Powers’ book isn’t welcome at Cathedral
Article Launched: 08/19/2007 12:00:00 AM MDT
An up-and-coming young writer recently received a good whiff of El Paso-style reality.
Jessica Powers, 33, who writes under the pen name J.L. Powers, recently came to town from Northern California to promote her first novel, “The Confessional,” a young adult novel set in El Paso and featuring teenage characters at an all-male parochial high school.
El Paso is Powers’ home turf. She was home-schooled here and later taught college-level writing and worked as a literary publicist.
Powers had scheduled a stop at a back-to-school function at Cathedral High School, a private school for males only and a cornerstone in El Paso’s Catholic school system.
Shortly before the event, Cathedral Principal Sam Govea canceled Powers’ invitation. He said her book is not compatible with Cathedral’s mission of teaching religion and faith to 520 students.
Powers’ book has profanity and sexual references and touches on various sensitive issues, such as homosexuality, violence, questions of faith, and border racial tension.
“I’m disappointed,” Powers said. “I really wanted to go to Cathedral High School and have an open discussion about the issues that the book raises.”
Powers points out that the book is fictional and does not necessarily represent Cathedral or any other school in El Paso.
Powers described the decision to scrap her conversation with Cathedral High students as shortsighted and somewhat bordering on censorship. She also said she was appalled to learn that Richard Barajas, a Cathedral teacher, had played a role in the administration’s decision to remove the welcome mat and silence the dialogue.
Barajas is a respected Cathedral alumnus, a former West Texas prosecutor and a retired chief justice of the 8th District Court of Appeals. He teaches American government at Cathedral High. His lesson plans cover constitutional law. This guy knows his stuff.
Barajas deferred all questions to Govea, who described Powers as a talented writer who “did a wonderful job” on the novel.
“This book is not consistent with the culture of Cathedral High School,” Govea said. “After prayerful thought, it was in our best interest to do away with this particular sitting. It’s no reflection on her.”
Govea is banning the book from the school’s library for the same reason. He said the author had been invited to discuss the writing process. Advance press materials said the discussion would also touch on Powers’ new novel.
“There are a number of sex topics in the book. That’s just something that we don’t need to deal with,” Govea said. “I’m not going to condemn this book. If parents want their child to read it, they can go down to the local book store.”
Govea pointed out that a couple of parents complained about the book’s content to Barajas, who then reported the situation to him.
“This was my decision as principal,” Govea said.
As for any perception that he is stifling the free expression of ideas and differing viewpoints, Govea said: “We always encourage our kids to bring up life questions in the classroom.”
So, does kicking an author off campus constitute censorship?
“There is no First Amendment issue that I can see. The Bill of Rights only pertains to government action,” said Nancy Baker, an associate professor of government at New Mexico State University.
Baker is an expert on the Justice Department and the attorney general’s office.
An old western artist in Las Cruces once said that he always put a lot of effort into making sure his work was historically accurate because “you never know who’s going to take a whack at it.” That’s a valuable lesson that all young writers should burn into their iPods.
A slogan above Cathedral High School’s main entrance says: “Enter to Learn.” Some critics in this debate might argue that the slogan maybe needs to be modified.
Ramon Renteria may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6146.