The Banning of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima

Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read.  Supported by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the event brings together librarians, booksellers, publishers, teachers, and readers of all types and ages who wish to maintain the public’s right to seek out and express ideas, even those deemed unpopular. BBW will be held this year on September 26th-October 2nd.  In reviewing the history of publications that have been banned in the United States, I decided to write about one award-winning New Mexico author whose seminal work has faced numerous challenges since first published over 50 years ago.

Title Page

Cover page of Bless Me, Ultima, 1973

Bless Me, Ultima, one of the best-selling and most acclaimed Chicano novels of all time, has regularly faced campaigns to remove it from library shelves and public school curricula.  A classic in American literature, the story follows Antonio (Tony) Márez y Luna as he comes-of-age in the Hispano culture of rural New Mexico during the 1940s.  A powerful tale of a young boy’s spiritual transformation, Tony and his family grapple with the rapidly modernizing world, one that put their cultural, political, and religious identities under intense pressure.  Aided by Ultima, an elderly curandera who comes to live with the family, Tony questions his identity, beliefs, and future callings.  In his journey into adolescence, Tony is vexed by the choices made by adults in his small town and the blurring of lines between right and wrong.  He finds refuge in nature and his own morality by melding Catholic and indigenous spiritual practices.  Upon the passing of Ultima, his spiritual guide, Tony finds solace in his new religious identity where “all is one.”

The novel, written by Rudolfo Anaya, is semi-autobiographical.  A Nuevomexicano raised in Santa Rosa and educated at the University of New Mexico, Anaya spent six years drafting a story that expressed a Chicano worldview.  First published in 1972 by Quinto Sol Publications of Berkeley, California, an independent publisher focusing on the Chicano Movement of the 1960s-1970s, the book was well received, selling over 80,000 copies in four years.  Anaya described writing the novel, “I have written volumes of poems, stories, novels, burned some, saved a few.  Out of a suitcase full I have, it seemed that Ultima distilled into something worthwhile.  Writing is not easy.  It is a lonely, and oftentimes unappreciated endeavor.  But I had to keep creating, I had to keep trying to organize all the beautiful, chaotic things into some pattern.”[1]

Rudolfo Anaya

Rudolfo Anaya, c.2015 (Courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities)

After selling over 300,000 copies in print runs by small presses, a major publisher finally reissued the novel in 1994 and it remains in print to this day.  With its wider availability, Bless Me, Ultima began to see more challenges to its placement on library shelves.  Those advocating for restricting the book charge that it demeans organized religion, advocates occult beliefs, contains offensive language, depicts violence, and is sexually explicit.  In 2010, the state of Arizona sought to restrict the book from public school curricula for other reasons.  To the horror of many, including the author, conservative lawmakers drafted legislation that deemed the work as having the potential to teach students to “resent or hate other races or classes of people.”

Even in New Mexico, the geographic setting for Bless Me, Ultima, the novel has encountered calls for its removal.  In 1981 near Farmington, the Bloomfield School Board burned copies of the book after the board president took exception to the Spanish profanity found in the story.  New Mexico State Senator Christine Donisthorpe, formerly a member of the school board, stated in 1982, “We took the books out and personally saw that they were burned.”[2]  The violent expulsion of the novel effectively kept students at Bloomfield public schools from encountering in a classroom setting a story that might speak to their own experience.

Bless Me, Ultima book covers and film poster

Bless Me, Ultima book covers and film poster

Regarding the reoccurring calls for his work to be censored, removed, and banned, Anaya has consistently dismissed these attempts as “fear clothed in the guise of misguided righteousness.”[3]  In “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,” he notes that when he began his writing career, Chicano writers of the 1960s were met with resounding hostility.  His work was labelled too political, used too much Spanish, and not universal.  Publishers asked him to self-censor his work by eliminating themes of religion and mysticism, as well as to eliminate any Spanish words.  Because his writing challenges the status quo, acts of censorship have often followed.  “What was its threat, I’ve asked myself over the years.  Why did censors burn Bless Me, Ultima?  I concluded that those in power in the schools did not want a reflection on my way of life in the school.  The country had not yet committed itself to cultural diversity.  Fifteen million Chicanos were clamoring at the door, insisting that schools also belonged to us, that we had a right to our literature in the schools, and the conservative opposition in power fought back by burning our books.  That narrow-minded, conservative opposition is still fighting us.”  Indeed, Ultima continues to make the American Library Association – Office for Intellectual Freedom’s yearly list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books (see 2008 and 2013).  Although Anaya, awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015 for his pioneering stories of the American Southwest, passed in June 2020, the fight continues to see that his and the works of other Chicano/Hispanic/Latinx authors remain accessible.

[1] Dust jacket, Bless Me, Ultima (Berkeley, CA: Quinto Sol Publications, 1973).

[2] Witemeyer, Hugh, “Censorship Perennial Issue In State,” The (Rio Rancho) Observer, October 21, 1982, A10.

[3] Anaya, Rudolfo, “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,” in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J. Karlides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, editors (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993), p. 27-31.

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