For the last 30 years the last week of September has been designated Banned Books Week, promoting and celebrating the freedom to read and open access to information. All 50 states will be featuring multiple events honoring the freedom to read.
Thanks to efforts like these and a rising wave of activist authors, Arizona's attempt to ban books and Chicano/a Studies in particular has backfired on multiple levels. Instead of silencing voices like they hoped, legions of young activist writers and thinkers across the country have emerged, empowered and bent on social justice.
On Tuesday September 11, 2012, over 30 of these authors and artists will be at the Cypress Park Library for "An Evening of Mass Education," celebrating the release of the new Chicano Studies anthology "Ban This!"
The book is the brainchild of the Florida-based writer and editor Santino Rivera. When Arizona began banning books on Chicano Studies last year, Rivera decided to call all the Chicano writers he knew to complete an anthology. The aptly titled "Ban This!" includes 39 contributors like Francisco X. Alarcon, Gustavo Arellano, Lalo Alcaraz, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rodolfo Acuna, Art Meza, Matt Sedillo, and Frank Mundo, along with others. Recently published by Broken Sword Publications, the blend of poetry, prose, short fiction and illustrations make for a lively cocktail of incendiary literature.
Stalwart activist poet Matt Sedillo, whose poem "Racism & Capitalism appears in the book, says, "what is most impressive here that Rivera achieved is that he bridged not just essays, stories, poems and illustrations, but generations of Chicano artists and thinkers."
Santino Rivera explains its genesis: "When I came up with the idea for 'Ban This!' it resonated with people immediately and spread like wildfire across the Web. Many friends that I had made contact were able to help out in spreading the word and before I knew it, submissions were pouring in. I have been able to reach out to people -- hell, famous people! -- and have them respond to this book and this idea. Luis Alberto Urrea is in this book!"
There are three generations of writers in the book. One of the youngest writers in the book, Matt Sedillo, says, "while I was honored and excited when Santino asked me to contribute to the anthology, I had no idea of the scope of what he was planning. When I first got the email that included the list of names, what could I say? It was a true honor to be involved with this project that included such giants and luminaries. Rudy Acuna in particular caught my eye -- that man is a giant in the field of Chicano Studies; also Gustavo Arellano who is a real rising star in the world of editorial journalism, nationwide."
"Ban This!" shows how independent publishers like Broken Sword Publications are on the forefront of cutting edge literature. Rivera grew up with the do-it-yourself punk rock philosophy and it informs his work as a writer and publisher. "I think traditional publishers are afraid of the independent ones because they see the potential and that hurts their bottom line - profit," he says. "It also means freedom of speech, which I am a huge advocate of."
He also says, "I'm old enough to have used dial-up, printed chapbooks on a Xerox, owned a dot matrix printer and thrown away a truck load of AOL discs (as well as rejection letters). I also went through the phases of typewriter, word processor to computer. Reaching out to people used to be a whole different ballgame. Back in the day, you would need several lawyers, agents and contracts to pull off something like 'Ban This!' but the Internet has changed all of that. And for me, to be able to recruit this kind of talent in one single book with the focus being on Chicano/a literature and censorship? It's a dream come true."
After close to a year of compiling the book, there's a fever pitch of anticipation for the book release party on September 11 at the Cypress Park Library. Most of the writers published will be reading live, starting at 6pm. The Cypress Park Library, says staff member Art Meza is, "a small branch in the Northeast L.A. shaking things up and doing things a little different." The spirit of collaboration and building a movement hangs in the air and much of it is because of Art Meza.
Rivera and Meza met a few years ago on social media and have been building ever since. Both husbands and fathers, they instantly connected, and within a few months began collaborating on a variety of literary projects. Two of Meza's poems are published in "Ban This!"
He's been a central force with his work at the Cypress Park Library, spearheading several literary events (many of which are livestreamed). and starting "Aztlan Reads," a book club in Northeast L.A. promoting literature and dialogue. He says, "with budget cuts affecting the way we develop our collection, and today's technology putting books in the palm of your hand and keeping people out of libraries, we're constantly thinking of and implementing ways to strengthen our connection with our patrons. We've become a strong presence on many platforms. We like to consider ourselves the hub of the community."
As "Ban This!" and the Cypress Park Library attest, people across the country have been turning to libraries, small bookstores and independent publishers as an alternative to censorship and reality television. "If we can reach some of these kids and get them to value literature and history and culture -- maybe things will get better one day," says Santino Rivera. "Books inspired me as a kid, and I hope to do the same for someone, somewhere searching for answers in a world that is telling him or her that they are not allowed to seek those answers. If we don't fight for literature now, for things like Chicano/a studies and for freedom of speech and for censorship to be abolished, then we will fall further down the rabbit hole. And from the looks of it -- even as dark as things are now -- there is still a ways to go until we reach the bottom."
In spite of banned books and Arizona, one blessing Rivera says is that, "all that negative energy causes an equal and opposite reaction, and you have things like the Librotraficante movement, Aztlan Reads and 'Ban This!' You have people in public libraries across the country fighting for literacy and for freedom of speech."
Rivera and Meza aren't finished. They plan to organize a Chicano/a writer's conference in Rivera's hometown of Denver, Colorado and they will also be sharing the book at numerous schools and universities.
On a final note I want to take time to salute Dee Black, an amazing Leimert Park poet that recently passed. Truly a heartfelt man with a generous spirit, I met him over a decade ago along with AK Toney. The two of them were close for over two decades; Toney shares these words in his honor:
Poet, Dee Black aka Dwight Johnson was a member of the World Stage Anansi Writer's Workshop for over a decade. He was an advocate of children and great mentor to many men, friends, and the community of writers as well as poets. Dee Black was known as a Foster Parent, Group Home Care Giver, and a Father. He started a non-profit organization called Pops on Point which offered support and legal services to single Fathers that were trying to connect or be present in their child's life.He was not only known as the "Mayor of Leimert Park Village," but he became the heartbeat of the Village when Richard Fulton ascended in 1999. Dee Black's favorite moments became the place and vibe where he entered the world of poetry and live jazz, Fifth Street Dick's. As a Gnostic believer, Dee Black was a community activist of Truth. Dee Black always said, "That tree died for you, so don't you cheat the paper." Dwight Johnson was born November 17th, 1959 and he died August 14th, 2012. He will truly be missed.
This edition of LA Letters is dedicated to the spirit of Dee Black & the 39 writers published in "Ban This!"; it is because of their valiant effort that poetry and social justice are now more alive than ever.
Dee Black at the World Stage in 2007: