Up In Flames

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It has been called one of the most important works of Chicano literature ever written. It has also been tossed onto a bonfire by a group of outraged parents. “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya was published in 1972 to great acclaim and great controversy. Four decades later, the novel remains controversial and occupies the ninth slot on the American Library Association’s “Most Frequently Challenged List” for 2013.

“Bless Me, Ultima” is a coming-of-age story set in rural New Mexico in the years immediately following World War II. Its narrator and main character is Antonio, a young boy struggling to find his place as the youngest child in the family and trying to please both his father, a former vaquero (cowboy) who hopes Antonio will choose a life of freedom and adventure, and his mother, who hopes Antonio will become a farmer.

Or, even better, a priest.

When Antonio is seven years old, Ultima–at his parents’ invitation—moves in with the family. Ultima is an elderly curandera, a healer of both physical and spiritual ills in the tradition of Mexican and Native American “medicine men.” She takes Antonio under her wing and teaches him about holistic healing, about the beauty and wonder of the natural world and, most importantly, about the nature of human beings. Under Ultima’s tutelage, Antonio witnesses many amazing things, including a “cleansing ceremony” in which evil spirits are exorcised from his uncle’s body.

This unforgettable scene is one of the most inflammatory in the book. Those who object to the novel being taught in school claim that it glorifies witchcraft. Even though Ultima is a “shaman” who uses her extraordinary powers to do good rather than a “bruja” who uses her powers for evil, she is still a witch. And, the objectors maintain, children ought not to be reading about witches.

It is just one of many complaints about “Bless Me, Ultima.” Others include its abundance of profanity. References to alcohol abuse. Violence, and not just childhood fistfights. Antonio is eyewitness to several murders and one accidental drowning. Sexual references, including the fact that a house of prostitution plays an important role in the story.

But none of those are the main reason a small group of parents in Norwood, Colorado demanded, in 2005, that two dozen copies of “Bless Me, Ultima” be pulled from an English classroom at Norwood High School.

Those parents did not want their teenagers exposed to young Antonio’s internal struggles with faith and doubt. Was “the truth,” Antonio wondered, to be found in the complex teachings of the Catholic Church? Or was it, instead, contained in Native American mysticism? Might it be in both places? Was Ultima wrong to maintain that good is always stronger than evil? Was she wrong in telling Antonio that everything is alive and that God is everywhere, from the elements of Holy Communion to the golden carp swimming in the nearby river?

Rather than allow high school students to ponder such question, this handful of parents demanded that “Bless Me, Ultima” be pulled from the classroom shelf. And it wasn’t enough for the school custodian dispose of the books. The parents insisted on setting them on fire themselves. Superintendent Bob Conder—who had neither read the book nor consulted the Board of Education—consented. “My job is to protect the kids,” he said.

“First they burn books,” Heinrich Heine wrote more than a century ago, “then they burn people.” Yet another reason why the ALA observes Banned Books Week every year.

(September 14, 2014)

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