Banned in Tucson

A crime is planned for March 17 in Arizona, when a taco truck will descend upon Tucson. But instead of tacos, this truck will serve free books.

This is the truck of the librotraficantes -- book traffickers. A group of activists and artists supporting civil rights, education and freedom of expression, they will smuggle banned books back into the Tucson Unified School District.

Their menu consists of books once taught in Tucson's Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. No longer. On January 10, Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal -- long opposed to ethnic studies -- decreed MAS a violation of Arizona HB 2281 and suspended it indefinitely.

Passed contemporaneously with the state's draconian immigration policy, this law prohibits Arizona school districts and charter schools from offering classes that "promote the overthrow of the United States government," "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

Advocates of MAS point out that it supplements curricula that overlook and even denigrate the historical and cultural contributions of Mexican Americans. In doing so, these programs engaged and motivated Tucson students -- 60 percent of whom claim Mexican American heritage -- and therefore increased academic performance across subject areas.

Opponents of MAS, however, seem to see these very demographics -- Mexican Americans themselves -- as the problem. To them, MAS programs are for Mexican Americans only.

This shows a fundamental ignorance about the history, content, and purpose of ethnic studies programs, many of which were underwritten by white philanthropic organizations in order to promote racial tolerance in the Civil Rights era, divorcing them from any radical origins.

Even more insidiously, this implies that there is nothing non-Mexican Americans can learn from these classes -- and by extension, that there is nothing whites can learn from people of color.

While it may be uncommon for white students to enroll in MAS courses, this is not the fault of the field. When whites choose not to learn from these classes, it tells us something significant about what kind of knowledge -- and whose knowledge -- is considered valuable, authoritative, and unbiased. The knowledge produced and disseminated in MAS is considered inessential -- optional when worth knowing at all.

But this knowledge is not ancillary; it is necessary. A 2011 research review (PDF) sponsored by the National Education Association confirms that ethnic studies positively impacts white students as well as students of color, socially and academically, by introducing new perspectives and engendering higher level thinking.

White students of ethnic studies can learn more than tolerance or a vague appreciation for platitudinous multiculturalism. They are transformed on deeply personal levels.

One of my former students was so moved by Sandra Cisneros' novel Caramelo that she used its metaphor of an heirloom rebozo -- a woven shawl -- to understand her own experience. A mother, survivor of domestic violence, and returning student, she mobilized this image to bring together the interrelated threads of her own life. Arizona's legislation assumes ethnic studies are divisive, but her affiliation with Cisneros' text suggests the opposite.

I remember when, as a college freshman, I read Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands for the first time. As a white student, I would have been unlikely to find this book without the interventions of ethnic studies, and it blew my mind.

Anzaldúa's autobiographical writing on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands did more than help me learn about South Texas. It also helped me reflect upon my hometown, Detroit -- a city of storied borders like 8 Mile Road, where redlining and restrictive covenants severed blacks and whites, the city and the suburbs, crushing poverty and vast wealth.

In Detroit, the busiest border crossing to Canada, the SUVs of la migra -- the border patrol -- comb the streets near the Ambassador Bridge abutting the city's vibrant Mexican American neighborhood, thus leading easily to racial profiling and civil rights violations.

But these borderlands do not only impact communities of color. They also make my experiences possible, and those of all white people.

One might dismiss such narratives as personal, as anecdotal. But that is the point. All perspectives are partial. It is only in bringing them together that a more accurate and nuanced story of our shared nation and world becomes possible. This may be a story best told from the borders, and it is a story ethnic studies collectively builds.

To have MAS in Tucson's public schools is to give institutional legitimacy to this knowledge. When the librotraficantes create a parody of smuggling and border crossing in the absence of MAS, they critique its illegitimacy and recognize the mere distribution of books is not enough. At the same time, they know the content of these texts is no less important than it was when it was sanctioned by the state.

As the fate of Tucson's MAS program lies within the slowly grinding gears of the court system, the protest-performance of the librotraficantes -- their call for direct action -- deserves the support of all who believe in justice.

I envision their arrival in Tucson: their silvery taco truck stops on street corners in the barrio, glistening in the desert sun. Queues of Mexican American students slip books into their bags like contraband. They gobble them like sustenance at kitchen tables, bus stops, and stay up too late in bed. They awaken with a new sense of purpose and framework for participation in national dialogue.

I begin to imagine, too, a couple of white students bold enough to disregard rampant misconceptions about ethnic studies. This vision, however, comes less easily -- for without institutional legitimacy, it is hard to see these students taking these books at all. If they do, they read just as voraciously. They discover a shared history. With humbleness, they admit we all have something to learn.