Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863

Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya, son of Martin and Rafaelita Mares Anaya, was born on October 30, 1937, in Pastura, a small farming village in the eastern part of New Mexico. At sixteen, Anaya suffered a near-fatal spinal injury while diving into a shallow irrigation ditch, but he still managed to attend school in the neighboring town of Santa Rosa and ultimately, after his family relocated in 1952, in the barrios of Albuquerque. As a child, Anaya loved listening to the folktales, legends, and historic narratives of his grandparents. From 1956 to 1958, he attended the Browning Business School, but, finding the prospect of an accounting career unrewarding, he transferred to the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1963. Within the university environment, Anaya first questioned his own cultural identity: a Latino for whom English was a second language suddenly surrounded by a culturally diverse community. He would later recall being disturbed by the absence of literature devoted to the Mexican American experience.

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From 1963 until 1970, Anaya taught in the Albuquerque public schools but devoted his evenings to his own writing. During this time, he completed both an M.A. in English (1968) and an M.A. in guidance and counseling (1972) from the University of New Mexico. In 1971, he left the public school system to become the director of counseling at the University of Albuquerque. He remained at this job for two years until the publication of his first novel.

His first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, was published in 1972 after considerable difficulty finding a publisher interested in a story that blended realism with mysticism, including a magic healer and a wicked witch. It tells the story of the relationship between Antonio, a young boy growing up in a small New Mexico village, and Ultima, his grandmother and spiritual guide, who helps him to understand his experiences. The book proved an enormous critical and commercial success and was translated into several languages. Bless Me, Ultima received the Premio Quinto Sol Award, Anaya’s first national recognition and a forerunner of numerous later grants and fellowships. In 1974 on the strength of his new reputation, he was appointed an associate professor and in 1988 a full professor of English at the University of New Mexico. He remained on the faculty until 1993, when he retired to devote himself entirely to his writing. Shortly thereafter he was named professor emeritus.

His second novel, Heart of Aztlán (1976), was received much less enthusiastically. It portrays a year in the life of a Mexican family that moves from a small rural community to the barrio of Albuquerque. The family members respond very differently to the stresses of city life, and although Anaya uses some of the mystical, mythic elements of his earlier novel, the story relies heavily on traditional stereotypes.

His third novel, Tortuga (1979), won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. The book tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy’s initiation into knowledge during his recovery from a nearly fatal accident. Using traditional mythic symbolism, Tortuga continues in the mystical vein of the previous two novels. Indeed, they form something of a trilogy. Still Anaya struggled with the enormous burden of the success of his first novel—critical response did not find his follow-up works as rewarding.

With his emerging stature as the founding father of Chicano literature, Anaya began to experiment in other genres, including drama, children’s books, short stories, epic poetry, travel journals, and even librettos for operas. Given his early love of stories told to him by his grandparents, Anaya was particularly drawn to children’s books, introducing a generation of young readers to the legends and folktales of Mexican culture. His first foray into the field, a holiday tale called The Farolitos of Christmas, won the prestigious Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award in 1987. He has since published more than a half dozen children’s titles, each handsomely illustrated, including Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chávez, which lionizes the life of the Chicano activist who fought for civil rights for migrant farmworkers in California during the 1970’s.

In addition to his writings, Anaya has tirelessly promoted Chicano literature, editing anthologies, translating works previously unavailable to an English-speaking audience, lecturing around the world, and writing reviews and essays for many magazines, both academic and nonacademic. He received National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in 1979 and 1980 and a Kellogg Foundation fellowship in 1983, as well as numerous regional and state awards.

Following his retirement from the University of New Mexico in the early 1990’s, Anaya began his most ambitious writing project: a quartet of linked books set in New Mexico that, using the motif of the seasons, experimented with bringing together (audaciously) the grim realism of the murder mystery genre, the allegorical mysticism of folklore tales, and the stunning spectacle elements of Magical Realism. The results—Alburquerque, Zia Summer, Rio Grande Fall, and Shaman Winter—reestablished Anaya as the foremost Chicano writer of his generation. He received the 2001 Wallace Stegner Award, a lifetime achievement award for work devoted to the American West. In April, 2002, Anaya was invited to the White House to receive the National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush.

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