Remembering El Grande
Denise Chávez and Luis Alberto Urrea honor the godfather of Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya
BY ROSEMARY DIAZ
Santa Fe New Mexican
Remembering El Grande
In 2012, 40 years after the initial publication of Bless Me, Ultima, The New York Times reported that New Mexico native son Rudolfo Anaya was the most widely read author in Hispanic communities. Sales of the book had surpassed 360,000, making it the best-selling Chicano novel of all time as of that year. With Ultima, Anaya (1937–2020) brought attention to the Indo-Hispano perspective. By doing so, he also increased awareness of the Chicano movement, galvanized support for its cause, provided the foundation upon which the Chicano literary genre was built, and ignited a Chicano literary renaissance. Today, Ultima has sold more than 2 million copies in English and 80,000 in Spanish in the U.S. alone and has been translated into several languages. It was released as a feature film in 2013. Its ongoing popularity, as well as that of Anaya’s collective body of work, stands in testimony to the lasting impact of his convention-defying storytelling and continues to provide inspiration to new generations of writers. Anaya, who is now recognized as one of the most influential writers of the late 20th century, is also the 2023 Santa Fe International Literary Festival’s honoree. His work will be read and remembered at Recuerdos y Respeto: Homage to Rudolfo Anaya. “Rudolfo was beloved not only in New Mexico but internationally,” says festival co-founder Carmella Padilla, a fellow New Mexico author. “Until [Anaya], works about New Mexico and New Mexico culture were written from the outsider’s view. His work speaks to people who live here, who see themselves in a celebrated way. It represents distinctive New Mexico culture but resonates so much further.” In the early 1960s, when Anaya set pen to page on what would become his most celebrated and critically acclaimed work, Bless Me, Ultima, there was no roadmap for navigating the unfamiliar terrain of Indo-Hispano-based, Chicano-centric literature. And save for the more politically focused tomes of a few early Chicano activists, there was little signage to mark the ground gained or yet to be covered. Anaya’s breakout novel closed the distance and introduced the world to a chapter of the American experience previously unknown to many. Though Anaya initially met with considerable resistance when seeking publication for Ultima, the editors at Quinto Sol, a University of California–Berkeley independent publishing house, recognized the work’s cultural significance and published it in 1972. The book quickly generated Latino readership, particularly readers in the southwestern United States, who saw some of their own cultural lifeways and unique experiences reflected in Anaya’s novel. In much of Anaya’s work, the llano, the vast and mysterious desert flatlands of New Mexico, is a central character. Whether it is a protagonist or antagonist is often revealed in the workings of nature itself: the promise of growing crops, the darkness of an impending storm. The use of landscape to express the ebb and flow of human emotion has long served as an agent of the pen for writers across the pond. For Anaya, the llano, with which he had been well acquainted since his post–World War II childhood in Pastura, New Mexico, was the New Mexican/ Indo-Hispano equivalent of the English moors and Irish heathlands — ominous and forlorn at times, warm and inviting at others. It was another stroke of genius in Anaya’s universalizing of the not-bound-by-culture-alone human experience. Ultima’s references to the supernatural and the oft-misunderstood practice of curanderismo, a traditional system of Mexican folk healing long practiced in Native and Indigenous communities throughout New Mexico, brought two then-controversial subjects to the fore. Anaya toed the line, especially considering the time’s conservative religious tone and that little of Latino American culture then infiltrated the mainstream. Despite the strong reaction it stirred in some — at one point, the book was banned in some New Mexico libraries, and on at least one occasion it was set aflame in public protest — there was no denying the power of Ultima or the literary ingenuity of Anaya’s wordsmithing. Other successes followed, including with the genre-hopping Heart of Aztlan (1976), Tortuga (1979), The Silence of the Llano: Short Stories (1982), and Alburquerque (1992). Anaya accumulated accolades, including an American Book Award, a National Humanities Medal, and fellowships with the Kellogg Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. His leading-edge voice also inspired a generation of writers who identified with his subject matter and were encouraged to use their own voices. Denise Chávez and Luis Alberto Urrea are among them. Anaya influenced the Santa Fe International Literary Festival panelists in similar yet different ways. Drawing from their respective personal connections to their multifaceted culture and heritage, like their mentor, each has contributed to the canon of American literature while holding steadfast to Chicano activism. They pay tribute to Anaya at the festival by reading his work and sharing personal reflections on their friendships and scholarly collaborations with him. “Rudy was the first Chicano writer who I really connected with,” Chávez says. “That was the genesis, the impetus for me as a writer.” Chávez, who earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of New Mexico under Anaya’s direction as well as that of last year’s festival honoree, Tony Hillerman, credits Anaya with “representing the unrepresented” and “opening the floodgates for so many other writers.” Anaya lived in the spirit of activism, says Chávez, and “was politically astute” without being overtly political. And “there was no artifice in Anaya’s work,” she says, “no removal from the people — he was always respectful of his subjects. His work brought attention and insight to the Chicano struggle and represented the unrepresented. It gave validation to Norteño life and history and revolted against the formulaic narrative.” Chávez has done much of the same in her own work, writing about people who are overlooked or considered invisible by society, imbuing her characters with distinct and unique personalities, questioning reality, and giving voice to the voiceless. Her gift for telling sensorial, emotionally wrought stories, often inspired by her own borderland community of Las Cruces, appears in works such as The Last of the Menu Girls (1986), Face of an Angel (1994), and Loving Pedro Infante (2001). “Rudy taught us that the soul expands by embracing life and all that happens, both good and evil,” she continues. “Ultima taught us how to take strength from our own experiences, how to hold wonder in our own lives. She taught us that the eternal spirit is everywhere. Everything is magical in this world, and when you live in a place like ours, the spirit is always there, lending itself to the miraculous.” Urrea’s work also encompasses foundational elements of Chicano literature — cause, activism, stories of the people, and honest, unrelenting storytelling unaffected by external, outside-the-culture dictations. Like those of Anaya and Chávez, Urrea’s writings, which include In Search of Snow (1994), Into the Beautiful North (2009), and The House of Broken Angels (2018), are also informed by personal and historic realities of the Chicano experience. “Rudy honored the ancestors with timeless themes that will always remain relevant,” says Urrea, who describes Anaya’s work as “Chicano Zen.” Urrea says Anaya influenced his work by being an ambassador to Chicano writers; supporting them through the literary magazine Anaya founded at UNM, the still-publishing Blue Mesa Review; and championing Urrea’s first book, Across the Wire (1993). “Anyone who reads my works will know there could be no [The] Hummingbird’s Daughter (2005) without Ultima,” he says. “As long as we have souls, as long as we remember ancestors, as long as we yearn, his work will have relevance.” says Urrea of Anaya’s work. And, as Urrea writes in his introduction to Anaya: Bless Me, Ultima, Tortuga, Alburquerque (Library of America, 2022), “he was, in spite of his own denials, the llano’s Bodhisattva.” RoseMary Diaz is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe. She studied literature at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Naropa University, and University of California–Santa Cruz. Her father, Trinidad Rubalcava Diaz, was a second-generation Mexican American/Chicano from Pomona, California. On her mother’s side, she is of Tewa (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Scots-Irish ancestry.