A Stanislaus County school board banned a celebrated but controversial piece of Chicano literature from its high school classrooms this week because trustees and the superintendent believe "Bless Me, Ultima" contains too much profanity.
The Newman Crows Landing Board of Education voted 4 to 1 Monday night to strip the coming-of-age novel by Rudolfo Anaya from the sophomore required reading list at Orestimba High School. The district review of the book was prompted by a parent's complaint last year that it was "anti-Catholic" and sexually explicit.
But Supt. Rick Fauss said he had grown concerned by the amount of cursing in the 1972 novel that was spotlighted on former First Lady Laura Bush's must-read list and is also the literature selection for this year's state high school Academic Decathlon competition.
"There was excessive vulgarity or profanity used throughout the book," said Fauss, head of the nearly 2,700-student Newman Crows Landing Unified School District. "The context didn't . . . make it acceptable."
English teachers, some parents, the ACLU and the author were outraged. "What are these people afraid of?" asked Anaya, 71. "We have ample evidence throughout history of what happens when we start banning books, when we are afraid of ideas and discussion and analytical thinking. The society will suffer."
"Bless Me, Ultima" tells the tale of a young boy, Antonio, growing up in 1940s New Mexico and his relationship with a curandera (folk healer) named Ultima. Antonio tries to meet the disparate expectations of his parents and reconcile his Roman Catholic faith with Native American mysticism.
The book has been removed from classrooms across the nation, including in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and elsewhere in California (the Laton Joint Unified School District in Fresno County in 1999), and was No. 75 on the American Library Assn.'s list of top banned books in the 1990s.
But it is also a critically acclaimed piece of literature, is required reading in many English courses (including in some L.A. Unified schools) and is enjoying renewed popularity: It was chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its "Big Read" program, in which various communities read the same book at the same time.
In California, the Department of Education recommends the novel for grades nine through 12, but cautions: "This book was published for an adult readership and thus contains mature content. Before handing the text to a child, educators and parents should read the book and know the child."
In rural Newman, about 25 miles south of Modesto, "Bless Me, Ultima" has been part of the sophomore curriculum at the district's only traditional high school for more than a decade, said Catherine Quittmeyer, chairwoman of Orestimba High School's English department. Four or five years ago, teachers decided to move it to the summer reading list for honors students and to keep it part of the classroom curriculum for other sophomores.
Now, the novel will remain in the library but will no longer be required reading.
Teachers said the book helped them connect with their Latino students, who make up two-thirds of the district.
"Those kids came alive" when they read the book, Quittmeyer said. "It wasn't a book by a dead white male. They understood the words, they understood the culture, they would be the ones we would turn to as experts. They felt so empowered by this book."
Senior Brittney Clark, 17, said the book has value for all teenagers.
"You can relate to the kid because he's trying to figure out what he should do with his life without upsetting his parents," said Brittney, the daughter of a teacher.
The controversy began last summer when Nancy Corgiat, the mother of a sophomore, complained about the book to the superintendent.
"She initially complained about the vulgar language, the sexually explicit scenes and an anti-Catholic bias," Fauss said.
Corgiat, who declined to comment this week, reportedly told board members in January that the book's themes "undermine the conservative family values in our homes."
Fauss ordered the book removed in October, sparking criticism because he had not finished reading it before making the decision. (He completed the book before a series of board meetings in January at which the book was discussed.) Fauss said he followed district policy, had two committees review the book and ultimately opted to remove it from the classroom.
"It went through all the procedures as outlined in board policy and ended up with me," he said.
The board voted Monday to uphold Fauss' decision, and, according to three members, decided to cease discussing the matter with the media.
"We're done with this," said trustee Barbara Alexander, who is a town librarian and supported the ban.
But the controversy may not be settled. An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union said the group had not ruled out a lawsuit because it is concerned that the board's decision was not made on constitutional grounds. Although school districts have broad discretion to set curriculum, courts have ruled that removing books because one disagrees with them or to further a religion is not permissible.
The parent's initial complaint involved religion, although Fauss insists that the book was banned solely because of profanity.
"It really comes down to the true motives of the board," said Andre Segura, an ACLU attorney in San Francisco. "If a school board bans the book because of some perceived conflict with the community's religious views or political or philosophical orthodoxy, that's impermissible."
Fauss said he was confident that the district would prevail.
"We're not afraid of that; we know what our rights are," he said. "We have insurance; we'll fight it."
Richard Ackerman, head of the Pro-Family Law Center in Temecula, said the district had the right to decide what's best for its students, particularly in the "family values area." He added that because the book remains in the library, the district is on solid ground.
"It's not censorship," he said. "It's simply a matter of determining curriculum, which is left to the school district."
There has been a run on the book at the school library, with a waiting list of students eager to check out the novel, and teachers bought extra copies in both English and Spanish.
Meanwhile, some teachers are worried about district plans to review all literature taught in the classroom.
"Our biggest fear is what's next? If they're going to go after this book, what else?" asked Quittmeyer. "Is 'Caged Bird' next, or 'Huck Finn'?"