Rudolfo Anaya 1937-2020 (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)
Ten years ago, Bless Me, Ultima was being pulled from the shelves in Arizona classrooms as Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program was dismantled.
I was a reporter at Albuquerque’s now defunct alt-weekly. In our rundown brick office, I pulled out the city’s actual phone book. The big old paper version was already like a thing from a museum, but someone had delivered a bunch of them to our office. My colleagues were using them as booster seats if their chairs were a little broken.
I thumbed through the phone book’s thin pages for “Anaya, Rudolfo,” Ultima’s author, already a legend known as one of the originators of contemporary Chicano literature. I was pretty sure he still lived in Albuquerque, and since he was a little older, I thought he might have a landline and it might be listed in the paper tome. It seemed unlikely, though, that I would find him.
I’d gotten to read Bless Me, Ultima as part of my public school education in New Mexico. It was one of those books where you hit the end, and you don’t want to leave the headspace yet, so you flip your paperback over and start in from the top again. I liked Ultima so much more than anything else I read in English class.
Anyway, I called the number I found. An old-school answering machine picked up. I left a message for a Rudolfo Anaya, uncertain that it was THE Rudolfo Anaya.
A few minutes later, my office line rang.
It was him. THE him.
He invited me over to his house, a nice but not fancy home on the Westside. He greeted me at the door with a good-sized cardboard box and welcomed me inside.
I knew Ultima had been targeted here and there. But I didn’t realize the full scope of what he wanted to show me: The box was full of clippings from all of the times through the years that Ultima had been banned — burned, even — or otherwise suppressed.
“Every time it’s banned, a fellow writer calls me up and says: Hey great! Wish I could get all that publicity you’re getting.”
Sales increase, he said, and libraries can’t keep Ultima on the shelves.
“But the problem is real, of course, that there are people who still think their way is the only way.”
The so-called book-banning “movement” is not new this year, and it wasn’t new 10 years ago. But we will see it seeping into this 2022 campaign season on the heels of would-be politicians misusing the words “critical race theory” to drum up family-values votes or whatever.
I don’t know about your family, but all of the people I respect in mine value storytelling, empathy, critical thinking and reading — unencumbered by government officials who would keep ideas from you to ensure the longevity of their restrictive beliefs and agendas.
I can’t imagine wanting to be the candidate that ran against learning about other cultures and people, and in favor of censorship and banning books — of all the things to worry about right now.
Anaya put it best across from me at his kitchen table on a sunny afternoon a decade ago:
“Quite frankly, they’re bigots, and they exist everywhere. We have to be vigilant, and we always have to fight against censorship, any kind of censorship.”
And though New Mexico doesn’t often give in to this kind of thing, it does happen sometimes. Anaya dug through the box and pulled out an Albuquerque Journal clipping from the year I was born. The state’s Legislature in 1981 was considering standards for books in public schools.
Sen. Christine Donisthorpe (R-San Juan) announced during a hearing that the Bloomfield School Board ordered Bless Me, Ultima to be burned. Donisthorpe was a member of that school board. She’s quoted as saying members personally ensured copies of the novel were lit on fire.
Since the burning was in his home state, “that was the most traumatic,” he said. “That’s pretty extreme dictatorship.”
States Newsroom Reporter Ariana Figueroa penned a story for us pointing out that across the country, the books that are being banned are by and about people who aren’t white or straight.
Anaya said that when schools trash those novels, they’re telling students who are represented in those books that they don’t matter.
… He can imagine how the students in Arizona must have felt after the school board sent the message: This literature is not worthy of study. “It’s telling them: You are not worthy.”
The study of culture profits all students regardless of ethnicity, he said. “We have to live together. Isn’t knowing about each other better than not knowing? Resentment and prejudice come when we don’t know.”
Anaya was confident then that Bless Me, Ultima would end up back on the shelves in Arizona. Because that’s what always happens, he assured me. People don’t stand for suppression.
“The good people of the community will come back and say, ‘We want our kids to read all sorts of literature because that’s the way of a democracy.’”
I like his faith in us. Though Anaya’s no longer here to fight this fight, I’m down. And I know a lot of you are, too.
And when those politicians talking CRT and family values are either elected or relegated to the heap of would-have-beens, they’ll also carry the dubious distinction of having run loud pro-censorship campaigns.
That’s not how I would want to go down in the books.
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