‘Librotraficante’ Tony Diaz Launches a First of Its Kind Latino Bookstore in Downtown Houston

Photo: Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

Texas activist and writer Tony Diaz is not new to the fight for greater Latino literacy, which due to Republican-backed agendas, has often felt more like a war than a struggle. In 2012, Diaz famously helped organized a “librotraficante” caravan that brought hundreds of banned Mexican-American books from Texas to Arizona; in 2016, he helped defeat a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook that aside from its slew of inaccuracies, depicted Mexican-Americans in racist stereotypes. Most recently, Diaz is returning to Houston for less headline-grabbing work: painting bookshelves and adding final touches to his new bookstore set to open in January.

The Latino bookstore Nuestra Palabra Art & Books is the first of its kind in Houston, which boasts one of the largest Latino populations in the country. Nuestra Palabra Arts & Books brings to the city a hand-picked selection of Latino authors, both nationally-recognized and locals that includes names likes Sandra Cisneros and Houston writer Maria Elenes Cortes. For the Second Ward, the historical Mexican-American neighborhood where Nuestra Palabra is putting down roots, it’s a welcome source of novels, poetry, history books, and even coloring books that reflect the surrounding community’s identity and history. Although Barnes & Nobles and second-hand bookstores are prevalent in Houston’s west side of town, books have become a harder commodity to find in Houston’s underserved downtown area.

“We can’t count on other institutions to deliver our culture.We’ve got to do it ourselves.”

“People have said that downtown Houston was a book desert,” Diaz told Houston Public Media. “We’ve just created an oasis.”

Tucked away in the Talento Bilingüe de Houston Community Center, the bookstore currently holds 500 books, although Diaz said that the number could grow up to 2,000. Inside, the store’s walls are lined with a telling curation of art and symbols central to the Tejano and Mexican community, such as loteria cards, hand-drawn portraits of Cesar Chavez and Vicente Fernandez, and the immediately recognizable red, white, and black flag of the United Farm Workers.

As a Mexican-American writer-activist, Diaz explained he regularly hears requests for Latino literature recommendations or advice from teachers on how to use these books in classes. Nuestra Palabra hopes to address those community needs, as well as provide a new home for monthly readings and art and writing workshops. In December, the bookstore opened for a special workshop to instruct teachers on how to implement Mexican-American textbooks and literature in classrooms.

In this political context, the bookstore itself becomes grounds for education and empowerment.

“Right now we can’t count on other institutions to deliver our culture,” Diaz told Houston Matters. “We’ve got to do it ourselves.”

The opening of the bookstore can be seen as part of Diaz’s larger mission to foster an environment of literacy and critical analysis among Houston’s Latino community through his non-profit, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, founded in 1998. Since its founding, the non-profit has paved the way for monthly readings by Latino writers, the Nuestra Palabra radio show, and the Edward James Olmos Latino Book and Family Festival, which attracted over 15,000 people to its first annual event.

“We’ve been able to work with these writers all this time,” Diaz said in an interview with Houston Matters. “And it’s time now to create a spot where people can go.”

While the bookstore has been in the works for a while now, Nuestra Palabra comes at an especially appropriate time. Since the start of President Donald Trump’s campaign, Trump’s xenophobic and racist rhetoric have emboldened supporters to intimidate and attack Latinos and given students ammunition to harass their Latino peers. Most recently, Texas Rep. Filemon Vela boycotted Trump’s inauguration after “Inauguration attendees” verbally harassed 40 immigrant students from his South Texas district with racist comments and even spit on one student during the children’s visit to Washington D.C. Not only does Latino literature give readers the power to “build bridges between different cultures”, but the bookstore itself becomes grounds for education and empowerment.

“Our community really needs a cool little bookstore to come chill at because these are serious, heavy duty times,” Diaz said. “And I think now, more than ever, we do need a place where we’re not by political party and we’re not going to bully people. We’re going to celebrate people.”