The Case of Artemio Cruz at Bakersfield College
Gilbert P. Gia
After weeks of wrangling would Bakersfield College censor a text book? The controversy had started over objections to a novel about a youth who joined the Mexican revolution, battered his way to success in business and politics, and ended his life in dreams of social inequalities and the people he abused and conquered. In English translation, Carlos Fuentes’ book was instructive, colorful and violent, but parents focused only on the pages flecked with obscenity and profanity. To students in instructor Ramon Melendez’ English 31 class the book was a window into raw, wicked reality, but to BC parents it was a college administration gone wrong. Dr. John J. Collins later called the event the most important defense of academic freedom during his time as President of Bakersfield College. But the storm was also part of a civil rights awakening.
Objections to The Death of Artemio Cruz arose unexpectedly at a trustee meeting on December 7, 1972, when a Lamont second-hand dealer named Otis Turk, whose daughter was in Mr. Melendez’ class, read a selection of the book to the board and said those pages had been read aloud in class. Mr. Turk was adamant that the average mother and father would not want their children reading or hearing such vile words, and he added, “You’re brainwashing our youngsters with this kind of filth.” Present that evening was Christian minister James King, who read other passages from the Fuentes novel, ones smeared with blasphemy, and he promised he would work with religious and minority groups to have the book removed.
Not everyone objected. Apostolic minister Doyle Dollaride of Lamont said he was opposed to all censorship, and BC English teacher Lowell Dabbs championed students’ rights to read freely. After all, he said, they are adults, not children. What was so bad about the book? In 2003, Dr. Collins recalled the passage that Mr. Turk read. “The community had gotten upset at the book’s ‘bad language,’ which culminated in a page that simply repeated a short, blunt Anglo-Saxon word, well known to army sergeants, over-and-over for the entire page.”
Fuentes sprinkled profanity in his book that most English readers agree are offensive in translation. In 1972, when Mr. Melendez introduced the book he advised his students that if they found it offensive they could either drop the course or choose another book to read. Dr. Collins highlighted that fact at the meeting, but few in the audience cared.
As is the case with English vulgarisms, the Spanish swear-word chingada has different meanings depending on where and when it is used. Dr. Collins used that word to illustrate an outcome of cross-cultural education by quoting from Joseph Sommers’ After the Storm in which Sommers referenced Octavio Paz’ Labyrinth of Solitude. In that book Paz explained the “mythical conception that all Mexicans are sons of la chingada—fruit of the violation of a suffering mother by a brutal, anonymous father.” The word "chinge" in English translation has the same primary sexual meaning as it does in Spanish, but in English it does not carry the additional connotation in Spanish of “violate your fellow man or be violated yourself.”
In 1965 Bakersfield College hired Raymond J. Gonzales as an instructor. He advised the Lambda Alpha Mexican-American Club and was active in social and academic issues challenging Mexican-American students. Around May 1969 Mr. Gonzales added Death of Artemio Cruz to the reading list of Historic Literature of the Americas -- but he never taught the book because he soon left to pursue his doctorate.
In December 1972 Death of Artemio Cruz had been in use at BC for about a year, and by then Raymond J. Gonzales had become a state assemblyman. In an interview some months after the Artemio Cruz controversy died away he commented that he was “mildly surprised” that the book’s critics attacked it solely on the basis of its obscene language; they could just as well have attacked it on the basis of its “leftist” leanings. BC parents of 1972 were probably unaware that Carlos Fuentes was a Fidel Castro admirer and a critic of the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party, which for many decades had ruled the country via massive electoral fraud. In the early 1960s Fuentes was a member of the Mexican Communist Party, and he had been denied entry into the US under the McCarren-Walter Act.
BC’s board of trustees was initially sympathetic to citizen complaints. “How this got to be a part of the course is a good question,” said Trustee M. Glenn Bultman, and he added, “I’m as incensed about this as you are.” Trustee Loren Voth of Wasco called portions of the book “reprehensible and vile,” and he agreed that the board “needs to know these things.”
Parents wanted the book banned, and they wanted Mr. Melendez disciplined or better yet fired. Present at that first meeting was Bakersfield College Dr. John J. Collins, who had been in that position for six months. He told the audience that his office gave utmost attention to citizen complaints, but hecklers groused that the only action they had seen from administration was after controversies were made public. Trustees then reminded speakers that board meetings were not the venue for complaints against faculty, and, moreover, such complaints had to be submitted in writing.
That statement was a red flag, and some accused the board of violating their free-speech rights. Part-time radio talk show host Charles Reed announced that he doubted the ruling’s constitutionality and believed that the public did not trust BC administration. Trustee Voth answered that the guidelines were fair and more liberal than regulations enacted by other public bodies. When Trustee Bultman commented that it was impossible for the board to screen every book, the noise level rose again, and Voth banged his gavel.
Otis Turk’s backers also demanded creation of an independent citizen panel to screen educational material and approve all books read by students. Observed Bultman, “The college is open ... citizens can read any book they want.” Board trustee Mark Raney reflected, “I fear that if we appointed a committee.... it would find many things that have been used in courses for many years... that are objectionable. And that’s not going to resolve this problem.”
It was obvious that the board would not approve a vigilante book committee that night and perhaps never would. Trustee Voth drew the line on creating a book-burning office when he said, “I’m not ready to start a campus gestapo agency to pass judgment on what's being read.” Further discussion was tabled, Artemio Cruz was bound over to the next meeting, and Dr. Collins was directed to collect information about the book. Pat Collins, who was Mrs. John J. Collins, was also a career reference librarian. She and her husband read the novel and found the crude and seemingly unnecessary vulgarity, but they also saw value. Meanwhile three defenders of academic freedom, Assistant to the President Dr. John P. “Jack” Hernandez, Dean of Instruction Dr. James P. Chadbourne, and Assistant Dean of Instruction Frank Wattron, helped Dr. Collins learn what other institutions were doing with the Fuentes book.”
Dr. Chadbourne might have been more alarmed than others at the ferocity of the parents’ challenge. Six months before the hullabaloo surfaced, BC hired him out of San Jose City College, and in an interview just one month before the attack on the book he said, “The role of the two-year college is changing. It has to if it is to serve the needs of its community.”
Dr. Hernandez described what they found. “I recall that Jim Chadbourne and I met one late afternoon to discuss the issue, and that once we had discovered, probably through the library and the professor who taught the course where it was assigned, that the author of the Death of Artemio Cruz was a renowned Latin American author and that the novel was considered a classic, we knew that those who objected had no case.” Further reading convinced the team that they could defend Artemio Cruz.
At the board meeting of December 21, Dr. Collins announced that the Fuentes book was appropriate teaching material, that the offensive passages had not been read aloud in class, and that the course was not required for graduation. Continuing on a more general tack he said, “By reading of violence we do not say we condone it, but it is nonetheless true that people do commit murder, and people do use offensive language. Authors simply chronicle the acts of their characters. We do not have to agree with or approve of these characters –what they say – what they think – or what they feel.” Noise level in the room rose, and Mr. Voth cautioned, “I don’t intend to let anarchy reign at a board meeting.”
What Dr. Collins did not say that evening was more important. Dr. Hernandez explained, “John wanted to make sure that the board understood the faculty’s right and responsibility to select books for their courses. This, we all knew, was the fundamental issue at stake, and John got the board to understand and accept this.”
The final vote was set aside for the next meeting, and during the following days Dr. Collins met with the “self-appointed minister” – as Collins called him - and asked him “to explain in detail what his qualifications were for evaluating Carlos Fuentes' great work.”
At the standing-room-only meeting of January 4, fewer disgruntled voices were noticed, and the meeting started quieter than expected, but what had begun weeks earlier as a call for bad-word housecleaning now devolved into racial slandering. Two speakers called the Chicano movement a conspiracy to foment revolution, a “revolutionary force,” and lectured trustees on the Bakersfield Californian’s distorted coverage of earlier board meetings.
Standing in opposition to them was Mathematics instructor Shirley Trembley who praised Mexican-American students, calling them “positive contributors ... with a philosophy of helping each other.” Just how many Chicano students then attended BC? According to the RIP, “the minority student population” was 13.3% and the minority-faculty percentage was 5.5%.
Research on The Death of Artemio Cruz crowded fifteen, single-spaced typewritten pages. Trustees Loren Voth, Cecil J. Bailey, M. Glenn Bultman, Mark G. Raney, Edward B. Cornell, Angus Marchbanks, and Albert S. Gould listened attentively as Dr. Collins stepped forward. Among the many accolades for Artemio Cruz was one that showed the book was in use at Harvard and Notre Dame. Collins continued, “Literature is full of acts that we do not approve of. We read of violating others by assault, murder, and other more subtle but less destructive acts. We read of dishonesty -- of discrimination and of persecution of the weak and helpless. We read of attacks on some of our most cherished values, or on our long held ideologies and traditions. Literature can be abrasive.”
Trustees voted to retain the book but not without personal reservations. In an interview decades later Dr. Collins recalled, “The Board backed me seven to nothing, but I have to say without naming any names, the president of the board afterwards privately said to me, ‘John, I voted with you, but you ought to take that book out and burn it.’ Is that on tape? Yeah. That’s okay.”
The board also unanimously passed all of administration’s recommendations: Selection of school material was solely the responsibility of the college staff, alternate texts would be offered where “excessive use of language” might be offensive, staff would take student maturity into account in choice of texts, and any objections from the public must go to administration prior to going before the board.
Back in December when the book first became a hot potato, some protesters might have predicted the board decision, and when support of the book was announced in January many did not accept the vote willingly. Joe Gonzales, a Navy vet attending BC on the G.I. Bill, took some pictures during the meeting, and when it was over a woman confronted him on the sidewalk and objected to his camera work. The conversation escalated, police were called, and a picture of the row appeared in the next-day Californian. Brief days later, a caller to talk-radio KGEE accused Joe Gonzalez of being an outside agitator.
Local grievances faded but civil rights bloomed. In the days that followed, Bakersfield College’s Mexican-American Club dissolved, reformed as MECHA and united with MECHA students on other campuses. The club still had a social aim, but it now embraced economic, educational and political advancement for Chicanos. That spring when MECHA boycotted the BC cafeteria, spokesman Rogelio Sanchez explained that they were trying to get the college to buy union-harvested lettuce. To help the effort along, MECHA set up informational tables in the student union and offered free sandwiches, donuts, coffee and punch.
At a trustee meeting two months later, a parent asked the board to establish a cross-cultural, ethnic studies program in German, Lithuanian, Swedish, Jewish, or any other such subject. The fact was, BC had recently required students to take a class in cross-cultural awareness, and the board was unwilling to expand that requirement any farther. Addressing the parent request Dr. Collins said, “The very purpose of the use of the term ‘cross cultural awareness’ takes this out of the concept of saying that students must take two units of black studies, German, or ancient Greek. What we we have in mind is to acquaint our students with the problems, life styles, and contributions of other cultures and subcultures. And there are many admirable cultures and subcultures we ought to be acquainted with to permit us to live together a little more successfully than we’ve lived in the past.”
Late in March, MECHA’s Rogelio Sanchez attended a conference of the United Farm Workers at La Paz. At one session Charley Valenzuela of the Bakersfield Fire Department spoke on recruiting more ethnic minorities to the department. Probably few present at the meeting realized that living together a little more successfully was starting to happen.