Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

Rudolfo Anaya is one of the most acclaimed Chicano writers. Certainly, his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), garnered a large, positive critical reception. It was the first Chicano novel to be a best seller and remains the most read and most studied of Anaya’s works. Bless Me, Ultima was...

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Rudolfo Anaya is one of the most acclaimed Chicano writers. Certainly, his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), garnered a large, positive critical reception. It was the first Chicano novel to be a best seller and remains the most read and most studied of Anaya’s works. Bless Me, Ultima was the first of a trilogy that includes Heart of Aztlán and Tortuga (1979). The first and third novels of the trilogy are narrated from a young boy’s point of view; Heart of Aztlán has a more diffuse narrative line. The three novels share the presence of a seer, or spiritual guide, whose influence is essential to the main characters, and they share mythic underpinnings as well.

Heart of Aztlán traces one year in the life of the Chávez family as they sell their land and move to the city. Family members react differently to the strange, often hostile urban setting. Clemente loses his job and heads down the path to self-destruction. His family seems to disintegrate around him. Juanita and Ana work to help support the family and quickly become much more independent than tradition allows. Clemente’s wife, Adelita, seems to flourish while he withers. Benjie becomes a drug user and seller. Only Jasón seems relatively unaffected, but a local gang threatens him as well.

Intertwined in the family’s struggle to understand and cope with an alien environment is the workers’ struggle for fair labor practices by the Santa Fe railroad company and for a fair union that will represent workers and not be bought by management. Clemente is the link between these two narrative strands.

Clemente has lost his way when Crispín saves him from the winter storm. It is not just Clemente who is lost, but the whole of la raza, the entire Chicano race (represented by the barrio). Crispín explains the legend of Aztlán to Clemente: Aztlán is the holy land where la raza originated, a land they left but to which they must return. Aztlán is an Aztec version of the Garden of Eden. Clemente has a vision of Aztlán: He sees a river of people and touches the throbbing heart of Aztlán. He sees that the people have lost their spiritual bearings; they are no longer a community but rather have become self-interested individuals. He realizes that in order to defeat the railroad bosses—to defeat life’s harsh realities—they must find again the heart of Aztlán: They must find their identity as a people and come together as a community.

In Heart of Aztlán, Anaya attempts to use myth to tell the story of a people and relate it to that people’s socioeconomic context. This is a larger task than the one he set himself in his first novel. The size of the task, combined with the immense critical and popular success of Bless Me, Ultima, make Heart of Aztlán suffer by comparison. Heart of Aztlán contains numerous subplots that often distract from the central narrative of Clemente’s moral anguish and his development into a moral and social leader. Heart of Aztlán is nevertheless an important novel, one of the first to touch the theme of the Chicano movement.

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