In the early 1960s, Rudolfo Anaya was teaching high school during the day and writing at night, struggling to find the voice that would bring his first novel alive.
And then, as he told C-SPAN in 2013, one night he felt a presence in the room with him. “And I turned, and I saw this woman, this old woman standing by the door. And she asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m writing a story,’ and she said, ‘You’ll never get it right until you put me in it.’ And I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she said, ‘Ultima.’ And that’s how that vision of the healer, the curandera came to me, and she filled the novel with her soul.”
That novel was Bless Me, Ultima. It’s the story of a young Mexican American boy growing up in New Mexico in the 1940s, and the curandera, Ultima, who becomes his mentor. Much of the language and imagery comes from Anaya’s own childhood in that same time and place. He struggled to find a publisher — mainstream publishing houses shied away from the novel’s mix of English and Spanish — but was able to put the book out through a small California press, Quinto Sol, in 1972.
#1206 – Bless me In the face of censorship
Bless Me, Ultima wasn’t like anything else that had come before. It inspired a generation of Chicano writers; Anaya was invited to speak at college and university campuses all over the country, and eventually started a creative writing program at the University of New Mexico. He branched out into mysteries and children’s books later in his career, but Ultima remains his best-known work.
Chicano Classic ‘Bless Me, Ultima’ Becomes A Movie
It’s also his most challenged work — multiple school districts have attempted to ban the book for its non-Christian spirituality, sexuality, violence and explicit language. “What is it about literature that makes people fearful?” he asked the Albuquerque Journal in 2013. But Ultima‘s power endures; it was made into a movie in 2013.
In 2016, Anaya was awarded a National Humanities Medal “for his pioneering stories of the American southwest.”
Rudolfo Anaya died on Sunday at his home in New Mexico after a long illness. He was 82.
In a statement, New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said, “Rudolfo Anaya, perhaps better than any other author, truly captured what it means to be a New Mexican, what it means to be born here, grow up here and live here.”l
Rudolfo Anaya, ‘godfather’ of Chicano literature, dies at 82 ~ AP NEWS
RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) — Rudolfo Anaya, a writer who helped launch the 1970s Chicano Literature Movement with his novel “Bless Me, Ultima,” a book celebrated by Latinos, has died at 82.
Anaya’s niece, Belinda Henry, said the celebrated author died Sunday at his Albuquerque, New Mexico, home after suffering from a long illness.
Literary critics say Anaya’s World War II-era novel about a young Mexican-American boy’s relationship with an older curandera, or healer, influenced a generation of Latino writers because of its imagery and cultural references that were rare at the time of its 1972 publication.
The boy and the way of his people
Antonio attends Catholic school and is absorbed by the teachings of the church. Ultima seeks to demonstrate that not all answers come from Rome. Antonio is not an active protagonist, striving and deciding. As played by the newcomer Luke Ganalon, his typical role is as a witness, seeing all, saying little, absorbing. That’s an unusual approach to hero-construction.
Yes, things happen to Antonio when Ultima isn’t around. He attends school, walking the same dusty way every morning across a wooden bridge. Franklin establishes the district with an emphasis on the land. Sun, moon, morning stars, the frenzied twists of cactus against the sky. Here is the desert landscape of Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Antonio and his classmates do stuff together. But after he meets Ultima, his life experiences a new tidal pull. There isn’t one second in this film impossible to understand for anyone old enough to see it. There are some scenes of adult behavior difficult for children to understand, but that’s the story of life.
Remembering Chicano Author Rudolfo Anaya ~ NPR
Rudolfo Anaya was one of the founders of modern Chicano literature. His best-known book was Bless Me Ultima. He died at age 82 at his home in Albuquerque.
Rudolfo Anaya, a Father of Chicano Literature, Dies at 82 ~ NYT
His coming-of-age novel “Bless Me, Ultima” reframed the way many in New Mexico viewed their own history, even as school districts tried to ban it.
Rudolfo Anaya, a writer whose trailblazing explorations of the folkways of the Southwest helped define the Latino experience in the United States, died on Sunday at his home in Albuquerque. He was 82.
His niece Belinda Henry said his death followed a long illness.
Mr. Anaya burst onto the American literary scene in 1972 with his novel “Bless Me, Ultima,” about a Chicano boy growing up just after World War II in the llano, or plains, of hardscrabble eastern New Mexico.
Published when Chicano scholars and activists were questioning Anglo dominance of the Southwest, the book describes the guidance provided by Ultima, an elderly healer who uses herbal remedies and other Native American traditions incorporated over centuries into New Mexico’s Hispanic culture. A major theme in the book is the tension between Roman Catholicism and the spiritual practices embodied by Ultima.
The novel reframed the way many in New Mexico viewed their own history, prioritizing the blending of mythologies, bloodlines and religious practices over simplistic attempts to characterize the culture in which Mr. Anaya was raised as Spanish.
“Bless Me, Ultima” repeatedly drew the ire of censors, who cited what they viewed as foul language and anti-Catholic messaging.
The book was banned in California, Colorado and even Mr. Anaya’s own state, New Mexico. In 1981, the school board in Bloomfield, N.M., burned copies of “Bless Me, Ultima,” according to a news report in The Albuquerque Journal that Mr. Anaya sometimes showed visitors.
In 2012, the state of Arizona forced teachers in Tucson to ban the book and dismantle Mexican-American studies programs, part of a nativist push to curb immigration and limit the influence of Latinos.
As is often the case, the censorship efforts bestowed new prominence on “Bless Me, Ultima,” lifting sales of the book while cementing Mr. Anaya’s standing as a leading figure in the literary movement forged by Chicanos in the 1970s.
Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya was born on Oct. 30, 1937, in Pastura, N.M., a small farming village. He was the eighth of 10 children in a Spanish-speaking family whose presence in this part of the West predated the American conquest of New Mexico in the 1840s.
His mother, Rafaelita Máres Anaya, came from a family of farmers; his father, Martín, came from a family of vaqueros, who herded cattle and sheep around the Llano Estacado, the tablelands encompassing parts of eastern New Mexico and northwestern Texas.
“We were all poor, and had the curanderas — the healers — that helped,” Mr. Anaya said in a 2016 interview with The Las Cruces Sun-News. “We had the vaqueros, the cowboys, who came in and out of the village. On Saturday evenings, my dad would take out a guitar, and somebody would bring beer, and my dad would sing some of the old New Mexico songs.”
“All of that,” he added, “crawled into my DNA.”
When Mr. Anaya was 14, his family moved to Albuquerque, part of the postwar migration boom from rural New Mexico to the state’s largest city. They settled in the barrio of Barelas, not far from downtown. At 16, he suffered a spinal cord injury after diving into an irrigation canal, a harrowing experience that left him temporarily paralyzed and served as inspiration for a later novel.
After graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in English, Mr. Anaya taught in Albuquerque’s public schools while writing and accumulating rejections from publishers. After “Bless Me, Ultima” was published by Quinto Sol, an independent Chicano publishing house founded at the University of California, Berkeley, it went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.
Mr. Anaya followed “Bless Me, Ultima” with “Heart of Aztlán” (1976) and “Tortuga” (1979), completing a trilogy about Chicano identity and empowerment.
He also wrote a mystery series featuring the Chicano detective Sonny Baca; children’s books including “Farolitos for Abuelo” (1998); travel chronicles like “A Chicano in China” (1986); and story collections including “The Silence of the Llano” (1982).
Still, “Bless Me, Ultima” endured as Mr. Anaya’s best-known book, adapted into a play, an opera and a 2013 feature film.
Mr. Anaya, a longtime childhood literacy advocate, and his wife, Patricia, who died in 2010, used proceeds from his book sales to establish a scholarship fund for underprivileged youth in New Mexico. They also frequently lent their guesthouse in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico to writers in need of a quiet place to work.
In 2016, Mr. Anaya received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama for his “pioneering stories of the American Southwest.”
“His works of fiction and poetry celebrate the Chicano experience and reveal universal truths about the human condition,” Mr. Obama said. “And as an educator, he has spread a love of literature to new generations.”
Mr. Anaya is survived by two stepdaughters, Elynn Cowden and Melissa Messec, and three grandchildren.
While known as a literary figure, Mr. Anaya also cultivated a mischievous side, which he revealed in a series of wine reviews, sprinkled with New Mexican Spanish, that he submitted to Alibi, Albuquerque’s alternative news weekly.
“It was ready to breathe! It had life! Like a foal just dropped and kicking, I could tell this vino was heady, strong; no effete fragrance here,” Mr. Anaya wrote in a 2008 review of a limited-edition Rioja red from Bodegas LAN. “Anda, let’s party!”
Mr. Anaya was also a prominent progressive voice in New Mexico politics on issues like civil rights, water rights and immigration.
“Let’s continue helping the least fortunate among us,” Mr. Anaya said last year in a handwritten note to Albuquerque’s mayor, Tim Keller, expressing gratitude for the sheltering of asylum seekers from Latin America. (Mr. Keller shared the note in a Facebook tribute to Mr. Anaya.) “We are all one family.”