom

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.

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. 

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. 

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


Luzma Umpierre said...

Thank you for this article. This is not new. Many of you were too young or non-existant or too silent working to keep your multi-hundreds of thousands jobs and status in academia to remember when someone like me was banned for teaching these books, when I was de-tenured for teaching Anzaldua, Moraga and showing the film Improper Conduct. The "literati"Boricua that has it "made"in academia can travel at their own dime. Those of us who lost our jobs so that they could have theirs could only appear through Skype. Nevertheless, thank you! This IS about books too because ignorance kills. When SO many young people from our own culture do not know yet how to read prroperly or understand their history, a book is a personal teacher that you can take anywhere. Professors are only accessible at universiy towers during office hours. Books are with you in the dark days and in the sunny afternoons. They are your TRUE mentors. I said this much in an interview on La tolteca in advice I gave to the young. But all of our endeavors are suffering for lack of funds, of support, of commited people and so, my comments were not included for these factors.

Rich Villar said...

I appreciate your comments here, Luzma, and I do respect your work immensely, as do many of the professors I talk to and work with. I want to tell you, here and now, that the de-tenuring of academics, the silencing of teachers, and the censoring of books, absolutely still happens, to friends of mine, friends my age...and, as I write here, to the teachers of the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson. They're being sued, in fact.

I'm aware this is not a new problem, but this is the problem we're faced with now. Piri Thomas was banned. Martín Espada's been banned multiple times with the same book. Anzaldua and Morraga the same. Name a Latina writer with (or without) political leanings, and I can point you to a group who banned her books, or wanted to. Still, I feel that tying the book ban into the larger systemic issue of racial and ethnic supremacy allows us to treat the disease, not the symptom. It's not the books, ultimately, that some people want to see erased. They want to see people, brown people, difficult people, erased. Disappeared. At the very least deported. In the meantime, invisibility serves their purposes, and that's what I'm trying to say here. It was not my intention to lessen the issue of book banning...rather, it was to make the larger point that we face erasure as a group, and that it starts with our books. Orwell's nightmares are alive in the psyche of Jan Brewer and racists like her. We ignore that at our peril.

I also need to clear up one misconception: I don't count myself among the numbers of professors with tenure-track jobs or with other kinds of entanglements in academia. I'm not paid by a University. I don't travel on my own dime, and when I do, it's because I've saved the money to go. I don't know if you were being specific with that comment or if you simply meant "literati boricua" to mean Puerto Rican academics. It's important to me, and to my work, that every writer, regardless of pedigree or standing or experience, has a voice at the table, and I want to be clear that I am in this fight with you, and all Latino and Latina writers, as you would know, if you had met me.

Jaime "The Maestro" Emeric said...

Great article here Rich and most especially because of it's stressing of the BIGGER picture and what the opposition's underlying mission truly is: Cultural Genocide. Mind you, I am quite aware that this could flourish into holocaust proportions if WE are not careful & diligent in our efforts to stop this dangerous endeavor, which I hope many will actually accept THAT ugly possibilty as history has long taught us that it can in-fact happen. While I truly appreciate commentary by someone like "Umpierre", who has been @the frontlines for unimaginable time, it was quite discomforting to me and I am sure many, that some research was not attempted to enlighten herself to both the valiant efforts to which Rich Villar has committed much time and efforts in our defense and speaking out in defense of the many educational heroes on ALL levels that endeavor to stem the tide and daily, try to turn it. Not to mention the concerted efforts of the northeastern artistic & literary communities that long joined this war and consistently spread the news and the words of our comrades engaged with us, so as to enlighten others and recruit individuals to become our counterparts in preserving what is sacred to us and bringing an end to the Cultural attacks and the inhuman deportation tactics and practices of our very Government. Librotraficante is a longterm program and through unification and conveyance of FACTS is the best way to insure it's ultimate success and OUR FREEDOM TO READ AND ACCESS THE TRUTH! Be healthy, successfilled, zealous in our efforts and may we ALL stay blessed!