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One of the most influential authors in Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya is acclaimed for his skillful mingling of realism, fantasy, and myth in novels exploring the experiences of Hispanics in the American Southwest. Stemming from his fascination with the mystical nature of Spanish-American oral folk tales, Anaya’s works often address his loss of religious faith. As Anaya has explained, his education caused him to question his religious beliefs, and that, in turn, led him to write poetry and prose. ”I lost faith in my God,” Anaya has stated, ”and if there was no God there was no meaning, no secure road to salvation. …The depth of loss one feels is linked to one’s salvation. That may be why I write. It is easier to ascribe those times and their bittersweet emotions to my characters.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Introduction to the Oral Tradition
Rudolfo Anaya was born in 1937 in the village of Pastura, New Mexico. There, and later in nearby Santa Rosa, where Anaya spent the majority of his childhood, people gathered to hear and tell stories, anecdotes, and riddles. Anaya has commented:
I was always in a milieu of words, whether they were printed or in the oral tradition. And I think that’s important to stimulate the writer’s imagination; to respond to what is going on around him, to incorporate the materials and then rehash them and make fiction—to start at a point of reference which is close to one’s being and then to transcend it—that’s important.
The author was profoundly affected by the old story tellers, the myths of his Mexican-Indian ancestors, and the land itself. The plains in which he was raised provide the setting for most of his novels and short stories.
Early Influences and Well-received Novels
In 1955 Anaya graduated from Albuquerque High School. He then attended Browning Business School for two years before entering the University of New Mexico, where he received his master’s degree in English in 1968. Anaya wrote that he ”really fell in love with reading when I was a student at the University of New Mexico. I read everything in those days when a liberal education meant pre paring the student in world literature—multicultural literature.” At the university Anaya studied such novelists as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck; aspiring to become a writer himself, he attempted to imitate their style and technique but was unsuccessful. ”I made a simple discovery,” Anaya has related. ”I found I needed to write in my voice about my characters, using my indigenous symbols.”
Thus, he began writing Bless Me, Ultima (1972), a novel about a boy growing up in New Mexico shortly after World War II. Anaya spent nearly seven years writing and rewriting this first novel. Completed in 1972, Bless Me, Ultima was a resounding success, earning Anaya the second annual Premio Quinto Sol prize for literature. His two subsequent novels, Heart of Aztlan (1976) and Tortuga (1979), consolidated Anaya’s reputation as an important American author of fiction. In addition to writing novels, Anaya has taught courses in creative writing and Chicano literature at the University of New Mexico, edited several books on Chicano literature, experimented in drama and script-writing, published a collection of short stories, and contributed many articles to literary periodicals. He also received the 1993 PEN Fiction award for his novel Alburquerque (1992).
Coming of Age Trilogy
Centering around the dilemmas of young Spanish-Americans, Bless Me, Ultima, Heart of Aztlan, and Tortuga form a loose trilogy, embedded in myth and bound by common themes that focus on the deterioration of traditional Hispanic ways of life, social injustice and oppression, disillusionment and loss of faith, and the regenerative power of love. Anaya drew heavily from his own background in the writings of these works; as the son of a sheepherder, he was well-acquainted with the hardships of agricultural work, and as a young child he struggled with the strict Catholicism practiced by his mother’s family. Bless Me, Ultima features a young boy named Antonio whose maturation is linked to his struggle with religious faith and his difficulty in choosing between the nomadic life of his father’s family, and the agricultural lifestyle of his mother’s. Heart of Aztlan relates the story of a Chicano worker who, due to financial difficulties, is forced to move his family from their rural home to the city, where he has obtained employment in the railroad factories. A sociopolitical work, the novel examines life in a Chicano ghetto, addressing the exploitation of poverty-ridden laborers by corrupt elements in religion and industry. In this work Anaya also drew from personal experience; his family moved from the rural plains of New Mexico to Albuquerque in 1952, and there Anaya first perceived the racism and prejudice faced by Latino immigrants in urban post-war America. In Albuquerque, at the age of sixteen, Anaya suffered a fall, broke two vertebrae in his neck, and suffered through a long and painful convalescence—an experience which would serve as the basis for Tortuga. The plight of the title character—a young boy suffering from paralysis—dramatically emphasizes the need for healing in what Anaya has described as ”a society that was crushing and mutilating” people. Tortuga’s recovery, hastened by the emotional well-being that results from his love for a nurse’s aide, exemplifies the healing power of love and the inextricable link between emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
Works in Literary Context
Influence of Modernism
Anaya has stated in inter views that his writing has been profoundly influenced by Modernist writers, particularly Southern writers, such as William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Modernist writers, working largely in the period between World Wars I and II, addressed the alienation the individual feels in an ever-expanding, mechanized world. American Modernist writers, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway, spent much of their time as expatriates living and writing in Europe, and tried to forge their American identities with the literary traditions of Britain and France. Similarly, Anaya, in works such as Bless Me, Ultima and Tortuga attempts to explore the individual’s experience of the boundaries between Mexican and American culture.
Spirituality Versus Organized Religion
Modernist writers are also known for their rejection of established institutions, particularly the church. Often, however, the protagonists of Modernist novels (such as, for example, Quentin Compson of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!)seek a sense of spirituality based on their own experiences in the world rather than the dogma provided by social or cultural establishments. Much like Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima, these protagonists seek to heal their disillusionment with the world by finding an individual code of ethics.
The Bi-racial American Experience
Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima is often cited as a landmark of multicultural American literature; it was the first novel written about the Mexican-American experience to reach a widespread audience. Furthermore, the book followed in the wake of the “counter-cultural” revolution of the 1960s. During this period, America witnessed radical political protests and drastic social reforms, most of which were centered on issues of racial equality and integration. While the social reforms of the 1960s dealt primarily with the African American experience, Anaya’s work helped to bring to light the need to reevaluate the living and working conditions of all minorities in America.
Works in Critical Context
Anaya’s novels have been studied and analyzed with an intensity accorded to few other Hispanic writers. Praised for their universal appeal, his works have been translated into a number of languages. Of Anaya’s international success, Antonio Marquez has written, ”It is befitting for Anaya to receive the honor and the task of leading Chicano literature into the canons of world literature. He is the most acclaimed and the most popular and universal Chicano writer, and one of the most influential voices in contemporary Chicano literature.”
Bless Me, Ultima
Bless Me, Ultima has generated more critical review, analysis, and interpretation than any other novel in contemporary Chicano literature. Critics of this work have found Anaya’s story unique, his narrative technique compelling, and his prose both meticulous and lyrical. America reviewer Scott Wood called the book ”unique” and ”remarkable,” and stated, ”Living apart from the mainstream, a young New Mexican Chicano has offered in this, his first novel, a rich and powerful synthesis for some of life’s sharpest oppositions.” Ron Arias, writing for The American Book Review, states, ”As entertainment, the novel moves; as a work written for reflection, it provokes Raymond J. Rodrigues, in a review for English Journal, calls the book ”an important contribution to literature in a pluralistic United States.”
Heart of Aztlan
The reception of Heart of Aztlan, however, has been less enthusiastic. Although many critics have approved of the novel’s mythic substructure, some commentators have found Anaya’s intermingling of myth and politics confusing. Juan Bruce-Novoa has noted that ” Ultima produced expectations that Heart of Aztlan did not satisfy…. [I]t is a matter of the craftsmanship, not of the themes, and Heart, for whatever reason, is less polished, less accomplished.” Marvin A. Lewis observed in Revista Chicano-Requena that on the surface, the outcome [of Heart of Aztlan] is a shallow, romantic, adolescent novel which nearly overshadows the treatment of adult problems. The novel [has] redeeming qualities, however, in its treatment of the urban experience and the problems with racism inherent therein, as well as in its attempt to define the mythic dimension of the Chicano experience.
Similarly, World Literature Today critic Charles R. Larson felt that Heart of Aztlan, along with Bless Me, Ultima, ”provide[s] us with a vivid sense of Chicano Life since World War II.”
Tortuga has also prompted a mixed critical response. Some commentators, such as Antonio Marquez in The Magic of Words, praised the novel’s structural complexity and innovative depiction of Chicano life, and have proclaimed Tortuga ”Anaya’s best work”; others, however, have denigrated the novel as melodramatic and unrealistic. For instance, Cordelia Candelaria has asserted that the characters presented in Tortuga are ”lacking in human vitality and motivation” and ”perform like mechanical metaphors.”
- Baeza, Abelardo. Keep Blessing Us, Ultima: A Teaching Guide for Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. Austin, Tex.: Easkin Press, 1997.
- ”Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.” Children’s Literature Review. Edited by Tom Burns. Vol. 129. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008, pp. 1-68.
- Bruce-Novoa, Juan D., Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.
- Chavez, John R. The Lost Land, The Chicano Image of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
- Dick, Bruce and Silvio Sirias. Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
- Fabre, Genviere. European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States. Houston, Tex.: Arte Publico Press, 1988.
- Vassallo, Paul and Antonio Marquez. Magic of Words: Rudolfo A. Anaya and His Writings. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
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