Today, I am pleased to share my comments welcoming the Librotraficante Caravan to El Paso on Jun 22, 2017 at Café Mayapan.
I am honored to speak tonight as we welcome the Librotraficante Caravan to El Paso. The Librotraficante campaign and their “wet-books” rose up in defiance to Arizona’s banning of ethnic studies in high schools through HB 2281 in 2010. In 2012, the Librotraficante Campaign traveled from Houston to Arizona, bringing banned books and a desire to support ethnic studies across the United States.
The attacks of ethnic studies have continued since the passage of HB 2281. Earlier this year, HB 2120 proposed to ban ethnic studies in Arizona community colleges and universities. Fortunately, the bill died. The ban of ethnic studies in Arizona is now scheduled to be reviewed by the State Supreme Court. Were it not for the work of Librotraficantes these attacks on our right to know our history may not have received as much attention nationally as they have.
I grew up on the border in the 1960s, raised by parents who were born during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Crossing the river during the Mexican Revolution, photo by Otis Aultman, courtesy of the El Paso Public Library
I grew up on the border in the 1960s, raised by parents who were born during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Growing up, I listened to stories about crossing the border at a time before the Immigration Act of 1917 created a barrier to legally entering the United States and before the Border Patrol existed when one could easily move from one side to the other. I listened to stories about my mother’s clash with her conservative father when she told him she wanted to cut her hair into a bob and when she sewed a red dress, which he promptly tore to shreds because señoritas decentes no se vestian de rojo. I heard about how difficult it was to survive during the Great Depression when my parents, a young married couple, had only one egg to share for nourishment for the whole day. And I heard my mother’s sorrow as she recounted waiting for days and weeks and months for her husband, her brother, and her nephews to return from World War II. These were the stories of my family. Told over and over until they were familiar and comforting.
Jerry Leyva and Esther Chavez, my parents, El Paso, Texas 1929
“History,” as scholar Vicki Ruiz writes, “was a grand adventure, one that began at the kitchen table listening to the stories of my mother and my grandmother…” (Vicki Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America, p. 164) Unlike Ruiz, however, it took me a long time to understand that the family stories were part of a grander national and international history.
In the 1960s and 1970s as I went through elementary school and high school, public education was designed to keep us in our place. Across the Southwest, Mexican American children faced harsh consequences ranging from detention to corporal punishment for speaking Spanish on school grounds. We were funneled into manual labor and away from higher education. We never saw ourselves reflected in our studies. When, in 1973 my high school unexpectedly offered a course in Mexican American literature, I registered for it excitedly only to find the teacher who had no expertise in Chicano literature and believed that, as a people, we were fatalistic and docile. Public education knew how to keep us in our place as a people who the power structure said didn’t belong as part of the history of this nation.
An image of book burning and its consequences for the Mayan people from TheNib.com
There is a reason that conquest and keeping control of people always involves first destroying their knowledge of their own culture and history and secondly, destroying their ability to recover it. In 1528, future Bishop Juan de Zumarraga burned countless Mexica and other Nahuatl books. Similarly, in 1562, Fray Diego de Landa ordered the burning of all Mayan books. As a result of this zealous book burning today we have less than twenty that survived, some in fragments. After the books were destroyed, missionaries such as Landa went on to write their own accounts of Indigenous culture and history, all through a European lens.
Another example of keeping people “in their place” by denying them knowledge are the laws that made it illegal to teach enslaved people how to read. In 1831, the North Carolina legislature passed a law that forbade teaching enslaved people to read or write or to tell them books. The law began “Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dis-satisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State,” as a justification for the punishment of fining a white person and whipping an enslaved person for daring to teach someone to read.
Professors Rudy Acuña and Gabriel Gutierrez during my visit to CSUN, 2017.
To keep us from reading and learning our history is to take away our ability to know ourselves and our true place in the world. It leaves us vulnerable to being told where we belong. But thanks to the work and sacrifice of generations before us and people like the Librotraficantes today, we can claim our own place in the world. For me, it began in college as I took my first Chicano Studies courses at UT Austin in the mid-1970s. There I was introduced to books such as Rudy Acuña’s Occupied America and Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez’s 450 Years of Chicano History, which later became 500 Years of Chicano History. These two books, both now banned in Arizona, had such an impact on me that I have carried those well-worn copies from place to place for over 40 years. I brought them with me tonight to remind myself of what my 19-year-old self experienced when I was introduced to them.
In my Chicano Studies classes, I learned that those well-loved stories were history. My mother’s story of her red dress reflected the history of young women who resisted their immigrant parents’ insistence on remaining traditional while they were growing up within American popular culture and transforming gender roles. The song, “Las Pelonas,” collected by Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio in the 1920s said, “Los paños colorados/Los tengo aborrecidos/Y ahora las pelonas/Los usan de vestidos.” My mother was part of history.
The most profound realization occurred when I read about the repatriations of the 1930s. I knew that relatives from both sides of my family had returned to Mexico during the Depression, including my U.S.-born aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as my grandparents Agustin and Cruz. I never understood why they went through the suffering they did, returning to Mexico and then working to return to the United States. I never understood why I was born in Mexico when my family had been here for two generations. It was an emotional moment when I read about the federal deportation campaign, the anti-Mexican violence and the pressure to leave the U.S. experienced by our community, including U.S. citizens, in the 1930s. My family stories were suddenly contextualized in a larger history that transcended our family to include the Mexican American community and the history of two nations.
Perhaps it was at that moment that I decided to become a historian, although it would take another 10 years for me to make that commitment. What I do know is that at a time when public education was intent on putting us in our place, ethnic studies (for me specifically Chicano Studies) allowed me the freedom to find my place in my community, in our history and in the larger history of the United States and Mexico. It gave me the gift of belonging. The next time someone told me “Go back where you came from,” I would know that I was exactly there/ here where I belong. Because of Chicanx Studies, I know my place in the past, the present, and I have a vision for the future of our people. That gift is one that I will always treasure.