Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3247
A significant figure in Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya speaks for the ethnically and culturally mixed voices of New Mexico, the American Southwest, and the United States in general, to unite and inspire. Anaya’s works use Magical Realism and archetypal symbols to connect fragmented contemporary life with a unified heroic past. His principal characters struggle with the duality of Chicano identity—an Aztec-Spanish past, an English-speaking present. Anaya celebrates Mexican American and Native American heritage throughout his canon, connecting the Aztec sun god with Trojan gold and Greek myth. Anaya seeks answers to life’s mysteries in his personal cultural background and in the mythos of ethnically mixed peoples. In interviews he has called ancestral values the “substratum” of his oeuvre. His fiction promotes education, including mentoring by wise elders, to bridge differences and promote understanding. His work testifies to the values of family, harmony, and balance in reconciling disparate life choices.
Bless Me, Ultima
Bless Me, Ultima, the first novel in a loose trilogy and arguably Anaya’s most famous, defines the modern Mexican American experience in a psychological and magical maturation story. It includes biographical parallels that provided Anaya detailed realities to strengthen his fiction. Set in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the novel features first-person narrator Antonio Marez, who must master competing realities interwoven with symbolic characters and places to mature. Ultima, a curandera (herbal healer), evokes a timeless pre-Columbian world, while a golden carp swims supernatural river waters to offer a redemptive future.
Like Anaya, Antonio is born in Pastura, on the eastern New Mexican plain. Later his family moves to a village across the river from Guadalupe, where Antonio spends his childhood. His father, a roving cattleman, and his mother, from a settled farming family, epitomize the contradictions Antonio must resolve within himself. His father wants him to become a horseman like his ancestors. His mother wants him to become a priest to a farming community, an honored tradition. The parents’ wishes are symptomatic of a deeper spiritual challenge facing Antonio, involving his Catholic beliefs and the magical world of the pre-Columbian past. Ultima, a creature of both worlds, guides Antonio’s understanding of these challenges. She supervises his birth; she moves in with the family when Antonio is seven years old and becomes his spiritual mentor. On several occasions, Antonio witnesses her power in life-and-death battles, including when Ultima saves Antonio’s uncle from witches’ curses. However, she brings on herself the wrath of the witches’ father, Tenorio Tremenlina.
Antonio’s adventure takes him beyond the divided world of farmer and horseman, beyond Catholic ritual, with its depictions of good and evil. With Ultima’s help, he channels these opposites into a new cosmic vision of nature represented by the river, which flows through two worlds, and the golden carp, which points to a new spiritual covenant. The novel ends with Tenorio killing Ultima’s owl, and thus Ultima herself, as the owl carries her spiritual presence. Her work is complete, however: Antonio can now choose his own destiny.
Heart of Aztlán
Also highly biographical, Heart of Aztlán, second in the trilogy and another psychological and magical quest for Chicano empowerment, expresses solidarity with Chicano laborers. In the novel, the Chávez family leaves the Guadalupe countryside for a better life in Albuquerque, but the family members discover that their destinies lie in a lost past. They move to Barelas, a real barrio on the west side of the city where other immigrants reside, as did Anaya. The Chávezes soon learn their lives are not their own. Clemente Chávez and his son Jason illustrate the pitfalls of barrio life: for Jason, gangs, drugs, and devastating gossip; for Clemente, the forces of industry and politics. Jason encounters wide class divisions, gang rivalry, and dangerous marijuana dealers; he saves his younger brother from the dealers but brings upon himself the vengeance of a violent former reformatory inmate, Sapo, for slights and grievances. Clemente learns that industrial interests (particularly Santa Fe Railroad interests), a compromised union, and corrupt politicians control the barrio. Mannie García, the owner of el super (a supermarket), controls the populace and delivers the community vote. Individual needs (providing for families) crush all attempts of the barrio inhabitants to organize. Clemente’s disobedient daughters reject his insistence on traditional respect and his control. Clemente loses his railroad yard job during a futile strike, becomes an alcoholic, and attempts suicide.
With the mystical help of Crespín, a blind musician representing eternal wisdom, Clemente solves the riddle of a magical stone, journeys to a mountain lake, and enters the heart of Aztlán (the source of Chicano empowerment, held by la India, a dark sorceress), where he undergoes a magical rebirth. Community members initially debate whether he has obtained magical knowledge or has gone insane. Clemente turns first to the Catholic Church and then to el super, the religious and political powers of barrio life, but neither has the compassion or the motivation to unify the Chicano population. When he tries to inspire striking workers to seek inner strength, they purposefully misinterpret his words and violently attack the railroad. Clemente’s power to incite violence leads the dual forces of business and Church to try to pay him to leave town; he refuses.
Jason is falsely accused of fathering a bastard child and lying during confession—lies to turn the community against the Chávezes. Sapo forces Jason’s defenseless girlfriend, Cristina, to attend a dance with him, then forces Jason’s brother, Benjie, up the railroad water tower. Shot in the hand, Benjie falls; he is completely paralyzed as a result of his injuries. A grief-stricken Clemente attacks the water tower with a hammer but cannot bring down the structure (a symbol of industrial might) alone. When a crowd gathers outside the hospital where his son is being treated, Clemente is finally ready to lead his community, not in violent protest but in accessing their inner pride and unifying their struggle for social and economic justice.
The trilogy that concludes with Tortuga, winner of the Before Columbus American Book Award (1980), takes the protagonists into the past and into the physical and mythical landscapes of the southwestern present, revealing their relationship to the social and political power structure of mainstream America. Tortuga records a year-long journey to self-realization and supernatural awareness. Benjie Chávez, paralyzed after his fall in Heart of Aztlán and transported south to the Crippled Children and Orphans Hospital for rehabilitation, undergoes a symbolic rebirth to replace Crespín, a blind guitarist and the keeper of Chicano wisdom, upon Crespín’s death. Benjie’s entry into the labyrinthine hospital symbolizes his entry into a world of supernatural transformation.
The hospital sits at the foot of Tortuga Mountain, from which flow mineral springs with healing waters. Fitted with an immobilizing body cast, Benjie is nicknamed Tortuga (turtle). A physically and psychologically painful ordeal follows, exposing Tortuga to suffering, deformed children. Nothing prepares him for the “vegetable” ward of immobile children, unable to breathe without iron lungs. There, Salomón, a vegetable with supernatural insight into the human condition, enters Tortuga’s psyche and guides him toward spiritual renewal. Like baby sea turtles that must dash to the ocean after hatching on the beach, most of which are devoured by other creatures, Tortuga must endure danger to arrive at his true destiny, “the path of the sun.” When the bully Danny pushes him into the swimming pool, Tortuga almost drowns, surviving only because others rush to his aid. Symbolically, this is Tortuga’s safe arrival to and from the sea. The vegetables are not so lucky, for Danny turns off the power to their ward. Without the iron lungs, they all die. The novel’s end and Tortuga’s rehabilitation confirm that Crespín, the magical helper of Tortuga’s neighborhood, has died. Benjie inherits Crespín’s blue guitar, a symbol of universal knowledge.
The Legend of La Llorona
The Legend of La Llorona merges the traditional stories of Doña Marina, “La Malinche,” the Aztec interpreter and lover of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortéz, with the Mexican folkloric figure of la llorona (the weeping woman), one seduced, abandoned, and driven by grief and revenge to kill her babies before forever mourning their loss. The first evokes scorn for a traitor; the second, sympathy for a woman scorned by a rake. Thereby, Anaya redeems a historical figure, redefining her as a double victim of Aztec cruelty and male indifference.
The birth of Marina’s brother ends her value for the family. Sold into slavery, then passed on to curry European favor at Tabasco, she quickly masters Spanish and translates for the Spaniards taking Tenochtitlán in 1521. Cortez’s mistress, she bears his mestizo son in 1522, but he abandons her in favor of his wife, and their son dies during a failed insurgency—a matter of indifference to the Spaniard. Doña Marina, like her people, is dismissed, and any opportunity for assimilating two peoples is lost. Anaya asserts that, like La Llorona of legend, this proud woman was seduced and abandoned by a wealthy, dashing outsider. La Malinche as La Llorona confirms the brutalizing effects of the Spanish conquistadores, the complexity produced by accommodation and assimilation, and the ambiguity of human behavior.
Originally, Alburquerque was intended to initiate an Alburquerque quartet, but Anaya focused on private detective Sonny Baca in later books and dropped Alburquerque from the set. The novel explores the ethnically mixed roots of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the lost “r” in the name of which resulted from Anglo mispronunciation. As developers and politicians unscrupulously promote city expansion, the community seeks to retain its culturally diverse heart. Abrán Gonzalez, a young man proud of his barrio upbringing by adoptive Mexican American parents but disturbed by his lighter skin, is a former Golden Gloves boxing champion turned college student. At age twenty-one, he learns that his birth mother was a respected Anglo artist, knowledge that calls into question his Chicano identity. Lucinda Córdova, the nurse who was present at his mother’s death, helps Abrán search for his real father, becomes his fiancé, and shares his dreams of starting a health clinic.
Abrán’s quest provides the book’s underlying structure, as he is drawn into city politics, first by wealthy mayoral candidate Frank Dominic, who uses Abrán’s boxing talent to attract voters; then by the seductive present mayor, Marisa Martínez, a friend of his dead mother and briefly his lover; and later by Abrán’s friend Jose Calabasa, a Santo Domingo Indian and veteran of the Vietnam War. Jose, who opposes the city developers’ plans, learns that Ben Chávez, a University of New Mexico creative-writing instructor, is Abrán’s father. Jose, Ben, and Lucinda try to use this information to persuade Abrán to renege on a boxing match he is losing badly, since he no longer needs Dominic’s help finding his father, but the knowledge that he is a Chicano with respected parents inspires Abrán to make a comeback in the ring, knock out his opponent, and become the city hero. City and city defender merge, and the knockout blow ends the developers’ attempted takeover and Dominic’s political aspirations. Abrán and Lucinda return to the simplicity of mountain village life, while Ben uses his art to provide the community with cultural symbols.
Alburquerque satirizes self-aggrandizing politicians who value power over community welfare, use others ruthlessly, and deny their cultural heritage. It mocks Anglo bigots like Walter Johnson, who forces his supposed daughter Cynthia to put her half-Mexican child up for adoption. Its mix of magic and realism (Pueblo trickster Coyote and the Mexican folkloric figure La Llorona alongside real characters) reflects the Indian, Mexican, Spanish, and Anglo blend that makes the city of Albuquerque a microcosmic image of the American Southwest.
Zia Summer, the first novel in the Sonny Baca seasonal series and the second in the originally planned Alburquerque quartet, sets the pattern for Anaya’s later books. In the series, a modern investigator examines his personal and cultural history in dream and family myth to unravel the secrets of his present and to combat an evil that has haunted his mixed genetic line for five centuries. The series blends crime fiction with terrorist threats and the Magical Realism inherent in Latin American and Native American literatures, merging the ordinary and supernatural, the logical and the extrasensory. The ramifications of the ritual murder of Baca’s cousin, Gloria Dominic (body drained of blood, stomach carved with a Zia sun sign) and of an ecoterrorist scheme to blow up a truck transporting highly radioactive nuclear waste extend into the community’s ancestral memories and mixed mythological inheritance. Baca feels Gloria’s spirit seeking revenge, and Gloria’s husband, who is running for mayor of Albuquerque, encourages him to search throughout the moneyed communities of the New Mexico South Valley (artists, environmentalists, land developers, even self-styled witches).
Baca, a wily survivor associated with the southwestern trickster/creator Coyote, counters Raven, a shape-shifting shaman who promoting mayhem, who extends his reach through cult followers and black magic. Readers have the unsettling experience of learning about the management of nuclear wastes in the context of two different cultures and different creation stories, as Raven and Baca battle each other in the Sandia Mountains north of Albuquerque. This personal conflict becomes a universal one of dark versus light, evil versus good. An ancient Aztec mystical medallion brings chaos but also deflects a bullet that would have ended Baca’s life.
Rio Grande Fall
Rio Grande Fall, second in the Sonny Baca seasonal series, once again works Mexican and Indian folklore and myth into a detective story that bursts the seams of the genre, as logic and detection slide into dream country. Baca again tackles Raven, who supposedly died in a flash flood but has returned, more powerful than ever. A healing ritual to cleanse the dark images that cloud Baca’s mind produces a vision of a falling woman. Indeed, Veronica Worthy, Raven’s wife, a key witness against a murderer, falls from a hot-air balloon during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Hired witnesses claim Veronica was alone in the balloon, but others report seeing someone push her over.
Baca believes Raven pushed his wife to her death, and the directors of the fiesta hire Baca to investigate. Red herrings lead Baca to local police, federal agents, and even fiesta manager Madge Swensen. When two more balloonists die, Baca ties the balloons to drug smuggling, the Medellín drug cartel, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. When Raven kidnaps Baca’s girlfriend, Rita, the ensuing battle pits coyote wiliness against Raven duplicity. Protected by a spiritually powerful Zia medallion, Baca challenges Raven to a psychological and spiritual duel across the landscape; ritual tools and ancient mythologies turn a detective story into a hybrid tall tale in which identifying particular hit men responsible for drug killings takes second place.
Shaman Winter, third in the Sonny Baca series, draws its title from the mythology of seasons, with winter associated with death—in this case, a shaman-induced nuclear winter involving the destruction of Baca’s past to end his present and future. Raven’s operatives have infiltrated a Los Alamos nuclear project to steal plutonium to turn the fire and light that the Raven of Native American mythology gave humankind into a destructive force (a massive bomb). Meanwhile, white supremacists under orders from Raven kidnap the mayor’s teenage daughter. A wheelchair-bound Sonny Baca, badly injured at the end of Rio Grande Fall, no longer scoffs at dreams as another reality, and he conducts his investigation mainly in dreams inhabited by mythic figures reenacting the histories of ancient native peoples (Aztec, Anasazi, Toltec, Pueblo), including the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the sixteenth century, the coming of European settlers, and the relocation of indigenous peoples to reservations. The dreams are all located in sacred places, and Anaya’s discussion of them reflects a New Age vision of a collective memory affecting the present.
In the real world, Baca depends on traditional clues to find four kidnapped girls (including the mayor’s daughter), all of whom represent Baca’s own female ancestors. However, Don Eliseo, a Pueblo Indian elder and Baca’s kindly neighbor, guides Baca through the spirit world, teaching him that attaining his goals requires reconnecting with his unique ancestry (Indian, Spaniard, Anglo) and with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (historically his spiritual center), and then fighting his battles in the dreamworld. As Baca experiences each period in the racial and cultural heritage of modern-day New Mexico, he meets his own genetic predecessors—all beleaguered by a dark brujo. This witch figure, Raven, haunts Baca’s dreams, destroying his female ancestors to eliminate his history (the Pueblo Indian genetic line is matrilineal). Baca evolves into a shaman himself, representative of the sun, bringing light to dispel the darkness and winter of Raven’s world of death and destruction.
In this novel, Anaya transcends the detective genre that dominated the earlier series books to create southwestern landscapes (mental and historical) and mystical battles between allegorical forces. The concept of destroying an individual’s history by changing that person’s dreams approaches the level of science fiction.
Jemez Spring, another Baca story, begins with the governor of New Mexico drowned in a hot tub at Jemez Springs, where Baca has a private residence that he visits to escape urban life. Driving there, Baca meets Naomi, an Aztec snake-woman prototype, who insinuates herself into his investigation. The murder involves a statewide conspiracy including police officers. When Raven volunteers to disarm a dirty bomb set to detonate within a few hours near the Los Alamos National Laboratories, Baca knows that Raven, not terrorists, has an ulterior motive connected to who controls water. Anaya pits aggressive Anglo perspectives against bucolic Indo-Hispanic perspectives and time-driven projects against timeless pastoral visions.
Don Eliseo, now a guiding spirit, steers Baca aright, warning that bullets cannot stop Raven, whose power is darkly spiritual, and advising Baca to use rather than be overpowered by the dreamworld. He gives Baca a dream catcher, a spiderweb-like tool used by Native American shamans for catching good dreams and letting bad dreams pass through. Baca’s friends, his beloved Rita, and even his feisty, one-eyed dachshund, Chica, are at risk. Images of one-eyed people and animals fill Baca’s dreamscape as he enters Raven’s inner circle and faces his demons, only to be tricked as aroma therapist Sybil Sosostris helps Raven snatch the protective Zia stone. Raven’s misdirection includes psychic projections of twin daughters Rita had miscarried. Baca’s obsession with these lost dead nearly costs him his life. When Raven snatches Chica, Baca meets him at the river in equal contest. Rescue from an unexpected quarter leaves the plot open for a return of Raven, for this is an ongoing match between spiritual forces. For the moment, however, BacA&Mdash;Chica and Zia stone in hand—goes home to Rita.
Ultimately, by associating Chicano life with heroic motifs from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), mystic symbols from the Pueblo Indians, and the pastoral dream of Aztlán, Anaya ties Mexican Americans to a mythic past to ennoble their present.
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