The Life and Works of Rudolfo A. Anaya
Rudolfo A. Anaya, a New Mexican writer, is considered one of the creators of Chicano Literature. He is most known for his novel Bless Me, Ultima.
He has been recognized with many prestigious rewards for his work. As Anaya says, “As a Chicano writer I am part of a community which for the first time in our contemporary era has produced enough literary works to create a literary movement. Prior to the 1960s western literature was written about us, but seldom by us.
Now the world has a truer insight into our world; the view is now from within as more and more Chicano and Chicana writers explore their reality” (Rudolfo A(lfonso) Anaya Biography 1). Anaya was born on October 30, 1927 in the small village of Pastura, New Mexico (Anaya 363, Contemporary Hispanic Biography 1). He was born to Martin and Rafaelita Anaya. Anaya was the fifth of seven children. His father came from a family of cattle workers and sheepherders, was a vaquero, a horseman who worked on ranches surrounding Pastura, and his mother came from a family of poor farmers (Contemporary Hispanic Biography 1).
At a young age, his family moved to Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Their house was perched over the Pecos River, and young Anaya spent his childhood roaming around the planes with his friends, hunting, and fishing in the Pecos River. He was raised in a strong Catholic household, he stated, “In my child hood world the power of prayer was supreme” (Anaya 362). Also, Anaya grew up in a Spanish speaking only house hold. He stated that his parents only mostly spoke Spanish and that at the age of six or seven when he started school he knew very little to no English (Anaya 362-365). My parents spoke only Spanish. My dad worked for big ranchers and he could buy and sell cattle, which meant he could get along in English. But at home it was a complete Spanish-speaking household. By the time I went to school when I was six or seven, I didn’t know English, I only knew Spanish” (Stone). At the age of fifteen Anaya moved to Albuquerque, and he attended Albuquerque High School. In Albuquerque Anaya was exposed to prejudice against Latinos as well as some cultural and ethnic differences he had not previously faced.
Anaya played football and baseball in Albuquerque. He managed to avoid the trouble of gangs, and he kept good grades. (Anaya 364-366, Contemporary Hispanic Biography). At the age of sixteen Anaya suffered a diving accident. Diving into an irrigation ditch, Anaya broke two vertebrae; he nearly killed himself. Anaya said in his short auto biography, “The doctors would later explain that I had fractured two vertebrae in my neck, and I had gone into instant paralysis. I could not move a muscle” (Anaya 369).
His mother nursed him through his paralysis with daily massaging the stiff limbs, and his friends never wavered. He swam, exercised, and slowly began to reenter the rough and tumble life. He mentions that one of the first things that he did was return to the YMCA pool alone. As a way to conquer his fear he dove into the water alone (Anaya 369-372). In 1956, Anaya graduated from Albuquerque High School. Anaya then attended business school for two years before dropping out and enrolling in the university. University life sent Anaya into an identity crisis. He speaks of losing his faith in god.
Anaya found that the culture at the university was not his own; also, Anaya found that his classes were devoid of relevance to his own culture. On top of all this a recently failed relationship with a girl pushed Anaya to begin writing to help his pain. However, much of these early writings were later destroyed. Anaya thanks his friends for helping him survive the university. On weekends he would get with his friends and go out drinking, playing pool, and meeting girls. Anaya received a degree and soon after accepted a teaching position in a small town in New Mexico. (Anaya 373-375).
In this small town he still continued to practice his writing everyday (Contemporary Hispanic Biography ). He married a young woman named Patricia Lawless. Patricia, from Kansas, provided him with encouragement, and Patricia would read his work and respond to its weaknesses (Anaya 374, Contemporary Hispanic Biography). Marriage provided Anaya with a stable base for which to write; although, two miscarriages were the most difficult experiences of his married life. Through this stable base Bless me, Ultima was born. He would teach by the day, and he would come home at night to write. Anaya 376) Anaya says that his inspiration for Bless Me, Ultima came when he had a vision of an elderly woman dressed in black standing in his room, and it was this vision that inspired him to start writing the novel (Contemporary Hispanic Biography). In Anaya’s words, “One light was on, a desk light near the typewriter, I heard a noise and turned to see the old woman dressed in black enter the room” (Anaya, 377). Bless me, Ultima tells the story of Antonio Juan Marez y Luna, a six-year old boy growing up in rural New Mexico during World War II.
Antonio is befriended by Ultima, a kindly curandera, or healer, who has come to stay with Antonio’s family. Antonio discovers the mysteries of the plains surrounding him and learns how to use its plants for medicinal purposes. Ultima later cures curses placed on Antonio’s uncle by a family of witches. Much of the drama or conflict in the novel developed because of this. (Contemporary Hispanic Biography). This story relates in many ways to Anaya’s own history. Antonio, in the novel, is pulled between his father’s wandering life as a vaquero and his mother’s harmonic, grounded existence with the earth itself.
He questions the validity of his Catholic faith that seems helpless against pain and suffering while Ultima’s magic heals. He discovers the golden carp in the river, which as told in local folklore, is a god. The idea that the carp may share divinity with God, to Antonio, feels like a betrayal of his mother’s faith. However, this is a question that he cannot help but to ask (Anaya; Bless Me, Ultima, Contemporary Hispanic Biography). “In my first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, I used the people and the environment of my childhood as elements of the story. Like my protagonist, Antonio, my first language was Spanish.
I was shaped by the traditions and culture of the free-wheeling cow punchers and sheep herders of the llano, a lifestyle my father knew well, and was also initiated into the deeply religious, Catholic settled life of the farmers of Puerto de Luna, my mother’s side of the family. “(Anaya 380) Anaya eventually was published by Berkeley. Although the path to getting published wasn’t easy, “I approached dozens of publishers, the result was always the same. I collected enough form letter rejections to wallpaper the proverbial room, but I was undaunted” (Anaya 379).
Bless Me, Ultima was a huge success. Anaya won the prestigious Premio Quinto Sol Award for the novel. Anaya also received many other prestigious rewards for the novel. Such as, Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima appeared on the Big Read site. The Big read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture. There are 30 books selected every year for this site. Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima was also chosen as one of the literary works to appear in the 2009 American Academic decathlon.
The New York Times stated that the novel was, “probably the best-known and most respected contemporary Latino Fiction”, and the San Francisco Chronicle said Bless Me, Ultima was a, “poignant… an important book that deserves to be hailed as a classic” (Bless Me Ultima to be flimed in New Mexico reports Gov. Bill Richardson, 3) A Bless Me, Ultima sculpture was even made at the north entrance to Park Lake off Historic Route 66 in Santa Rosa (Santa Rosa Dedicates ‘Bless Me, Ultima’ Rudolfo Anaya Sculpture Park, 4). A play was also made after Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, and has been shown all across New Mexico (Bless Me Ultima – The Play).
Also, a movie was made after the novel. The film versions began Shooting in Santa Fe in October 2010 (Bless Me, Ultima’ Film Based on Rudolfo Anaya’s Novel Will Shoot in N. M. ). The director of the film is Carl Franklin, and the film is staring Bento Marinez, David Rees Snell, and Miriam Colon (Bless Me, Ultima article, 2). Overall, Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima has sold over 360,000 copies. (Rudolfo Anaya UNM Article, 3) Anaya’s father owned a land grant that stretched for miles along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque’s south valley, and then for miles west into the desert as far as the Rio Puerco.
This grant had been passed down from generation to generations. Anaya’s father, as heir to the land grant, received and sold some lots that were part of the grant in the forties; on the other hand, Anaya’s mother, having that peasant Nuevo Mexicano instinct and love for the land, believed the grant was a source of our values (Anaya 382). As Anaya said, “she believed that someday we would all own a piece of that grant which had been handed down for generations” (Anaya 382). However, the real history of the Spanish and Mexican land grants of New Mexico would prove her wrong.
Most of the big land grants were stolen away from the true inheritors. Anaya says that is was these themes that lead him to create his second novel. The main character is Clemete Chavez, a farmer who loses his land at the start of the narrative and is forced to move into barrio in Albuquerque. While in the city, Chavez, and his family, they watch helplessly as their teenage children lose themselves in drugs violence, and sex. Chavez undertakes a soul-searching quest for an identity and a role for himself.
As an attempt to provide a fictive analogue to the Chicano consciousness-raising efforts of the 1970s, the book ends with a Chicano march against the oppressive Santa Fe Railroad (Portales 2). Heart of Aztlan, was published in 1976. (Anaya 383) Anaya was invited to serve on the board of the Coordinating council of Literary Magazines (CCLM) in 1974. Their office was in New York. The council held regional workshops around the country twice a year and Anaya used this as a great way to meet different people in the writing community.
Many of these friends would remain close friends with Anaya for life. (Anaya 380-385) During these years Anaya was working on Tortuga. Tortuga was the third novel in his series, and it was designed to loosely complete his trilogy (Contemporary Hispanic Biography). Tortuga was his hospital story, and thus he considered it a very difficult novel for him to write; however, many see it as one of his best novels, and it won the Before Columbus American Book award from the Before Columbus foundation for Tortuga in 1980 (Contemporary Hispanic Biography).
It was loosely based on his own experience in a hospital, but it quickly became more than that. “The theme of healing still occupied my thoughts. How do people get well? I looked around and saw that we had created a society that was crushing and mutilating us. People were sick physically and spiritually. How could those people be helped? The hospital I created became an existential hell, symbolizing our own contemporary hell… In Tortuga I took my characters to the depths of despair and human suffering, and they find in their hellish existence the faith they need to survive in the world” (Anaya 385).
Anaya began to spend more time writing plays and learning the techniques of drama. Anaya wrote his first play in 1979, the Season of La Llorona, first produced in Albuquerque. The Farolitios of Christmas was produced in Albuquerque in 1987, Matachines was published in 1992, Ay, Compadre! was published in 1994, and Billy the Kid and Who Killed Don Jose was published in 1995. (Rudolfo A(lfonso) Anaya Biography) Anaya began working with and translating some old oral materials which had been collected by folklorist. This renewed his connection to that exciting and magical stream of oral tradition.
Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest was published in 1980 (Anaya 389, Rudolfo A(lfonso) Anaya Biography). In his free time he was also working on making short stories. Somewhere between writing novels he would squeeze out short stories. In 1982, The Silence of Llano (short stories) was published by Berkeley. The Legend of La Llorona was published in 1984, and was soon followed by Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcoatl. Anaya also wrote poems in his free time, The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas was published by the Arte Publico Press in 1985. In 1986, A Chicano in China was ublished as a nonfiction account of Anaya’s travels to China. Also, Anaya began to edit numerous publications (Anaya 389). When asked why he became a writer Anaya responds, “…I became a writer in my childhood. That is why that time has been so important to me. The character of my childhood, the family, friends, and neighbors that make up my world, they and their lives fed my imagination” (Anaya 375). In 1995, Anaya published his first murder mystery, Zia Summer; also in 1995, Anaya released his book Albuquerque, a good he considered to be a celebration of the city.
Zia Summer was followed by rio Grande Fall in 1996, a continuation of his murder mystery series. In 1999, Anaya introduced Shaman Winter. Finally in 2005, Jemez Spring was introduced. Aside from writing, Anaya was a teacher. Anaya began teaching at junior high schools first, then at High schools throughout Albuquerque (Anaya 370). His first teaching position was in a small New Mexican town. Anaya, then, began to work as a public school teacher in Albuquerque from 1963 to 1970. He was appointed the Director of counseling of the University of Albuquerque in 1971. (Rudolfo A.
Anaya, article) Then, in 1974, Anaya was offered a position at UNM to teach creative writing (Anaya 380). Anaya worked at UNM from 1974-1993 when he retired. (Rudolfo A. Anaya, article) As Anaya says on the topic of his retirement from UNM, “I don’t view leaving the University of New Mexico and teaching as retirement. I view it more as the mid-career change, to do a lot of writing and other things, like reading. I want to do more essays. So I think it’s just a shift of energy into new areas” (Anaya, Dick, Sirias, 153). Anaya has received many awards and honors throughout his career.
He was awarded the prestigious Premio Quinto Sol literary award for Bless Me, Ultima in 1970 (Anaya, 363). Anaya has been awarded the New Mexico Governor’s Public Service Award twice, in 1978 and in 1980. The Before Columbus Book award was rewarded to him for Tortuga in 1980. (Contemporary Hispanic Biography) In 1982, Anaya received the Corporation for Public Broadcasting script development award for Rosa Linda (Biography of Rudolfo Anaya (1937-). He received the Award for Achievement in Chicano Literature from the Hispanic Caucus of Teachers of English in 1983.
In a Salute to American Poets and Writers, Anaya was invited by President Jimmy Carter to read at the White House (Gonzales, 1). The PEN-West Fiction Award was awarded to Anaya in 1992 for Albuquerque (Biography of Rudolfo Anaya (1937). In 2002, Anaya was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George Bush. He was one of the eight Americans receiving the award at Constitution Hall. Anaya received the award for his contribution to American literature that has brought recognition to the traditions of the Chicano people. Gonzales, 2) In 2003, Anaya was awarded the Outstanding Latino/a Cultural Award in Literary Arts or Publications (Biography of Rudolfo Anaya (1937). Since Anaya’s retirement from the UNM English department in 1993, he has dedicated his life to traveling, writing, and reading. He currently lives in Albuquerque with his wife, the same state where he was born (Rudolfo Anaya Author of Bless Me, Ultima Article). He has said that he has no desire to leave. Anaya is overall, one of the most successful and one of the most significant figures in the landscape of Chicano literature.
Anaya says, “”As a mestizo, a person born from these two broad streams (or more correctly, from many inheritances), I want to create a synthesis, a worldview” (Rudolfo A(lfonso) Anaya Biography, 2). Anaya lives and breathes the landscape of the Southwest. Anaya sees this as a powerful force, full of magic and myth, and this is apparent in all of his writings. Anaya has moved from one genre to the next, an acclaimed novelist, a poet, a dramatist, an essayist, and anthologist, a playwright, a children’s author, a travel writer, and finally, an editor.
His works are standard texts in Chicano studies and literature courses around the world. He has done more than, perhaps, any other person to promote Chicano literature. As Anaya said, “I fished, scaled the mountains of Taos, hunted with Cruz from the pueblo, finished high school, entered the university, married, and began to travel. I climbed mountains and crossed oceans and deserts in foreign places my old friends back home didn’t know existed. So who is to judge whether an adversity comes to crush us or to reshape us” (Anaya 371).