A high school teacher in this San Diego suburb has been told she will not be allowed to teach any more this semester after a confrontation with school officials over her request to show the movie “Zoot Suit” to her 11th-grade students.
Reiko Obata said she wanted to show “Zoot Suit,” a story of prejudice against Chicanos in Los Angeles during World War II, as a way to counteract animosity toward Mexican Americans at predominantly white Santana High School.
“I had one student write in his journal that he wants to live in the back country because there aren’t any Mexicans or gangs,” she said. “That’s the kind of ignorance I’m up against.”
The principal at Santana High informed Obata a week ago in a memo that the R-rated “Zoot Suit” was not suitable for her five American literature classes because it contained excessive violence and some off-color language. As a depiction of “gang life and barrio living,” the principal suggested “West Side Story.”
The next day, school administrators took the unusual step of sending Obata home with pay for the rest of the semester, according to district documents. A substitute has been hired to take Obata’s place.
The movie was not shown at Santana. The 1981 film stars Edward James Olmos as the narrator, El Pachuco, and is built around two incendiary incidents in Los Angeles history: the Sleepy Lagoon case in which a dozen Chicano youths were wrongfully convicted of murder, and the street clashes between servicemen and zoot suit-wearing Chicanos.
Obata, a temporary employee filling in for a teacher on leave, said she has been told that she will not be offered a job next school year because she was insubordinate in going over the head of the English department chairwoman in seeking approval to show “Zoot Suit.”
“I think this is discrimination,” said Obata, who is Japanese American. “I don’t think they would do this to a white teacher.”
Carl Wong, the Grossmont Union High School District’s assistant superintendent for educational services, declined to say why Obata has been sent home but did say that the school district has to be careful in allowing R-rated movies into the classroom.
He said R-rated movies such as “Das Boot” and Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” have been shown, but only after being reviewed by administrators.
“We are extremely cautious, given the tenor of the community,” Wong said. The Grossmont district serves the eastern and southern portions of San Diego County, where conservative and religious groups are politically powerful.
Wong said the chairwoman of the English department, whose rejection of “Zoot Suit” was upheld by the principal, did not feel the movie fit the curriculum.
But Obata said she thought “Zoot Suit” would fit perfectly into a course that includes Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” poetry by Langston Hughes and a collection of short stories by Sandra Cisneros titled “The House on Mango Street.”
Obata had required students to bring signed permission from their parents to be included in the “Zoot Suit” showing. After she was blocked from showing the movie, 200 students signed petitions asking the school administration to relent.
“We think it’s terrible what has happened to Miss Obata,” said student Christine Lucas, 17. “She was such a good teacher. She was the kind of teacher you could talk to.”
In rejecting “Zoot Suit,” Santana High Principal Terrie Pennock and English department Chairwoman Beverly Jellison noted the film’s “excessive” violence and use of obscene language.
Obata has received support from Olmos; the film’s writer-director, Luis Valdez, and Gordon Davidson, artistic director at the Mark Taper Forum, where “Zoot Suit” made its debut as a play in 1978.
Valdez said he was angry that Grossmont officials are giving a distorted impression of his movie by referring to its violence and strong language. In truth, Valdez said, the violence in the movie is symbolic and off-screen and one objectionable word is only used once.
“Obviously somebody at Grossmont does not like my movie,” Valdez said. “Maybe it’s because they don’t like the interpretation of this piece of history. . . . I applaud the teacher for standing up to this kind of bigotry and censorship.”
Valdez said that although “West Side Story,” released in 1961, is an artistic triumph, it has become somewhat outdated because it deals with East Coast gangs rather than West Coast gangs, which have a different social and cultural dynamic.
An edited version of “Zoot Suit” has been shown on network television. The movie has been used in numerous high schools, including Garfield High School in Los Angeles.
Obata, 38, has a bachelor’s degree in Asian American studies from UC Berkeley and a master’s in music from San Diego State University. She came to Santana High during the fall semester as part of a teaching intern program run by United States International University, where she received her teaching credential.
For the spring semester she joined the faculty on a temporary assignment, filling in for a teacher on leave, and had been given no assurance of being offered a job for next year. She received a good evaluation by a master teacher in January but a poor one from the principal in March.
Still, before the “Zoot Suit” flap, Obata thought her chances of being offered at least another temporary job at Santana or another Grossmont district school were good.
The Grossmont district, with 10 schools and 21,000 students, has been hiring new teachers to meet increased enrollment in recent years.
“Not only is my career in danger,” Obata said, “but the whole right of students to see other cultures, to experience Mexican American literature, has been hurt.”