Pro-Literary Choice

The Tucson Unified School District's decision to end its Mexican-American studies program created a shock wave that affected thousands of people. With the program banished from local schools, the literature in its curriculum was abruptly removed from classrooms.

Zigzagger, by Manuel Muñoz, was among the books ripped from those classrooms. The collection of short stories relates the struggles faced by Mexican-American boys growing up gay in a macho environment. Muñoz also touches on the economic hardships, family issues and societal isolation often encountered by the Mexican-American community.

Muñoz, along with renowned Latina authors Sandra Cisneros and Helena María Viramontes, will read excerpts from their books and discuss the importance of literature at a Banned Books Week event at the UA. The week is sponsored by the American Library Association, and for 30 years, the week has promoted the freedom to read books that are banned, questioned or challenged.

When it came to Muñoz's attention that Zigzagger was prohibited in TUSD classrooms, he was disturbed that students were denied the freedom of picking up a particular book.

"I am a teacher, and I know how essential it is to have students be as prepared as possible to think critically," said Muñoz, who also is a creative-writing professor at the University of Arizona. "It is very disappointing to see how this issue has turned out. It made me think about how essential it was for me to be able to see myself on the page of a book, and I want young readers to have that same experience."

Muñoz was born and raised in Dinuba, Calif., a small town near Fresno. Like many people in his hometown, the author, when he was a teenager, worked with his family in the local fields, harvesting grapes. He experienced firsthand many of the struggles he puts his characters through. Chicano readers turn to his stories for comfort and the realization that others share their experiences.

While growing up, Muñoz looked to the words of Cisneros and Viramontes for that comfort. Both authors emerged at a time when literature on the Mexican-American experience was often not within arm's reach. Muñoz said the authors were of great importance in helping shape his vision of both himself and his community. He attributes who he is today to having had the opportunity to explore books from every part of the spectrum.

"I am a product of what happens when people are given a lot of access to literature and information," Muñoz said. "Literature opened me up."

Nowadays, Muñoz wants the younger generation to also use literature as a means to grow. However, events such as the banning of the MAS program have put a dent in this generation's educational experience, he said.

"A lot of people are going to see our event as a response to a lot of the issues going on in Tucson right now," Muñoz said. "Sandra's book, The House on Mango Street, also was in the (Mexican-American studies) curriculum and is now prohibited. ... We will talk about how often our work has been used in other schools around the nation, and how important it has been for students to have access to literature that speaks directly to their lives."

The theme of this year's Banned Books Week is "Liberating Literature." The three authors will address literature as a tool to learn about our diverse cultural surroundings, and how having access to a variety of ideas strengthens us. Muñoz hopes the event will make people more aware of the empowering nature of books.

"Liberating Literature" refers to setting books free—releasing them from dark, enclosed corners and putting them back in classrooms and on library shelves. Muñoz said it is important for us to liberate literature, because literature liberates us in return. Reading stimulates parts of our mind that would otherwise remain dormant.

"Everything comes down to our freedom," Muñoz said. "Our freedom to read, much like our freedom of the press, is protected by the Constitution. We need to have a concentrated dialogue about books before we actually discount them. With this event, we are seeking to make sure that all books are available to everyone."