You Can’t Read That! Banned Book Review: Bless Me, Ultima

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

can't read_43

YCRT! News Roundup

Edward de Grazia, RIP. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, when he successfully fought the banning of books like Tropic of Cancer and The Naked Lunch, and quite naturally read both as soon as they became available to American readers.

I always knew there was more to Anne Frank’s diary than the edited version I read as a teenager. Now the complete and unedited version of The Diary of a Young Girl is out, and has upset at least one parent in Michigan, who doesn’t just want to keep her own kid from reading it, but all kids. Apparently Anne had a hoo-ha … and wrote about it. In a rare bit of good news, the school district has decided not to ban Anne Frank’s unedited diary.

The Middle School Survival Guide offers no-nonsense instruction to the challenges faced by preteens and teens in social and family situations and discusses sexual relations, including pregnancy and serious sexually transmitted diseases. That’s too much instruction for one Philadelphia area parent, who succeeded in having the book pulled from the school library.

Imagine living in a country where a headline like this is considered unremarkable: Harsh Fines Cancelled, Banned Books List Publication Soon?

Despite it’s own board’s 4-2 recommendation that the book remain in the curriculum, a Chicago area school district, based on the objections of two parents, has banned The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Where they burn books, they will untimately burn people.” But that only happened in Nazi Germany, you say? You’re about to read about a book that has been burned not once, but several times … in the USA.

YCRT! Banned Book Review

bless me ultimaBless Me, Ultima
Rudolfo Anaya

I read Bless Me, Ultima because it is frequently challenged, often banned, sometimes even burned. I read it because it has been banished from Tucson classrooms and school libraries. I read it because I live in a majority Mexican-American community in the southern slice of Arizona that until relatively recently was part of the state of Sonora, Mexico. I read it because many readers have praised it.

Anaya wrote his novel in 1972. Copies were confiscated and burned at a New Mexico school less than a year later. Burning, it turned out, was not to be a one-time aberration: Bless Me, Ultima has been burned again and again: the most recent burning was in Norwood, Colorado, in 2005.

My interest in what is sometimes called Chicano pride literature began in January 2012, when Tucson Unified School District administrators cancelled Mexican-American Studies classes in mid-session, pulling novels and textbooks from students’ and teachers’ hands and packing them in boxes labeled “banned books,” a story that resulted in international outrage and made Arizona a laughingstock. Bless Me, Ultima was one of TUSD’s targeted books.

Why do non-hispanics hate this novel? The most-often cited reason is that it contains profanity, violence, and sexuality. I can attest to two instances of the English word fuck. Then there’s the Spanish word chingada, which roughly translates to the same thing. Chingada appears so many times that if you were to eliminate all the other words in the novel, you’d still have 20 pages of chingada. Also, the kids in the story frequently address one another as cabrón (asshole). Yes, there is violence … murders among the adult characters, frequent fights among the schoolboys … but I must say that if there’s any sex I missed it.

Other challenges spell out what I consider to be more likely objections: the story is irreverent toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, full of pagan mysticism, and frankly pro-magic (in that Ultima is a practicing medicine woman who uses her arts to stymie and even kill witches). This aspect of the novel, of course, should be neither here nor there in a society that respects the separation of church and state (insert ironic emoticon here).

Arizona State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne dared utter what I believe to be the real reasons behind white antipathy toward Bless Me, Ultima. In interviews leading up to the infamous TUSD book bannings he characterized Mexican-American studies and the books used in those classes as “civilizational war” and stated that in his view the histories of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans are not based on “Greco-Roman” knowledge and thus not part of Western civilization. Oh, yes, he really did say that.

So there you have the reasons Anaya’s novel generates so much hate. Now I come to the difficult part, explaining why I didn’t fall in love with the novel. I’ll refer back to the 20 pages of chingada and a host of other Spanish and Indian words sprinkled throughout the narrative: yes, Mexican-Americans living near the US-Mexico border use Spanish and Indian words in everyday speech, but after a while all this multiculturalism becomes a burden.

Antonio keeps telling us Ultima is not a witch, but she has an owl as a familiar and she casts counter-spells against three known brujas (witches), killing two of them before she herself is killed … not directly, but by the father of the witches, who kills the owl and thus Ultima. So she’s a witch. C’mon.

Apart from Antonio and Ultima, the other characters are paper cutouts, acting and speaking in predictable ways. It was interesting to see Antonio begin to question the teachings of the church and to embrace the paganism of Ultima and the mysterious golden carp, but that was all the excitement the novel offered, and Antonio’s doubts (like 20 pages’ worth of chingada) grow tiresome after much repetition.

It’s an okay story. I question how relevant it is to today’s readers, but as a cornerstone of Mexican-American literature it is undoubtedly important. I’m glad I read it, but having read it, I remain more interested in the reasons white people hate it than I am in the novel itself.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge