Rudolfo Anaya's Heart of Aztlán (1976) is a chronicle of loss, hardship, and transformation for a family of Mexican Americans who travel from their ancestral farmlands, through an industrial barrio in a big city, and finally into the redemptive heart of a mythic world from their indigenous culture. The book's settings are Guadalupe, Albuquerque, and Aztlán.
Guadalupe is the rural region in New Mexico where Clemente and Adelita Chávez live with their four children. They own farmland here. There is a small village nearby with a single school, a bar, a dance hall, and not much more. Guadalupe is described as "water-enclosed"—it is a green river valley next to a llano, a grassy, treeless plain. Here is the family's ranch, a rambling house and the surrounding land, though it is not made clear which crops or stock the ranch keeps. What is clear is that the family's fortune has declined during the past few generations.
After the death of grandfather Chávez, whose guiding hand ran the ranch, Clemente and his brothers have not been able to escape hardship and debt. Now Clemente has finally agreed to sell the ranch and land, for it seems that if he does not, his family will fall apart—and for Clemente, his family is everything. The story begins on the day the Chávez family is piling into their truck and preparing to relocate to Albuquerque. Just before they depart, Clemente wonders if they can take the spirit of the land with them. In response, Adelita does this:
From the discarded pile of trash she picked up an empty coffee can and filled it with earth from her flower garden. "We will take it with us," she smiled and handed him the can. "Our land is everywhere," she said, "we will journey across the earth, but we will never leave our land—"
The family drives over the Sandía mountains into another even larger river valley. Here,
the city of Albuquerque lay nestled along the river, with the mountains guarding her eastern door and ancient volcano cones as sentries at her western gate.
Driving into the city to find where they will stay, they get stuck in a crush of afternoon commuter traffic before they finally find their new barrio of Barelas.
Barelas Road was like a meandering river, winding its way through the barrio until it met the river at the Barelas Bridge.
The neighborhood is sunny and dusty. Kids play baseball in the street; towering elm trees surround old houses; and pachucos, local teenage gang members, strut through Barelas in their colorful zoot suits. The family is warmly welcomed to their new home. They meet "the poet of the barrio," Crispín, an old man who plays guitar and sings beautiful poetic songs.
Clemente finds work in the railroad yard, where the workers are treated poorly and the union has sold out its members. The teenage Chávez children are seduced by the street life of the barrio, the fancy cars and marijuana dealers. Sons Benjie and Jason get tangled up with drugs and gang fights. Daughters Ana and Juanita grow disenchanted at home, preferring the romantic company of neighbor fellows. The family unit comes apart at the seams. Albuquerque transforms into a "devil's workshop" of police sirens, monstrous water tanks towering above the railroad yards, and Air Force jets incessantly screaming overhead. The city is haunted by the moans of the lost llano winds from Guadalupe. Clemente, unable to deal with the dramatic changes, turns to the bottle and becomes a drunk. One night he drinks too much and becomes lost in a blizzard. He feels his life is over and he is going to die.
But Clemente is rescued by the old, blind musician, Crispín. Crispín introduces Clemente to the third main setting of the book, Aztlán, the spiritual homeland of Mexico's Aztec people. Clemente embarks on a magical spirit journey to the sipapu, the road to the Aztec underworld near a lake at the center of a sacred mountain. This is "the source of life and time and history," and here Clemente sees "swarms of suffering people with whom he feels a deep kinship." These powerful transformational visions are rooted in ancient Native American and Aztec beliefs.
The rays of the sun penetrated the dark waters of those sacred lakes and from their intercourse the people emerged. That is why there's so much power in that place; it is the source.
Clemente's experience in Aztlán helps him find a personal power that he has lost. He reconnects with the spirit of the land. He returns to his home and barrio and shares his spiritual vision to begin to rebuild his ruined family and to lead the oppressed railroad yard workers toward a renewed sense of community and strength. Anaya is not alone in presenting the transformative power of the lost land of Aztlán, as it was a core formative element of Chicano identity from the 1970s onward, a strong source of cultural pride and unity. Heart of Aztlán is one of many works of art from this time to use a journey to Aztlán to identify, inform, and inspire Mexican American culture.