Tuesday, April 12, 2005 • Parents object to ‘Bless Me, Ultima’— a book written by Rudolfo Anaya, ‘the father of Chicano literature’

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, April 12, 2005, edition of the Lassen County Times.

Concerned with a book’s profanity, sexual themes, and references to death and witchcraft, two Chester parents challenged its use in the Plumas Unified School District.

For the second time in four years, Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima,” was challenged as unfit reading material for 10th-graders.

Former Quincy High School teacher Bob Hiss and parent Tim West challenged the book in 2001. This time around, Chester parents Devin and Jean Duval sought to have the book removed from the approved reading list.

“Bless Me, Ultima” is the story of a young Mexican-American boy growing up in the Southwest. As the story unfolds, the boy tries to deal with the conflict between Catholicism and Native American mysticism.

The book is the winner of many literary awards, and its author, Rudolfo Anaya, is considered the father of Chicano literature.

According to the New York Times, “Anaya’s first novel, ‘Bless Me, Ultima,’ probably the best-known and most-respected contemporary Chicano fiction, probes into the fat satchel of remembered youth.”

“Bless Me, Ultima” is on First Lady Laura Bush’s preferred list of books for readers of all ages, but it is also one of the most challenged books in the last decade. Why?

In 2001, Hiss challenged the book’s language and its anti-Catholicism tone. The matter was brought before the school district’s book review hearing panel. The 14-member panel consisted of teachers, parents, librarians and administrators.

The committee determined that the book was not profane and did not violate board policy. Hiss and West noted that words included in the book were not allowed to be used on campus, and questioned why they should be read in the classroom.

The committee determined that it was the teacher’s responsibility “to distinguish between language used in a book or other reference, and appropriate language to be used at school.”

The Duvals also noted the use of profanity and enumerated the number of times it appeared throughout the book.

As in 2001, the book review hearing committee determined that the “language in this book should not keep it from being used with 10th-grade students.”

Religion was a concern both in 2001 and this year.

Education code requires that “no religious beliefs or practices will be held up to ridicule, or any religious group portrayed as inferior.”

In 2001, the hearing committee found that “at no point did the book attack or hold up to ridicule the essential tenets of the Roman Catholic Church … .”

PUSD Superintendent Mike Chelotti, who at that time was the district’s curriculum director, contacted four Catholic high schools, none of which reported having a problem with the book’s content.

The Duvals’ objections concerned references to dark evil and good magic, death, and witchcraft. They were also concerned about some of the sexual references in the book.

As an indicator of what the book contained, they cited an endorsement on the back of the book, written by the New York Times. It read, “Full of sensual dreams, superstitions, unexplained phenomena and the dark might of Latin American theology.”

In their letter, the Duvals wrote: “Shame on whoever has read this and has felt this was a good book for our children and shame on the school district for keeping this and other literature like it to be used as required reading. Shame on anyone in charge who has not actually read the book.”

While the Duvals included a list of page numbers with specific references, the teachers on the committee argued that the work needed to be taken as a whole.

Karen Miller, a teacher at Portola High School, cited an example, which was later repeated by Chelotti and Assistant Superintendent Bruce Williams.

She told those at the hearing to picture her taking a group of students up to a curtain and opening it just enough to reveal a man’s penis. “That would be profane,” she said. But, if she opened the entire curtain to reveal Michelangelo’s sculpture, “The David,” it would be art.

The hearing committee members listed several other justifications for using the book. The committee said that in the book, the young boy must deal with conflict, just as PUSD students must. “Members of the panel feel that the book helps empower students to make good choices when faced with temptation and peer pressure.”

Another panel member said that to remove all controversy from literature would be to undermine the critical-thinking process.

The committee voted unanimously to maintain the book on the school district’s reading list.

But what of those students who choose not to read it?

As with the case of the Duvals’ son, an alternative choice is offered. Six students at Chester High School declined to read “Bless Me, Ultima,” and were assigned “Three Musketeers” in its place.

However, this is an imperfect solution for the Duvals. When the rest of the class was discussing “Bless Me, Ultima,” the six students went to the library to read the “Three Musketeers.” There was no class discussion of that book.

In an interview following the meeting, Jean Duval said that there are other books that concern her. She said that she had been told that she might want to keep her son from enrolling in advanced placement English classes for that reason.

“Our protest was limited to this book at this time, but we already know that with AP English there will be other objections,” she said.

Whenever a book is challenged, it is reviewed at the school and district level.