'Chicano Sketches' Reading is the Exorcism Tucson Needs



About three years ago, I stood in front of Teatro Carmen heading toward the main stage at what was the first Festival en el Barrio. With the marvel called the Tucson Convention Center behind me, I rushed to the stage as Calexico started their set with Salvador Duran and Sergio Mendoza, and all the other Tucson music people we love.

Later that night, I wrote about the festival's success and how I hoped for one thing — that as Calexico's Joey Burns sang into the mic somehow a long-needed exorcism took place. I thought of the destruction that occurred downtown in the name of renewal more than 40 years ago. Despite neighborhood activists gathering 10,000 signatures, most of the old neighborhood — the stores, the Spanish-language movie theater, and homes of my mother's childhood — was knocked down to make way for TCC, the Pima County government complex and other buildings.

As a soon-to-be former resident of the old neighborhood turned to leave he or she obviously put a curse on downtown and Tucson. It worked. That's progress - a progress so successful, years later people are still pissed and we are still dealing with the problem of redevelopment and just about everyone in Tucson flinches when they hear or read the word consultant. Sorry about that.

But perhaps this Saturday's "An Evening in Celebration of Mario Suarez: Tucson's Original Chicano," is the real-deal exorcism I've wished for. Perhaps it's also another way to continue to reclaim Tucson's history — especially at a time we've watched the destruction of Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program and the ongoing fight to bring it back.

The reading starts at 7:30 p.m. at 314 S. Convent, in the large patio on the southwest corner of Cushing and Convent, just east of the Cushing Street Bar & Grill and south of the TCC. The night is organized by former Tucsonan and writer Jeff Biggers, who's played an important role bringing the school district's MAS debacle to a national audience. Biggers, Three Sonoran's DA Morales, the Arizona Daily Star's Ernesto Portillo, Jr. and yes, yours truly, Mari Herreras, will read selections of short stories by Suarez.

Biggers wrote about the event recently in a Huffington Post piece and described it as a book revival in support of Freedom Summer, the events and activism taking place in support of MAS and organized by UNIDOS and a group of visiting teachers, students and artists.

Here's a bit of history from Biggers on Tucson's Suarez:

As part of a series of "Freedom Summer" events challenging the Tucson Unified School District's nationally denounced banishment of Mexican American literature from its schools, four Tucson journalists and writers will host a special reading from the stories of the city's legendary godfather of Chicano literature, Mario Suarez, on Saturday, July 21st, in the heart of Barrio Viejo.

While Tucson music legend Lalo Guerrero may have been hailed as the "original Chicano," his neighbor Mario Suarez is arguably the "original Chicano author."

The first author to use the "Chicano" term in modern literature, Suarez's short stories and newspapers columns based in Tucson's Barrio El Hoyo in the 1940s-1950s have been described by literary critic Raymund Paredes as a "watershed in Mexican-American literary history" and compared to the work of John Steinbeck and Langston Hughes.

"Chicano writers realized, as Suárez had elegantly demonstrated, that they could write with conviction and openness about the barrios and the familias that nurtured them," Ernesto Portillo, Jr. noted in an Arizona Daily Star review of "Chicano Sketches", a collection of Suarez's works published by the University of Arizona Press in 2004. "To many Tucsonans at the time, like today, El Hoyo, located just south of the Tucson Convention Center, was an invisible place. But to those who lived there, it was real."

Prior to the reading is a fundraiser/wine reception for the defense fund to help former MAS director Sean Arce and MAS teacher Jose Gonzalez who are in the midst of a lawsuit filed by former Tucson teacher John Ward. Ward has been used as part of state Attorney General Tom Horne's anti-Mexican-American studies frenzy, and he and Huppenthal have been raising funds to help Ward.

The reception is at the historic Elysian Grove Market, 400 W Simpson, 6 to 7:30 p.m. Suggested $25 donation.

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