Commie Book Ban

Vamos a Cuba has become an unlikely political lightning rod

"I don't want to teach my daughter all the cruel realities of Cuba, but I don't want to lie either," he said recently.

Amador was hardly the first parent to object to a book his child brought home from school. Works such as J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye are frequently challenged. The past few months alone have seen school district challenges to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in California and Calvin and Hobbes, a cartoon collection by Bill Watterson, in Illinois. (On April 4, the day Amador filed his complaint, Miami's national book-reading campaign, the Big Read, opened; the book chosen for mass consumption was Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, the story of a future totalitarian state where books are banned and burned by the government.)

Removing a book altogether is another story, said Deborah Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom. Federal courts have upheld children's rights to access books, except when they are deemed to contain "gross inaccuracies or age-inappropriate subject matter or vocabulary," Stone said. But removal of books is not unheard of: Since 1993, 257 books have been temporarily or permanently banned from school libraries, while 35 have been banned from public libraries since 1995.

Outspoken former school board member and state Senate candidate Frank Bolaños (center) called for an immediate ban of Vamos a Cuba and  has said the issue should be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court
Jacqueline Carini
Outspoken former school board member and state Senate candidate Frank Bolaños (center) called for an immediate ban of Vamos a Cuba and has said the issue should be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court
Julio Cabarga, veteran Cuban exile leader, flips through the offending volume
Jacqueline Carini
Julio Cabarga, veteran Cuban exile leader, flips through the offending volume

Although Miami-Dade hasn't seen a serious challenge to a school book in recent years, there have been plenty of complaints. Janet McAliley, a school board member from 1980 to 1996, says the last major firestorm involving the exile community was in 1984. It concerned a state-mandated high school class about the evils of Communism. Before the class was phased out, its opponents and supporters — including Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, then a state representative — took their heated debate to a national audience on The Phil Donahue Show.

Amador didn't know any of this when he filed his complaint about Vamos a Cuba on April 4. He just wanted to right what he saw as a wrong, by having the book removed from school libraries. Word of the complaint spread quickly in the weeks that followed, and Cuban radio began buzzing about the book.

Two separate review committees, composed of district-appointed educational experts and representatives, judged the book age-appropriate and sufficiently accurate to merit staying on shelves. In most other communities, that would have been enough to end the affair. For Miami's Cuban exiles, these rulings meant only one thing: The battle was on.

As with Elián González, whose image quickly became an icon for many in the long-suffering exile community six years ago, Vamos a Cuba morphed overnight from a glorified picture book into a charged talisman, a symbol of el exilio's frustrated victimhood.

"They've lost their country, their way of life," observes Uva de Aragón, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, "and they have failed in the one thing they came to do, which is influence change in Cuba." After all, despite the efforts of the hard-line exile community, the man they call El Tirano has outlasted nine U.S. presidents.

The first to seize the talisman was school board member Frank Bolaños. Within days of Amador's formal complaint, he called for a suspension of the standard review process and an immediate ban of the book. His proposal shifted the debate from a nuanced discussion to a polarizing yes-or-no vote.

When, at the April meeting, school board member Ana Rivas-Logan voted to allow a review process instead of an immediate ban, she found herself targeted by Radio Mambí, a popular station among hard-line exiles. Rivas-Logan, who was born in Nicaragua after her family fled Cuba in 1960, paraphrased one commentator's advice to listeners: "Let's not forget, when it comes to election time, that Ms. Rivas-Logan is Nicaraguan." Other board members who voted to review rather than ban the book were labeled Communist and anti-Cuban.

Two months later, when the issue came before the board again, Bolaños challenged his colleagues in stark terms. "They will have a choice to either define themselves on the side of truth and with the Cuban community or on the side of lies and against the Cuban community," he said. Board vice president Perla Tabares-Hantman, running for re-election, said she was fulfilling her "duty as a Cuban-American" in voting to ban the book. Board member Marta Pérez, also up for re-election, compared the book to "pornography'' and "books about Devil worship,'' saying there was no place in school libraries for such things.

After Tabares-Hantman and Pérez had weighed in, board member Evelyn Langlieb Greer, appearing exhausted and exasperated, warned of "caving to political imperative" and urged common sense in the wider community. "Your fight is with [Castro]," Greer said to the vocal, exile-filled audience. "Your fight is not with the Miami-Dade County school system over a book for five-year-olds."

Historians chalked up another only-in-Miami moment that day when the school board voted to override the committees' recommendations and ban Vamos a Cuba. The board also circumvented its own review process by banning all 24 books in the elementary-level travel series.

Enter stage left: the ACLU and the first major legal battle over book censorship by a U.S. public school system in 24 years.

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