Most book banning and censorship take place away from the public eye. When they order books or plan curriculum, the powers that be in schools, libraries, and other public institutions operate far from the scrutiny of their constituents. In advance of their deliberations, publishers, reviewers, and wholesalers filter and sort texts, using criteria that would be suspect to most of us. The cases that attract the attention of the media and our guardians of free speech, such as the A.L.A., PEN, the A.C.L.U., and People for the American Way, are usually examples of the most egregious affronts to the First Amendment, as groups in power attempt to impose their morality, ideology, or religious orthodoxy on books, music, screenplays — or a curriculum. Often, these attempts at censorship have less to do with repressing a text than repressing the rights of a community or racial or ethnic group that the text is perceived to represent.
“Alpine, Texas,” reads the sign, “is the gateway to the Big Bend,” the Texas desert wilderness visited by thousands of tourists and naturalists each year. The high desert town of Alpine, home to some 5,600 souls and the Sul Ross State campus of the University of Texas System — and where Hispanic citizens now make up the majority of the population — has just inscribed itself into the map of the culture wars tearing asunder this country’s institutions. Battle lines were drawn last May when First Baptist Church Pastor Phillip McCraw approached Alpine High School with a good book in hand — albeit not the Bible — and demanded it be removed from the curriculum immediately on the basis of its explicit sex, violence, and foul language. Without consulting the Board of Education’s written policy, the panicked school principal ordered Elsa Domínguez to remove the book from her advanced placement English class.
Domínguez rallied the faculty and staff, and even apprised the author of the machinations of his would-be censors. Her students found their way to the nearest bookstore and, with their own money, purchased the book that had held them rapt, but whose conclusion had been withheld from them by school authorities. The banned book fast became the most-read book in the high school — and probably the whole town.
The object of contention in this nascent cultural war has never before been described as “pornographic.” It is the autobiography of a family that made its way to the United States from the revolution-torn mountains of northwest Mexico in the early part of the century. The best-selling Hispanic biography of all time, Rain of Gold, had been embattled from its beginning — but not because of the Reverend McCraw’s objections to it. G.P. Putnam’s Sons (New York) purchased the book, then refused to issue it as non-fiction autobiography Instead, they intended to change the title to “Rio Grande” and publish it as a fictive romance of the West. Victor Villaseñor refused and bought back his book from the publisher, mortgaging his house to repay the $75,000 advance and ensure that the history of his family and community in the United States would not be called “fiction.” This act of individual resistance to the forces of multinational business (which routinely negate the history and identity of cultural and racial minorities) was not ideological. It was the desperate act of a man struggling to attest to and celebrate all that his parents had achieved after much suffering: a truly American story of a family’s immigration to the United States, where the family not only survived but prospered. But Villaseñor’s act of resistance became the basis for ideological interpretation, after the author was blackballed from major commercial publishing in the United States.
In a debate that made its way from the small world of publishing into various public forums, observers began to consider Villaseñor’s struggle with the publishing industry in the context of the negative depiction of minorities in the media, and the lack of minorities in the ranks of the information and entertainment industries.
As one of his last recourses, Villaseñor appealed to a cash-strapped non-commercial publisher: the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press (where I work as publisher, and which will confirm, as the reader has likely already concluded, that this article is subjective and hardly impartial). Arte Público is the nation’s largest Hispanic publisher, yet by the standards of the industry it is tiny. Although it never had competed in the front-list, hard-cover marketing of a title before, Arte Público (and Victor Villaseñor) made Rain of Gold a verified best-seller in the West and Southwest, as the book won high praise from more than one hundred major critics from coast to coast.
And again the cultural divide: Rain of Gold might have become a national bestseller, but the major wholesaler to bookstores in the United States rejected it, claiming that the book’s cover was “too ethnic” to sell. Nor have the rights to Villaseñor’s story been optioned for film or TV; much of this epic narrative deals only with Mexican or Mexican-American characters, so the money men and industry gatekeepers question its appeal to a broad segment of ticket buyers or TV sponsors.
Now, eight years after its publication, Rain of Gold was under attack — in a town whose resident majority is Mexican-American, and which lies 108 winding miles north of the river that unites Texas and the Mexican state of Coahuila.
The Alpine school administration knew it had violated its own policies regarding a challenged text, and formed a committee of teachers and librarians to implement the official policy. The committee worked through the summer and fall, and unanimously recommended that Rain of Gold is appropriate for use in the curriculum.
Reverend McCraw appealed the committee’s decision to the school board, citing a list of some five hundred off-color words — such as “piss,” “ass,” and “damn,” as well as “seven instances of the f-word”– that appear in the book. He and his supporters also objected to a passage where a woman is depicted giving birth, which they described as “sexually explicit,” and to various passages depicting violence (this is a narrative based on the Mexican Revolution). McCraw did not mention that the book is very spiritual and mentions God and prayer well over 1,500 times — and that the 500 instances of foul words he identified were embedded in a text of more than 250,000 words.
The censors printed a pamphlet and even took to the airwaves to develop popular support, reading the questionable words over the air while avowing that they had never and would not ever read Rain of Gold. (McCraw says he only “skimmed” it.) Domínguez and the students, on the other hand, enlisted parents in the battle, and invited Victor Villaseñor and me to testify at the School Board hearing of McCraw’s appeal. The issues seemed clear:
The right of individual parents to prescribe what would be taught and read by all of the students (the School Board already has a policy that allows parents to exempt their own children from curricular material the parents find offensive).Separation of church and state, considering that it is a pastor interfering with the curriculum of a public school, even if he insists that he is only doing so as a parent.Censorship and denial of basic constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.Self-determination of cultural minorities, which should include their right to teach, write, and have access to their history and culture through their public schools.
This latter issue was the real issue, hardly mentioned by the speakers at the School Board meeting. Many of the Anglo Americans addressing the School Board, and even Board members, repeatedly stated that the dispute had nothing to do with race. Oh, but they protested too much! Anglo-American students in Alpine attend a high school that is predominantly Mexican-American, in a town that is the same, in which the School Board president and the principal and the teacher whose decision was challenged are all Mexican Americans.
Alpine is what demographers tell us Texas will be in ten to twenty years — a “minority-majority community.” Yet it is a community that still reads the canon of the Anglo majority. Rain of Gold is one of three texts by Mexican Americans, which are occasionally used in the entire high school curriculum. In the very same course, The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn are taught, and each includes language and themes that some might consider unacceptable. But these “American classics” are acceptable to the pastor and the people he organized.
The fact that they had not read the book they intended to ban made their protest transparent; the fight over a book was a veiled attempt to demonstrate who is in control and who matters in Alpine, in Texas, and in the U.S. To exercise that control required that this small school on the border — where the curriculum is built on acculturating the students to Anglo-American identity, yet where the majority of the students are Mexican Americans — could not allow one small opportunity for students to learn about the struggles, values, and hopes of their forebears who did not trace their heritage back to the Mayflower or to immigration directly from Europe. The Mexicans may be winning the numbers game in Alpine, because the size of their voting population has given them political power to elect school board members and hire superintendents, principals, and teachers. But “community leaders” could still see to it that Mexicans do not prevail in the culture wars.
If there are any heroes to emerge from this battle, they are the students. Mexican and Anglo students rose to the defense of Rain of Gold and seemed equally outraged at the heavy-handed attempt to subvert one of the most memorable experiences of real learning in their high school careers. Some claim Rain of Gold is the best book they have ever read; some say it is the only book they have ever read cover-to-cover in their four years of high school. “I hate books, but I latched onto this one,” said senior John Skinner. “I read it all the time. It was incredible and I was shocked when we got the book taken away. I didn’t see anything really terrible with it…. Reading this book taught me that I couldn’t hate anyone.” Tony Rodríguez testified, “This book showed me that my heritage is not just in Spanish class; it’s in literature as well. This book let me know who I am.”
Measured against the simple, impassioned arguments of the students, Reverend McCraw’s claim that “there are standards … and there are some things that are just not acceptable” seemed hollow. As did his argument that his defense of “a socially correct morality” — even when it involves banning a text — should not be considered censorship.
The Anglo-American/Mexican-American division was not absolute. Carla Valdez, Elsa Domínguez’ former English teacher, admitted she hadn’t read Rain of Gold. Yet she argued that it had no place in the high school curriculum. “I feel a great responsibility to students and the community,” she said. “I want to press upon people good standards. I have to be honest with you, I didn’t read this. But I found the comments lifted extremely offensive.” (It’s fortunate that Valdez is now teaching math.)
After hearing from more than twenty speakers, the School Board put the acceptability of Victor Villaseñor’s work to a vote. With the exception of board member Hugh Garrett (who expressed reservations about the book, saying he did not want to make it a “racial issue”) the board divided along “racial” lines. By a five-to-two vote, Rain of Gold remains in the curriculum at Alpine High School. (Students who object to it can read Giants in the Earth, by Nobel Prizewinner O.E. Rolvaag.) One Anglo vote for Rain of Gold, and the testimony of one Hispanic teacher who opposed the book, establish that “it was not a racial issue.”
And that our books are not published by mainstream commercial houses, and that 20 percent of the nation’s population is not represented in the curriculum — or on the small or large screens of this nation — well, we have Ricky Martin and Antonio Banderas. You, see, it’s not a racial issue.
Nicolás Kanellos is the publisher of Arte Público Press.
THE AUTHOR’S VOICE
By Jacob Silverstein
On November 22, when Victor Villaseñor stood before the Alpine Independent School Board to defend his epic memoir of his parents’ migration from Mexico, everyone in the packed middle school library knew he had traveled all the way from his California home to defend his words. His publisher, Arte Público’s Nicolás Kanellos, had traveled from Houston. Students who had read the 562-page book cover to cover — as, they admitted, they had never read a book before — came prepared with earnest speeches defending the work. Outraged parents and community members, indignantly clutching Reverend Phillip McCraw’s pamphlet attacking Villaseñor’s book, sat tight-lipped, in clusters around the room. Students from Sul Ross University stood in the back.
It was clear, however, that the rhetorical highlight of the evening would be Villaseñor himself. When he finally stood on the podium, after listening for nearly two hours to defenders and critics of his work, he did not speak for a full minute. He gripped the lectern with both hands and looked silently at the floor. It was the kind of moment school board meetings rarely summon. The crowd hushed. Villaseñor began to speak, sometimes quietly, sometimes in a loud and dramatic voice:
“I didn’t learn to read until I was twenty years old. I got beaten up the first year I was at school. I couldn’t speak English. I flunked the third grade twice. By the time I got to high school I was so confused and beaten down that I was going crazy. I thought my people were no good and that all Mexicans were stupid. My father and mother told me about their lives in Mexico and I didn’t believe them, because they were too fantastic. I went to Mexico. I started learning about my culture. My father showed me where he ran after the train to find his mother. He showed me where he went to prison at thirteen, because he stole six dollars so he could feed his family. He showed me where his mother begged in the streets.
“I took an oath before God, in Wyoming, to become a writer. And to write books for the rest of my life, whether I ever got published or made any money. And I would never get married and I would never do anything and I would devote myself to writing stories that would show life and would uplift our spirit. There’s only one God and one race: the human race. We’ve got to finally realize that the only reason that we have any difficulties is because of fear and stereotypes and people that don’t read the book and criticize it by picking up a few little passages. If I had that list of 500 words [McCraw’s pamphlet] I wouldn’t read it either. The way the book is presented, it stinks, it’s awful, it’s vulgar.
“But if you read the book, and you see my father and my mother and the struggles they went through, and my grandmother, who was Indian on both sides, and how much they believed in God — God wasn’t a long, faraway concept; God was their constant companion — you would see that this book is holy. And I get up at one in the morning, and I write with all my heart. It took me sixteen years to write this book.
“My entire life is to uplift us and bring us closer to God, so we can realize that we’re one family. We’re good people, all of us — the only thing that separates us is fear and propaganda.”
Following Villaseñor’s speech, and after a short break, Reverend McCraw took the podium: “School procedure requires that when a teacher uses potentially objectionable material, that teacher must offer an alternative. I have trusted that I would be notified and offered the opportunity to consider an alternative for any questionable reading. I am here because that
trust was violated.
“I don’t have a copy of the book to give to concerned parents. I’ve given them a copy of the excerpts. Some refused to finish it. I didn’t force them to finish it. But our children did not have that option. They were required to read it. Most of them knew their parents wouldn’t like it. But they did what they were told. They kept silent. I represent those kids.
“If this book were to be translated into a screenplay and filmed unedited, it would be rated NC-17. If this book is okay, then our school will not even have as high a moral standard as the movie industry. Personally I believe their standards are too low. I believe our community’s moral standards are higher.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child. But as parents take on more and more demands, we’re able to count on the village less and less. We have to monitor 100 channels on TV, we have to know the contents of all the movies, we have to keep up with all the rock groups, we have to know what’s going on in all these video games that we can’t even play. And now we have to read every five-hundred-page novel on the school’s reading list. Where is our village? Please be our village again.”
The day after the school board meeting, Villaseñor and McCraw met for lunch and went for a long drive. “We had a very nice time,” Villaseñor said. “He’s a wonderful man and he meant well. He said he would re-read the book with an open mind, and we’ll talk about it then. That is the greatness of this country.”
Jacob Silverstein is a reporter at the Big Bend Sentinel.