Tony Diaz, the self-described librotraficante (book-trafficker) who led a caravan of “wet books” into Arizona following the state’s 2012 ban on Chicano lit in the classroom, recalls the hell he caught whenever he used Spanish words in his fiction workshop.
“I remember being at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program and the only time aesthetics were brought up was when I dared use Spanish in a story,” Diaz said. “So the rest of the time, you were never supposed to bring up ‘intended audience.’ When I would write in Spanish, the whole class would lose its mind.”
Diaz was quick to call B.S. on the not-so-subtle double standards held by his fellow MFA candidates. “It seemed like an emotional response. And I would have to say, ‘Yo, when this guy wrote in French, you didn’t have a problem with it!’”
Diaz’s latest book, The Tip of the Pyramid, is a melange of op-ed pieces, blog posts, and radio transcriptions that comes off like Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals meets Oscar Zeta Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People. The book, which introduces neologisms like “cultural accelerator” and “community cultural capital,” is a kind of motivational memoir that, at points, reads more like Tony Robbins than Tony Diaz—and that is totally intentional.
“The job is to spread awareness about the power of language, how words have been used as a means of cultural erasure and how taking control of one’s language is a tool of empowerment,” Diaz said, regarding the aggressive accessibility of a book that provides its own glossary of librotraficante terms while being selective about which words merit capitalization.
Diaz expects his readers to become what he calls “cultural accelerators,” which he describes as people who have achieved a level of self-determination that can be used to explore their own culture.
“This does not happen in school,” he writes. “They must look for that on their Own time, using their Own energy. This could also mean consulting and believing in elders. This involves seeking more wisdom, more wise People. There is no license for this or a major in college, so the safe bet is to embrace the delineated paths of occupations to occupy your mind.”
Taking ownership of a language that might otherwise be used to suppress is a major deal to this Houston Community College professor, who writes: “We decide grammar. If you need to see my license, my papers, I just pointed to the MFA on my wall. I mastered the kings english, but I rejected masters. I hacked the kings english, fixed it, and now I’m giving it back.”
“One reason I could not write just a normal—a traditional—memoir or collection of essays about the librotraficante caravan is because your traditional news story is already out there,” Diaz said. “What is left out is the trauma. It’s traumatic to have your community attacked on your watch, and it’s traumatic for news stories not to really address what that means.”
What the trauma meant for Diaz was that he could no longer justify writing fiction when so much real-world unrest needed to be addressed. “I was working on a novel before Arizona banned our culture,” Diaz said, “and I was like: Hold on, books are contraband? Holy shit, this is really happening! This sounds like an Orwellian novel; you know, this sounds like conspiracy theory that right-wing politicians will ban us, and all of a sudden it’s a law passed.”
Diaz, who started a reading series in Houston called Nuestra Palabra in 1998, and a glossy lifestyle magazine aimed at upscale Houston Latinos in 2010 called AztecMuse, was used to struggling to be heard.
The reading series, which set the template of teamwork for the book-smuggling caravan to come, was disparaged from the onset: “Houstonions would say, ‘There is no interest in that.’ They would say—not in hushed tones, unabashedly: ‘No, there is not an audience for that. Latinos are not interested in that.’ And the damage is so deep that I would hear Latinos say, ‘That’s okay, but our community is not into that.’”
Although the librotraficante caravan got a lot of media play, Diaz recalled initial trepidation about the name itself coming from a few older, more conservative Latinos. “There were some folks to begin with who would say: ‘Oh, my goodness, no. You shouldn’t use that term because it has an association with cartels and drugs.’ And my answer would be, ‘Yeah, that’s the irony and I’ll tell you what: If you have a beef with that, go to Arizona and tell them to stop banning us and I’ll stop using the word. Until they overturn that ban, you are going to have Librotraficante on the street everywhere.”
Arizona’s book ban was overturned by a federal court in 2017. The success of the librotraficante movement did not go unnoticed by the right.
“They have updated the tactics,” Diaz conceded. “I can say confidently that right-wing Republicans will not ban Mexican-American Studies again, however they’ve studied our tactics and are using other methods. The folks that want to silence us have adapted.”
In Diaz’s view, the recent pandemic shutdowns were a time when the extreme right regrouped and strategized. “The far-right—they were not scared to organize people during the COVID-19 shutdown, so they ran rampant on those anti-intellectual and censorship bills and policies. They spread from state to state, and now we are at a disadvantage because we don’t know what’s going on in all the states. I lost track. It is overwhelming. Here is something that goes after LGBTQ. Here is something that goes after women’s rights. You know they go down the list. So that is also a way to exhaust us.”
As exhausting as the right’s all-sides attack might seem, Diaz, the “cultural accelerator” who talks politics on FOX 26 Houston when he is not building underground libraries, remains adamant that “if you want to defy these fascists, write something.”
“The simple act of taking time out of your day to write something is key,” Diaz said. “Once you start sharing it with the world, then we start asking about aesthetics.”