Rudolfo Anaya Essay - Critical Essays

Rudolfo Anaya American Literature Analysis

With the 1972 publication of Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya became a popular writer and one of the most important voices in modern Chicano literature. In that novel, he succeeds in portraying the character of the Southwest’s Mexican American people, with their myths, folklore, legends, and dreams. He also transcends these ethnic concerns so that the book appeals to many American readers. Because of the thematic universality of the coming-of-age story, its groundbreaking introduction of the Mexican-American experience, and its timeless allegorical vision of the struggle between good and evil, the novel has been widely read; in the age of canonical diversity, it continues to appear in the curricula of both colleges and high schools as a landmark work of Chicano fiction.

Since the publication of Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya has published works that similarly use ancient myth, the Mexican American heritage, and the conflicts caused by Mexican American attempts to fit into mainstream American society. Though each work presents a different story, his themes remain consistent. His central theme is, in the words of critic Antonio Marquez, that “life is sacred and the love of life is the greatest human achievement.” To find the spiritual fulfillment necessary to see life as sacred requires understanding the harmony of all the forces in the universe. It is the search for this oneness and harmony that lies at the heart of much of Anaya’s work.

Each work in the trilogy illustrates Anaya’s concern with the search for personal spiritual harmony. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio finds self-knowledge and insight as a result of his relationship with his spiritual guide, Ultima. She provides him with the stability he needs as he proceeds through life, exploring intellectual and emotional situations. In Heart of Aztlán, a family searches for the answers posed by changes brought about by their move from a rural community to the barrio of Albuquerque. At the novel’s end, the main character, Clemente, finds self-knowledge and begins to help other people who are not so fortunate. The last book in the trilogy, Tortuga, which Anaya patterned after a mythic journey, tells of a sixteen-year-old boy, nicknamed Tortuga (or “The Turtle” because of a body cast he must wear), who finds enlightenment during the desperately difficult time he spends recovering from a near-fatal accident.

To portray these themes, Anaya relies on mythopoetics, the art of mythmaking. He fuses mythic poetic images with images from his own childhood (from both the native traditions but as well from his schooling in Catholicism) and from the New Mexican landscape to connect the past and present so that the result is a completely new myth. Mythopoetics as an important element in understanding human nature is a belief Anaya shares with Carl Jung and other psychologists. In fact, Anaya’s belief that all people share a collective memory of a time when there was more harmony in the universe is very similar to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Both Jung and Anaya have expressed the belief that people can make sense out of the fragmentation of the modern world through the use of certain archetypal symbols and images. Anaya works with many images and symbols: the turtle with its shell, representing alienation and a loss of faith; spiritual guides who lead the way to wisdom; and dreams that illuminate the past and foretell the future.

Dreams that reveal the collective unconscious and the path to self-knowledge appear frequently in Anaya’s work. In Bless Me, Ultima, the boy Antonio gains wisdom from dreams that illustrate a tolerant attitude toward his father and from other dreams that help him to understand the troubled events of youth. In such short stories as “Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams,” the dream symbolizes the harmony necessary for personal and spiritual fulfillment.

To integrate this material into his plots, Anaya frequently uses a favorite device, the epiphany, a moment when all things come together to reveal a truth. In Heart of Aztlán, the boy Clemente, in a moment of truth, can feel the rhythm of an ancient beat echoed in his own heartbeat. He can connect the dreams he has had with the reality around him. Doing this releases power into his life, and he can function because he understands. This synthesis of memory, dreams, and reality works best when the story is told in the first-person voice, as in Bless Me, Ultima. Even though it sometimes appears that the book’s narrator is not mature enough to have such insights, the epiphanies succeed because the book is a flashback told from an adult perspective. This moment of earned insight is a signature of Anaya’s work, despite critical carping. At the end of Anaya’s stories and novels, the characters find enlightenment and personal harmony as the result of their long searches. No alienation, irony, or uncertainty appears.

In the four books that make up the Albuquerque quartet, the defining literary achievement of his later career, Anaya treats contemporary sociopolitical issues that he had previously not addressed directly in his fiction through, improbably enough, the vehicle of the mystery/detective genre. The works are linked by the dramatic evolution of central character Sonny Braca, a contemporary Chicano detective whose ancestor is the flamboyant legendary nineteenth century law-and-order sheriff Elfego Baca. The novels parallels Sonny’s difficult quest to define his identity—he is, he comes to discover, a powerful shaman—with the intricate (and absorbing) process involved in the solution of a crime. In addition to examining nearly four hundred years of cultural and historic evolution in New Mexico, the four novels treat contemporary issues, including Western environmentalism and irresponsible development (particularly the hot-button issue of where to bury nuclear waste), the drug crisis, the dilemma of urban decay, the corruption at the heart of the political process, the sorry state of public education, and the problematic future of cultural diversity. For all their contemporary feel, the works continued to introduce the supernatural: mythic elements, dream sequences, allegorical characters, and a profound spiritualism that draws on a cosmic conception of the universe as a battleground between good and evil.

In Zia Summer, for instance, the gruesome ritualistic murder of Sonny’s cousin—her body is drained of blood and cut with ancient Pueblo Indian symbols—leads Sonny into a radical antinuclear activist underworld bent on blowing up a truck loaded with nuclear waste in order to demonstrate the dangers of its proposed burial. The fanatics are led by a charismatic activist known as Raven who will become Sonny’s antagonist throughout the quartet. He is, befitting Anaya’s cosmic dimension, a brujo, or sorcerer, a powerful entity bent on chaos and destruction and able to assume animal shapes. In Rio Grande Fall, the battle between Sonny and Raven escalates, as does the quartet’s mystical component. Sonny seeks the help of a spiritual guide, a healer who helps him understand his progressively denser visions. In this volume, Sonny must contend with a Latin American cartel of drug smugglers (they kidnap his girlfriend), and to combat them he begins to tap into his own primitive spiritual identity, the spirit of the coyote with its cunning and its instinct for survival. He closes the novel grievously wounded after a pitched confrontation with Raven. However, in the final volume, Shaman Winter, the most dramatically mystical in the series—it takes place, in large part, in Sonny’s dreams—he ultimately recovers his spiritual wholeness and his considerable powers as a shaman.

In the quartet, Anaya continued to foreground his longstanding concerns about cultural identity and the role of the past in both shaping the sense of self and determining where that self ultimately belongs in a contemporary multicultural world. These are not easy questions. In introducing the Chicano experience into mainstream American fiction, Anaya, in a prolific career that has spanned more than four decades, reveals the conflicts, contradictions, and concerns of Mexican American culture with uplifting narratives in which (as in the traditional folktales that he loved as a child) the self withstands its most difficult challenges and the forces of good triumph over evil.

“Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams”

First published: 1989

Type of work: Short story

A spiritual experience reconciles a young woman’s dreams and reality and awakens her to the fullness of her life.

“Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams” is the last story in Tierra: Contemporary Short Fiction of New Mexico (1989), a book edited by Anaya that also contains stories by writers such as Tony Hillerman, Ed Chavez, and Patricia Clark Smith. The story illustrates Anaya’s methods in his short works. In the preface, he tells about the tierra, the land, of New Mexico, which is “an ingredient which dictates the natural pace of the stories in this collection” and “nourishes our creativity.” The story of a beautiful, newly married young woman, Iliana, is set in a rural mountain valley. Anaya combines realistic details of the land with the details of Iliana’s dream to tell an initiation story that ends with people in harmony with the earth and themselves.

One summer night, Iliana awakens from a dream in which she is running across a field of alfalfa toward a beautiful young man. The dream is very real, and she quietly moves toward the window to contemplate its meaning while looking at the night landscape. Anaya describes this scene so that the details of the breeze and the crickets in the landscape mesh with the dream. Iliana thinks of her early life with her strict religious aunts, her timidity with her shy, silent husband, and her uneasiness about the pleasure that was so real in her dream. She recalls her intention to confess her dream to the priest, but on the way to the church, trees seem to overwhelm her like the arms of men. The landscape is the connection between the dream life and the real world.

The next day, Iliana and her husband, Onofre, go to the church to see a miracle, the face of Christ, which reportedly has appeared on the wall. As the young couple drives to the church, Anaya again describes the earth and the landscape. Iliana is excited and surrenders herself to the mood of tense expectation. She smells the damp, rich earth and remembers the horse she used to ride.

Iliana goes with her aunts to pray, remembering the pleasure of her dream as she kneels. Anaya describes the images again. The smells of the mountains, the prayers of the women—all are entangled. As Iliana prays to see the image on the wall, her dream image appears, and she sees not Christ but the man of her dreams. She is overwhelmed, and as she faints, she visualizes the rolling clouds, the red color of the earth, and the man.

When she awakes, it has grown cooler and darker, and Iliana wonders about what she saw, whether it was the devil tempting her or the answer to the dream. She cannot find Onofre right away and runs into a field of fragrant purple alfalfa, almost like her dream. This time, she sees the man in the field; it is her husband. Both confess that they did not see the face of Christ on the wall, but both have realized the meaning of their separate dreams. As they stand together, they speak of the dreams and the need to share them. They understand the meaning of dreams and go home, to new awakenings for each other and to their life connected to the land.

All through the story, the colors, shapes, and textures of the landscape blend into the texture of Iliana’s life. The future relationship of the two young people will harmonize with that landscape, because the land nourishes the human spirit. By synthesizing the details of dream and reality, Anaya successfully communicates this creative energy throughout the story.

The Legend of La Llorona...

(The entire section is 4965 words.)