Rudolfo Anaya

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Jane Rogers (essay date Spring–Summer 1977)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2749

SOURCE: “The Function of the La Llorona Motif in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima,” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. V, No. 10, Spring–Summer, 1977, pp. 64–69.

[In the following essay, Rogers examines the archetypal themes of passage, longing, and deadly seduction in Bless Me, Ultima, drawing attention to the symbolism and imagery of the “la llorona” myth.]

In The Odyssey, Circe warns the homeward-bound Odysseus of the menace of the Sirens, who, surrounded by the mouldering skeletons of men, lure and bewitch the unaware man with the music of their song. Yet just beyond their lovely voices—that Odysseus escapes by having himself lashed to the mast of his ship—lurks peril, a choice between annihilation on the sheer cliffs of the Wandering Rocks or a meeting with the double menace of Scylla and Charybdis, the former hideously fishing for a passersby with her twelve dangling feet, the latter but a bow's shot distance away threatening to suck men down into the deep waters near the foot of a luxurious fig tree. Certain death is the fate of the man who succumbs to the sweet lure of the sirens. The peril of life, and yet the promise of home, is the alternative.

A similar theme is developed by Rudolfo Anaya's use of the la llorona motif in Bless Me, Ultima. In the novel, Antonio, symbolically both Christ and Odysseus, moves from the security and from the sweet-smelling warmth of his mother's bosom and kitchen out into life and experience. As he weighs his options—priesthood and the confinement represented by the farms of the Lunas’ or the Marezes’ freedom on the pagan sea of the llano—and as he grows from innocence to knowledge and experience, the la llorona motif figures both on a literal mythological level and as an integral part of Antonio's life.

As “literal” myth, la llorona is the wailing woman of the river. Hers is the “tormented cry of a lonely goddess” that fills the valley in one of Antonio's dreams. La llorona is “the old witch who cries along the river banks and seeks the blood of boys and men to drink.”1 This myth is closely related to Cico's story of the mermaid.2 The mermaid is the powerful presence in the bottomless Hidden Lakes. Her strange music is a “low, lonely murmuring … like something a sad girl would sing.” (p. 109) Cico relates that all that had kept him from plunging into the bottomless lake when he heard the sound was the Golden Carp, whose appearance caused the music to stop. Not that the singing was evil, he relates, but “it called for me to join it. One more step and I'da stepped over the ledge and drowned in the waters of the lake—” (p. 109) Cico continues with the story of the shepherd taken by the mermaid. A “man from Mejico,” working on a neighboring ranch, not having heard the story about the lakes, had taken his sheep to water there. Hearing the singing, he ran back to town and swore he had seen a mermaid.

“He said it was a woman, resting on the water and singing a lonely song. She was half woman and half fish—He said the song made him want to wade out to the middle of the lake to help her, but his fear had made him run. He told everyone the story, but no one believed him. He ended up getting drunk in town and swearing he would prove his story by going back to the lakes and bringing back the mer-woman. He never returned....

(This entire section contains 2749 words.)

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A week later the flock was found near the lakes. He had vanished—”

(p. 109)

As an integral part of Antonio's life, the la llorona motif emerges in his experiences with nature. La llorona is the ambivalent presence of the river, which Antonio fears and yet with which he senses a sharing of his own soul and a mystic peace. La llorona speaks in the owl's cry and in the dove's cou-rou. Even the dust devils of the llano bear la llorona’s signature, embracing Antonio in swirling dust as the gushing wind, which imprints evil on his soul, seems to call his name:

Antoniooooooooooooooo …

(p. 52)

But more significantly for Antonio, the la llorona motif emerges in his relationship with his mother and in the imagery of the women in the novel. It is the primary image associated with the mother, Maria. Her frequent extended calls of “Antoniooooooo,” like that of the whirlwind, reflect the wailing call of the la llorona of Tony's dream:

La llorona seeks the soul of Antoniooooooooo …

(p. 24)

In the same dream, Tony hears his “mother moan and cry because with each turning of the sun her son [is] growing old …” (p. 24) On his first day of school Antonio awakens with a sick feeling in his stomach, both excited and sad because for the first time he will be away from the protection of his mother. As he enters the kitchen his mother smiles, then sweeps him into her arms sobbing, “My baby will be gone today.” (p. 50) At Ultima's stern but gentle persistence, Antonio is separated from his mother, yet as he leaves, following the sisters Deborah and Theresa up the goat path, he hears his mother “cry” his name. Maria, as she prays around the Virgin's altar for Antonio and his three older brothers, is la llorona. On the return of Andrew, Eugene, and Leon from the war, Maria alternately sobs and prays until Gabriel complains, “Maria, … but we have prayed all night!” (p. 58) Mother and Virgin both assume the mournful aspect of la llorona in one of Antonio's dreams just prior to the three brothers’ return:

Virgen de Guadalupe, I heard my mother cry, return my sons to me.

Your sons will return safely, a gentle voice answered.

Mother of God, make my fourth son a priest.

And I saw the virgin draped in the gown of night standing on the bright, horned moon of autumn, and she was in mourning for the fourth son.

(p. 43)

Similarly, the la llorona motif is echoed in the tolling of the church bells and in the imagery of the mourning, lonely women as they are called to mass on the morning following Lupito's death. “Crying the knell of Lupito,” the bell “tolled and drew to it the widows in black, the lonely, faithful women who came to pray for their men.” (p. 32)

La llorona emerges in the patterns of imagery that surround the episode at Rosie's on the day of the Christmas pageant and of Narciso's death. The “single red light bulb” which shines at the porch door over the “snow-laden gate of the picket fence” is “like a beacon inviting weary travelers in from the storm.” Light shines through the drawn shades, and from “somewhere in the house a faint melody” seeps out and is “lost in the wind.” Antonio knows he must get home before the storm worsens, yet he is compelled to linger “at the gate of the evil women.” The music and laughter intrigue him. His ears “explode with a ringing noise,” and he is paralyzed to flight. (p. 155) Instead, he must remain to learn that he himself has lost his innocence. The cry of the sirens prevails over Andrew, too, as the red-painted woman calls him from the back of the house:

“Androoooooo. …”

(p. 156)

When Andrew is summoned by Narciso, it is the giggling girl, her voice “sweet with allurement” that holds Andrew back. He fails to assume the responsibility that would have meant help for Narciso. Instead he succumbs to the allure of the siren.

Wherever it emerges in the novel, the la llorona motif harbors ambivalence. La llorona invites with music and warmth, and she offers security. Yet, like the mermaid in the hidden lakes, la llorona threatens death. For Antonio, his mother offers warmth, fragrance, security. But his own maturity demands that he deny it. To succumb would mean the death of his own manhood and who, like the fate of William Blake's Thel, unwilling to accept the consequences of the generative life of experience, withdraws to an original state of primal innocence. Yet this world holds an even darker fate for her because it becomes at once prison and paradise, a state of natural innocence and a state of ignorance.3 This is the choice Antonio must make. He moves from the fragrance and the warmth and the security of his mother's kitchen, from the reassurance of her call, out into the world of experience, the world of school and his companions.

Antonio is introduced into the inferno of school life by Red, who leads him on the first day into the dark, cavernous building, its radiators snapping with steam and its “strange, unfamiliar smells and sounds that seemed to gurgle from its belly.” (p. 53) Antonio races the Kid and Time across the bridge to and from school as the years pass and he matures chronologically. With the tutoring of Samuel he learns of the Golden Carp which is to provide apocalyptical knowledge and understanding, an illumination which burdens him with doubt and responsibility. Cico leads Antonio to Narciso's magic garden where he tastes of the fruit—the golden carrot—and to El Rito Creek where he at last experiences the Golden Carp, the “sudden illumination of beauty and understanding,” an understanding he anticipated but later failed to find in the ritual of the Holy Communion. Coincident with his vision of the carp, Antonio doubts his own Christian God when he suddenly realizes that Ultima's power had succeeded in curing his Uncle Lucas where the Christian God had failed.

Antonio sees the powers of good and evil contend in Ultima, who serves as his guide through life, and in the dark, diabolic Tenorio. He experiences the deaths of Lupito, of Narciso, and of the angelic and heretical Florence. He sees his brother Andrew deny his responsibility at the summons of the girl at Rosie's, of la llorona. Andrew remains to indulge in pleasure, yet the knowledge that he has failed in his responsibility to Narciso drives him, finally, away into the death, the world of lost wanderings, of his other brothers, Eugene and Leon.

The experience at Rosie's is equally ambivalent for Antonio. He is at once lured and repulsed. It marks for him the beginning of a ritual death as he becomes abruptly aware of his own loss of innocence.

I had seen evil, and so I carried the evil within me. … I had somehow lost my innocence and let sin enter into my soul, and the knowledge of God, the saving grace, was far away.

(p. 158)

The illness which follows is a “long night” as Ultima sits by “powerless in the face of death.”

A long, dark night came upon me in which I sought the face of God, but I could not find Him. Even the Virgin and my Saint Anthony would not look at my face.

… In front of the dark doors of Purgatory my bleached bones were laid to rest.

(p. 167)

But, unlike Andrew's death, Antonio's experience at Rosie's becomes one that leads to death and ultimate rebirth. Antonio recovers from his illness, and though the events of the spring, of catechism and first communion, do not provide the enlightenment he finds with the carp, Antonio is a new man. His life has changed; he feels older. He faces directly the question of the existence of evil, and he is ready to accept his father's explanation that “most of the things we call evil are not evil at all; it is just that we don't understand those things and so we call them evil. And we fear evil only because we do not understand it.” (p. 236) Antonio learns to accept the greater reality of life, that he is both Marez and Luna, that he does not have to choose one but can be both. He accepts his father's explanation that the understanding he failed to find in the Holy Communion will come with life. He comes to realize that one's dreams are “usually for a lost childhood.” (p. 237) More importantly, he learns from Ultima that “the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.” (p. 237)

Antonio spends the summer working on the farms with his uncles in El Puerto. Finally, as he struggles to get back to Guadalupe and his family to warn Ultima of Tenorio's threat when his second daughter dies, Antonio encounters la llorona once more:

With darkness upon me I had to leave the brush and run up in the hills, just along the tree line. … Over my shoulder the moon rose from the east and lighted my way. Once I ran into a flat piece of bottom land, and what seemed solid earth by the light of the moon was a marshy quagmire. The wet quicksand sucked me down and I was almost to my waist before I squirmed loose. Exhausted and trembling I crawled onto solid ground. As I rested I felt the gloom of night settle on the river. The dark presence of the river was like a shroud, enveloping me, calling to me. The drone of the grillos and the sigh of the wind in the trees whispered the call of the soul of the river.

Then I heard an owl cry its welcome to the night, and I was reminded again of my purpose. The owl's cry reawakened Tenorio's threat …

(p. 243–44)

Free of the call of la llorona, of the “dark presence of the river” which called to him, Antonio runs “with new resolution.” He runs “to save Ultima” and “to preserve those moments when beauty mingled with sadness and flowed through [his] soul like the stream of time.” Antonio leaves the river and runs across the llano feeling a new lightness, “like the wind” as his strides “carried [him] homeward.” (p. 244) No longer does he feel the pain in his side, the thorns of the cactus or the needles of yucca that pierced his legs and feet. Yet Antonio knows his childhood is over as the report of Tenorio's rifle shatters it “into a thousand fragments.” (p. 245)

Antonio has come home to himself. He has eluded the death call of la llorona, and as he buries the owl, Ultima's spirit, he takes on the responsibility of the future in which he knows he must “build [his] own dream out of those things which were so much a part of [his] childhood.” (p. 248) Antonio has avoided annihilation on the sheer cliffs of the Wandering Rocks—the fate of his brothers—and he has moved through the narrow strait and evaded the menace of Scylla and Charybdis as he comes to face the reality of his manhood.


  1. Rudolfo A. Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (Berkeley, Calif.: Quinto Sol, 1972), p. 23. All quotations from Bless Me, Ultima are from this edition; page numbers will henceforth be cited in parentheses within the text.

  2. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, notes the association between the water image in mythology and “goddesses, mermaids, witches, and sirens,” who may represent either the “life-threatening” or “life-furthering” aspect of the water. The use of water imagery to represent the theme of rebirth, Campbell says, is a “mythological universal” imprinted at the moment of birth when “the congestion of blood and sense, of suffocation experienced by the infant before its lungs commence to operate give rise to a brief seizure of terror, the physical effects of which … tend to occur, more or less strongly, whenever there is an abrupt moment of fright. … The birth trauma, as an archetype of transformation, floods with considerable emotional effect the brief moment of loss of security and threat of death that accompanies any crisis of radical change. In the imagery of mythology and religion this birth (or more often rebirth) theme is extremely prominent; in fact every threshold passage—not only this from the darkness of the womb to the light of the sun, but also those from childhood to adult life and from the light of the world to whatever mystery of darkness may lie beyond the portal of death—is comparable to a birth and has been ritually represented, practically everywhere, through an imagery of re-entry into the womb.” (New York: Viking Press, 1959), pp. 61–62.

  3. See Harold Bloom's commentary on “The Book of Thel” in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 807–08.


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Rudolfo Anaya 1937-

(Full name Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya) American novelist, short story writer, children's writer, poet, essayist, playwright, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Anaya's career through 1999. See also Rudolfo Anaya Criticism (Volume 23).

One of the most influential authors in Chicano literature, Anaya has been acclaimed for his skillful utilization of realism, fantasy, and myth in his novels that explore the experiences of Hispanics in the American Southwest. Critics have noted that Anaya's unique style was profoundly influenced by his fascination with the mystical nature of Spanish-American cuentos, or folk tales, in the oral tradition. Anaya first established his literary reputation with his acclaimed debut novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972). Anaya's preoccupation with myth and folklore—including his unique negotiation between mystical and realistic depictions of indigenous New Mexican life in the twentieth century—extends his prose beyond regional fiction and toward a more universal portrayal of human experience. Anaya's departure from the highly politicized tone of the Chicano writing of the 1960s distinguishes him from his peers, and the complexity of his characters breaks from the stereotypical portrayal of those in the Chicano community as simple, working peasants.

Biographical Information

Anaya was born on October 30, 1937, in Pastura, New Mexico. He spent his childhood in the village of Santa Rosa, New Mexico and moved to Albuquerque as an adolescent. His hospitalization for a spinal injury in his childhood was a formative experience that he revisited fictionally in Tortuga (1979), a novel about a young boy burdened with a body cast. After briefly attending business school, Anaya earned a B.A. and M.A. in English, as well as an M.A. in counseling, from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. After college, he worked as a public school teacher and a counselor. Anaya eventually returned to the University of New Mexico as a professor of English, where he helped found the well-known creative writing journal Blue Mesa Review. Anaya has since retired from teaching to work as a full-time writer. His literary honors include the Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award for Bless Me, Ultima, the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Tortuga, and the PEN-West Fiction Award for Alburquerque (1992). He has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Chicano Council of Higher Education, and the Kellogg Foundation. Anaya's major novels have been translated into several languages, garnering him international critical attention.

Major Works

Anaya's writing is strongly influenced by the oral tradition of storytelling inherent to his Hispanic roots. His strict Catholic upbringing and the llano (open plain) of rural New Mexico are two major themes in his writing; his works continually refer to both as “havens” from which his characters are often exiled. His novels and stories attempt to structurally replicate the dynamic nature of storytelling. They are ordered organically, by natural and psychological cycles, instead of constructing plots that focus on external or historical events. Anaya repeatedly employs dream imagery to obscure the gap between the unconscious and the conscious. This allows both realms of analysis to be subjected to an artistic ambiguity more often associated with poetry or folklore than the realistic novel. Other archetypal images and themes frequently emerge in Anaya's work, emphasizing nature, faith, and the alienating effects of modern capitalism. The figures of the witch and the curandera—a healer who uses traditional herbal remedies—appear in many of Anaya's stories, and comprise the dual roles of the title character of Bless Me, Ultima. Young Antonio Márez, the novel's protagonist, sees Ultima, an old woman, as a representation of a dwindling way of life. Ultima also acts as a living reminder of Antonio's childhood, his ancestral roots, and the way that modern North American urban life rejects faith and mysticism. The quest for self-knowledge and the reconciliation between old and new American cultures in Bless Me, Ultima is variously reworked in Heart of Aztlán (1976), Tortuga, and in many of Anaya's short stories. While the setting of Bless Me, Ultima is predominantly rural, Heart of Aztlán deals with more urban and political landscapes. The novel traces the experiences of the Chávez family following their move from a small village in Mexico to the Barelas barrio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The reactions of the family members to urban life—ranging from drug addiction and violence to a sacralization of the rural homeland—illustrates the myriad pressures that Chicanos face as they adjust to modernity, technology, and capitalism. Tortuga details the recovery of a sixteen-year-old boy following a paralyzing accident. Anaya uses the boy's physical healing to show the tranquility of self-knowledge and the importance of physical and mental well-being on a communal level. The health of the greater community is symbolized by a hospital for crippled children, the primary setting of the novel. Anaya has contended that Bless Me, Ultima,Heart of Aztlán, and Tortuga “are a definite trilogy in my mind. They are not only about growing up in New Mexico, they are about life.”

In the 1990s, Anaya wrote four mystery thrillers—Alburquerque,Zia Summer (1995), Rio Grande Fall (1996), and Shaman Winter (1999). Like his previous fictional “trilogy,” these works expand upon his analysis of life in the New Mexican barrio while at the same time telling compelling detective stories. In addition to his novels and short stories in The Silence of the Llano (1982), Anaya has also published children's fiction, including Farolitos for Abuelo (1998) and My Land Sings (1999); poetry in The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas (1985) and An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez (2000); a travel journal, A Chicano in China (1986); and several plays, radio scripts, and essays reflecting on contemporary Chicano life.

Critical Reception

Bless Me, Ultima has generated more critical reaction than any other novel in contemporary Chicano literature. Critics of this work have found Anaya's story unique, his narrative technique compelling, and his prose both meticulous and lyrical. The reception of Heart of Aztlán, however, was less enthusiastic. Although many critics have approved of the novel's mythic substructure, some commentators have found Anaya's intermingling of myth and politics confusing. Tortuga has also prompted a mixed critical response. Some commentators, extolling the novel's structural complexity and innovative depiction of Chicano life, have proclaimed Tortuga Anaya's best work; other critics have denigrated the novel as melodramatic and unrealistic. The works in Anaya's second series—Alburquerque,Zia Summer,Rio Grande Fall, and Shaman Winter—are widely regarded to be more commercial novels and were less well-received that his original, unofficial “trilogy” (Ultima,Heart, and Tortuga). Anaya's novels continue to be studied and analyzed with an intensity accorded to few other Hispanic writers. Praised for their universal appeal, his works have been translated into a number of languages. Of Anaya's international success, Antonio Marquez has written, “It is befitting for Anaya to receive the honor and the task of leading Chicano literature into the canons of world literature. He is the most acclaimed and the most popular and universal Chicano writer, and one of the most influential voices in contemporary Chicano literature.”

Antonio Márquez (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5029

SOURCE: “The Achievement of Rudolfo A. Anaya,” in The Magic of Words: Rudolfo A. Anaya and His Writings, edited by Paul Vassallo, University of New Mexico Press, 1982, pp. 33–52.

[In the following essay, Márquez discusses Anaya's contribution to Chicano literature and provides an overview of the central themes, artistic aims, and critical reception of Bless Me, Ultima, Heart of Aztlán, and Tortuga.]

The homage to Rudolfo Anaya comes at an appropriate time. Recently, The New York Times Book Review belatedly granted him national status. Moreover, Anaya's work is on the verge of international recognition. The growing interest in Anaya and other Chicano writers in Latin America and Europe, attended by the expected translations of Bless Me, Ultima into German and Polish, opens new vistas for Chicano literature. Just as Bless Me, Ultima (and Tomás Rivera's Y No Se Lo Tragó La Tierra) formed the vanguard of modern Chicano prose, Anaya's work is at the vanguard that promises to liberate Chicano literature from the confines of “ethnic” or “regionalist” literature. It is befitting for Anaya to receive the honor and the task of leading Chicano literature into the canons of world literature. He is the most acclaimed and the most popular and universal Chicano writer, and one of the most influential voices in contemporary Chicano literature.

Anaya's literary career has been energetically diverse: novelist, essayist, folklorist, short-story writer, and playwright. Not slighting this admirable diversity, Anaya's major contribution has been as a novelist, and his reputation and achievement largely rest on Bless Me, Ultima,Heart of Aztlán, and Tortuga. Therefore, this survey focuses on Anaya's novels. It is a conspectus that will exclude critical examination of the plots, characters, folklore, legends, extensive symbolism, and other particulars that animate his novels. An accompanying bibliography notes the numerous articles, theses, and dissertations that have provided exegeses on these aspects of Anaya's fiction. In fact, concomitant with his role as the most acclaimed Chicano writer, his work (especially Bless Me, Ultima) has inspired the largest body of criticism in contemporary Chicano literature. This essay, then, is a general assessment of Anaya's position in Chicano literature, the critical reception of his work, and the nature of his achievement and reputation.

It was Bless Me, Ultima (1972) that vaulted Anaya to a stellar position in Chicano literature and a significant place in American literature. The subsequent novels, Heart of Aztlán (1976) and Tortuga (1979), solidified his reputation. To assess the significance of Anaya's work one must first consider its place in Chicano literary history. The appearance of Bless Me, Ultima was auspicious and rather startling. It stood in stark contrast to the shrill polemics that emerged from the political cauldron of the 1960s and attempted to pass for literature. Bless Me, Ultima, a muted and subtle work that dissuaded politics, projected reams of symbols and archetypes, and fused realism and fantasy, demonstrated that it was a painstakingly crafted novel. There appeared in the often woolly perimeters of Chicano fiction a singularly accomplished novel. To appreciate this accomplishment one only has to view his predecessors. José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho, Raymond Barrio's The Plum Plum Pickers, and Richard Vásquez's Chicano, for example, were important literary expressions of Chicano life, but they were marred as novels. All too often stilted and amateurish, they lacked novelistic invention or artistry. In the early 1970s two works appeared that marked a significant break from formulaic “social protest literature.” These two works, Rivera's Y No Se Lo Tragó La Tierra and Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, initiated the maturity and diversification of contemporary Chicano fiction. Quite different in theme and form, they were distinguished by their structural complexity and innovative exploration of Chicano life. Informed with the experimental techniques of William Faulkner and especially of Juan Rulfo, Rivera brought an eviscerating realism and existentialist thematics to Chicano fiction. On the other hand, Anaya's novel opened new vistas with its richly poetic vein and mythic configurations. Equally important, they brought a greater honesty and authenticity to the portrayal of Chicano life and countered stereotypic literature on the Chicano. Bless Me, Ultima forcefully dramatized that “Chicanos are not simple, fun-loving, tradition-bound, lovable non-achievers or other mythical stereotypes such as those produced by John Steinbeck, but, rather, complex individuals like those found in any society.”1 In a similar vein, Daniel Testa, who has provided the most astute criticism on Bless Me, Ultima, concluded his critical study with praise for Anaya's large accomplishment and promising talent: “As a creative writer and spokesman for the Hispano-mestizo minority, who for too long has struggled in the backwaters of American life, Anaya gives every indication of invigorating the cultural growth of his people and verifying the existence of an inner force and power in their daily lives.”2

Although some critics were irritated by its “affectations” and “artistic naivete,” Bless Me, Ultima was generally well-received and enthusiastically acclaimed in some quarters. It was deservedly praised for its fine storytelling, superb craftsmanship, and the artistic and philosophic dignity that it brought to Chicano literature. However, the joy of discovery often took injudicious turns; some critics celebrated Bless Me, Ultima as “an American classic” and carelessly and erroneously placed Anaya among Faulkner and Joyce. Fortunately, most assessments of Bless Me, Ultima were sensible and gave the work and its author their due worth. Martin Bucco exemplifies the judicious criticism:

To be sure, if Anaya is not a world voice, he is at least a valuable new one, gifted and youthful, his creative consciousness suggesting, establishing, creating … the serious Mexican-American regional novel need not atrophy simply because it does not coincide with mass taste or with the complex art of Joyce, Gide, and Faulkner.3

The most common refrain was that Bless Me, Ultima “achieved something that few pieces of Chicano literature have; that is, simply, that it stands by itself as a novel, with the ‘Chicano’ added later. …”4 The emphasis on Bless Me, Ultima’s primary achievement as a novel and its secondary trait of ethnicity is an appropriate criterion. Ultimately, the novel's success rests on Anaya's imaginative mythopoesis and his careful and loving attention to the craft of fiction. The latter quality leads to a larger issue. Anaya from the start has seen himself, and rightly so, as an artist. He has vigorously made clear that he is not an apologist, polemicist, or literary ideologue, and he has frequently spoken out against the “politicization” of art: “I think any kind of description or dictation to the artist as a creative person will ruin his creative impulse. … The best writers will deal with social responsibility and the welfare of the people indirectly—as opposed to direct political statement or dogma.”5

Anaya's aestheticism and his avoidance of doctrinaire politics have been the major targets of his detractors. And his detractors, mostly academic critics and ideologues of the marxist stripe, found ample ground in Heart of Aztlán for their contentions. The general attack is that Anaya's archaism and myth-making are vague abstractions that have no bearing on existing and pressing issues. In a recent panel discussion with other Chicano writers and academics, Anaya offered this explanation of his mythopoesis:

I define myth as the truth in the heart. It is the truth that you have carried, that we as human beings have carried all of our history, going back to the cave, pushing it back to the sea. It seems to me that what happens at a certain time with people is that in order to come to a new conscious awareness they need to separate necessarily from a social, political context.6

Anaya subsequently took the critical brunt of the colloquium. One participant voiced a common complaint about Anaya's fiction: “I think that his idea of truth in the heart is very, very abstract.” Another participant was rankled by the lack of practicality in Anaya's myth-making: “… looking back to the man with ultimate wisdom … won't answer the problem that's facing us directly and that's never answered.” Alurista, a major Chicano poet and Anaya's most testy adversary in this exchange, questioned Anaya's archaism and concluded: “Necesitamos un mito más racional que confronte las necesidades contemporáneas, y que confronte el enemigo del espíritu del hombre [We need a more rational myth that will confront contemporary necessities, and that will confront the enemy of the human spirit.]”7 This confrontation is used as an example of the numerous occasions where Anaya has been taken to task and prompted to defend his work. One can plausibly assume that Anaya by now is weary of these polemical confrontations and indifferent to the criticism that argues that he has failed to become a “committed” and “relevant” Chicano writer.

The controversy found specific grounds in Heart of Aztlán. The critical reception was divided and often delusive: its champions were charmed by the mythic substructure and poetic correspondences, but ignored its technical discrepancies; its detractors damned the confusing mixture of politics and metaphysics, but ignored the frequent moments of lyrical and poignant introspection. Some readers cloyed the novel and made heady assessments: “In Heart of Aztlán a prose-writer with the soul of a poet, and a dedication to his calling that only the greatest artists ever sustain—is on an important track, the right one, the only one.”8 On the other hand, some critics were vexed by the novel's diffused narrative line and vague morality:

Can insight into the existence of a spiritual bond destroy oppression and end exploitation? Can the feeling of a shared communal soul destroy the chains of steel that bind the people? Is there not some other ingredient necessary in addition to a spiritual feeling of love? Has contact with the myths provided a real tool to correct social injustice?9

There was much blather over Anaya's exotic metaphysics and fuzzy political notions, but very few readers pinpointed the chief failing of Heart of Aztlán. The crux of the matter was suggested by Bruce-Novoa in a brief preface to an interview with Anaya: “Ultima produced expectations that Heart of Aztlán did not satisfy. Not that the introduction of blatantly political topics is a fault in and of itself—no, it is a matter of the craftsmanship, not of the themes, and Heart, for whatever reason, is less polished, less accomplished.”10 Precisely, the novel's detriment was its lack of craftsmanship. Heart of Aztlán stands out as a blemish in the Anaya canon because its disjointed and amorphous style contrasts with the meticulous, controlled, and carefully executed prose of Anaya's other works. Ostensibly, it was an experiment that sought to combine mythic elements and a socioeconomic theme. It attempts to balance and form a correlation between the myth of Aztlán (presented in numerous symbols and archetypes) and barrio life in Albuquerque in the 1950s (presented in realistic details of socioeconomic conditions and the labor struggles of the time). But it is a literary mixed-bag rather than a cohesive work of fiction. Apparently, Anaya placed himself in a difficult novelistic stratagem in trying to work two discordant plots and themes. Anaya has commented on the technical problems involved in transforming Clemente from a drunken wastrel to a spiritual visionary that leads a labor struggle armed with love and mysticism:

It's most difficult, because he's caught up in a very realistic setting and then how in hell do you take him into his visionary trip that I attempted to do with Clemente. I suppose I could have done it in a dream, I could have done it in some kind of revelation, and I chose to do it instead through Crispín and the old woman, the keeper of the rock.11

Anaya's telling comments on the “visionary trip” that leads to the novel's rather forced resolution suggest that Anaya was not confident or totally clear about the execution of the novel. Culling this candid moment of auto-criticism, Anaya offered a more telling admission that shed light on his most common liability: his occasional rhetorical excesses and cutesy mannerisms. He explains his playful manner:

I get a kick out of doing things that I know people will respond to, especially critics. In Heart of Aztlán I did something that was really too cutesy … ‘The sun sucked the holy waters of the river, and the turtle-bowl sky ripped open with dark thunder and fell upon the land. South of Aztlán the golden bear drank his fill and tasted the sweet fragrance of the drowned man's blood. That evening he bedded down with the turtle's sisters and streaked their virgin robes with virgin blood. … Oh wash my song into the dead man's soul, he cried, and soak his marrow dry.’ That's part of that. I get carried away.12

Apart from the convoluted narration, Anaya touches on a pointed issue. All too often, he is “cutesy” and “gets carried away” in purple prose.

The critical reception of Tortuga is less defined. At the present, the criticism on Anaya's third novel consists of a scattering of reviews. So far the reception of Tortuga has been favorable. The cursory reviews have noted the strong narrative line, the striking realism, and the novel's powerful theme. However, the connecting elements in the trilogy and Anaya's maturation have not been considered. Foremost, there is an integrity and cohesiveness to Tortuga that were lacking in Heart of Aztlán. Apart from containing the rudiments of Anaya's fiction—a mythopoeic cluster of images and symbols, it discloses sharper insight and accommodation of realistic situations. Notably, Anaya returns to first-person narrative point of view, which seems to be more conformable to his style. We can gather that Anaya in Heart of Aztlán was stretching out and experimenting with new ways of telling a story. The return to the narrative technique of Bless Me, Ultima makes Tortuga a smooth and lucid novel which is free of the vagaries that made Heart of Aztlán less than successful. It can also be noted that Anaya returns to the exploration of “memory and imagination.” These two elements gave Bless Me, Ultima a magical resonance. Tortuga achieves a similar effect with its Proustian overture and memory-laden images: “I awoke from a restless sleep. For a moment I couldn't remember where I was … Upon waking it was always the same; I tried to move but the paralysis held me firmly in its grip.” (1) And later: “The words struck chords and a remembrance of things past would flood over me and in my imagination I would live in other times and other places. …” (54)

Tortuga, which has neither achieved the popularity and critical acclaim of Bless Me, Ultima, nor received the brickbats leveled at Heart of Aztlán, is in several respects Anaya's most accomplished novel. True, there are still rhetorical excesses and inconsistencies in the lyrical voice. When measured and used to enlarge a character's sensibility, the lyricism is quite effective: “I followed her gaze and through her eyes I saw the beauty she described, the beauty I had not seen until that moment. The drabness of winter melted in the warm, spring light, and I saw the electric acid of life run through the short green fuses of the desert plants and crack through the dark buds to brush with strokes of lime the blooming land.” (166) Here Anaya magically employs his poetic gift to catch an expressive moment. In the lesser moments, the lyrical manner is too self conscious and rhapsodic. For example, at one point Anaya indulges in hackneyed Homeric metaphors:

The daughter of the sun awoke to weave her blanket with pastel threads. Her soft, coral fingers worked swiftly to weave the bits of turquoise blue and mother of pearl into the silver sky. She had but a moment in which to weave the tapestry that covered her nakedness, because behind her the sun trumpeted, awoke roaring alive with fire and exploded into the sky, filling the desert with glorious light and scattering the mist of the river and the damp humours of the night. Dawn blushed and fled as the sun straddled the mountain, and the mountain groaned under the welcomed light. The earth trembled at the sight.


At such moments, one wishes that Anaya had been more restrained. Happily, such passages are few and the greater part of the narrative is enriched with vibrant lyricism.

Moreover, Tortuga is the product of Anaya's increasing prowess as a novelist, and one can conjecture that Anaya esteems it as his best work. His third novel demonstrates, notwithstanding the discrepancy noted above, that Anaya has conscientiously worked at his craft. In brief, it is a more disciplined and carefully executed novel. And it presents a stronger correspondence to the “real-world” of human suffering and failure. The intention was stated even before the novel was finished: “… It will deal with the kind of crippling of life that we have created in our society, where love is no longer the predominant feeling that we have for one another. Once love is not the feeling that dictates our social interaction with each other, then we cripple people.”13Tortuga intensely dramatizes this condition. The novel is set in a children's hospital, and it relentlessly and graphically describes horrible diseases, amputations, and the nerve-shattering cries of pain and despair. Appropriately, it also extensively explores the battered psyches of society's “throwaway children.” By far, it is Anaya's most sober work and it discloses a compelling tragic sense. Whereas the tragic sense was often weakened by obtrusive sentimentality in the earlier novels, in Tortuga it is sustained and rivets a truth about the unconscionable disposal of human beings. This is not to suggest that the tragic sense overwhelms the novel and renders it a dark and pessimistic work. To be clarified later, Anaya's mythopoesis and his faith in the regenerative power of love deny victory to the forces of death. Rather, it is meant to emphasize Anaya's large compassion for human suffering and to credit his moral vision—which refuses to tolerate the absence of love and humaneness in the world.

Mythopoesis—myth and the art of myth-making—is the crux of Anaya's philosophical and artistic vision. Precisely, Anaya's archetypal imagination is rooted in an archaism that reveres the wisdom of the past and sees this ancient wisdom as a means toward the spiritual fulfillment of humanity. It is also informed by the conviction that myth is an eternal reservoir that nourishes the most creative and the most universal art. Anaya's aesthetic credo is in accord with Northrop Frye's distinction that “myth is a form of verbal art, and belongs to the world of art. Unlike science, it deals, not with the world that man contemplates, but with the world that man creates.”14 Anaya, well-versed in mythic literature and the theory of archetypes, has repeatedly defended the validity of myth and archetypes:

One way I have of looking at my own work … is through a sense that I have about primal images, primal imageries. A sense that I have about the archetypal, about what we once must have known collectively. What we all share is a kind of collective memory. … It simply says that there was more harmony, there was more a sense that we knew we are dust. That we had been created from it, that we were in touch with it, that we danced on it, and the dust swirled around us, and it grew the very kind of basic stuff that we need to exist. That's what I'm after. My relationship to it.15

Anaya's comment, of course, echoes Jung's “collective unconscious,” and there are striking similarities to Jung's thoughts in Modern Man in Search of a Soul:

… there is a thinking in primordial images—in symbols which are older than historical man; which have been ingrained in him from earliest times, and, eternally living, outlasting all generations, still make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.16

Similarly, Anaya shares with Jung, Mircea Eliade, and other contemporary exponents of mythopoetics a concern for the demythicization of human consciousness and the fragmentation of the human psyche. Anaya gives emphasis to terms like polarity,duality, and dichotomy in describing the spiritual and psychic debility which he sees as characteristic of modern existence:

What did archaic men do that we cannot do? Archaic man could communicate with both worlds. Where does dualism and polarity come from? We can say it comes from social reality and the dialectic. I disagree. I say it comes from our spiritual self, a disharmonizing force. Our civilizing and socializing influence has made us not as unified, not as harmonious, as archaic man. To go back and get in touch, and to become more harmonious, we go back to the unconscious and we bring out all of the symbols and archetypals that are available to all people.17

Anaya's conviction that harmony and the reconciliation of elemental forces are needed for spiritual fulfillment leads to the holistic philosophy that forms the thematic core of his three novels. His trio of seers—Ultima in Bless Me, Ultima, Crispín in Heart of Aztlán, and Salomón in Tortuga—are agents of reconciliation and harmony. The oneness of things is repeatedly stated in multiple images and thematic motifs. In Bless Me, Ultima, a parable of good and evil in which discordant elements create dissension and violence, harmony is the greatest good. It is noteworthy that Anaya, through mythopoesis, encompasses the particular and the universal. In Antonio, the narrator and central character of the novel, Anaya projects the immemorial struggle for identity and self-knowledge. Antonio endures the rite of passage that takes him from childhood to adolescence, from innocence to incipient knowledge, and into the complex world of human affairs. His passage leads him to experience la tristeza de la vida, the truism that human existence is often a sad and tragic enterprise. The spiritual source that enables Antonio to overcome the disillusionment and the tragedies of life is Ultima. She brings to Antonio a holistic creed and the ultimate truth (the pun on última, the last and the ultimate of things, is charming and unobtrusive) that the greatest wisdom resides in the human heart. In a dream sequence, Ultima whispers to Antonio the direction that he must take toward true knowledge: “You have been seeing only parts, she finished, and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds all.” (112) Through Ultima's teachings and example, Antonio finds the moral and spiritual strength to reconcile the familial differences, the religious contraries, and the other polarities that serve as the novel's thematic conflict. The dichotomies are unified and the narrative converges in ringing affirmation: “… I made strength from everything that had happened to me, so that in the end even the final tragedy could not defeat me. And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.” (237) The novel ends with a celebration of love—the unifying principle of human existence.

The conclusion of Bless Me, Ultima is unabashedly sentimental, and introduces an ethical prescription that is reiterated and intensified in Heart of Aztlán and Tortuga. Starting with the novel's title, Heart of Aztlán works the same thematic metaphor to describe the inner force that will lead to the discovery of an ancient and profound truth. The quest for Aztlán is, in effect, a search for the peace and harmony that have been lost throughout history and that loss has removed Chicano people from their identity and purpose. The pristine truth is that the Chicano can return to Aztlán; it has always existed, but people became blind to its magical presence. In an epiphany (one of Anaya's favorite devices), Clemente, like Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima, discovers the mythic power of Aztlán:

Time stood still, and in that enduring moment he felt the rhythm of the heart of Aztlán beat to the measure of his own heart. Dreams and visions became reality, and reality was but the thin substance of myth and legends. A joyful power coursed from the dark womb-heart of the earth into his soul and he cried out I AM AZTLAN!


True to the holistic concept that nerves Anaya's fiction, Clemente sees his place in the cosmic scheme of things and unifies the elements that previously had created alienation and confusion. Again it leads to the recognition of the superior force of love and the rejection of hatred and violence: “The real fire of heaven is not the fire of violence, it is the fire of love!” (207) The sentimental conclusion was effective in Bless Me, Ultima, but in Heart of Aztlán it is close to being a platitude. And here is where Anaya risked critical fire in suggesting that love is the answer to the oppression and injustice suffered by Chicanos.

Laced with mythopoeic images and symbols, Tortuga works similar metaphysical and ethical themes. Centered on a sixteen-year-old boy nicknamed “Tortuga”—due to his crippling paralysis and the “turtle cast” which he has to wear, the novel amplifies his anguish and alienation as he bitterly turns away from life and loses faith in divine providence—and himself. The resurrecting agent is Salomón, a seer and mythic figure who discloses the path of light (the way to reconciling wisdom and the spiritual fulfillment of the individual). Although he is a terminally-ill patient (and dies like Ultima in a similarly poignant scene), he is an abundant reservoir of spirituality and is the force that leads Tortuga to the recognition of life's value. He instructs Tortuga to appreciate and affirm the beauty of life: “… life is sacred, yes, even in the middle of this wasteland and in the darkness of our wards, life is sacred. …” (42) Like his predecessors, Salomón embodies a holistic metaphysic and celebrates the oneness of life: “… we're all bound together, one great force binds us all, it's the light of the sun that binds all life, the mountain and the desert, the plains and the sea.” (102) The expected truism that love is the force that binds human life is dramatically (perhaps melodramatically) announced: “That's what Salomón had said. That love was the only faith which gave meaning to our race across the beach. The path of the sun was the path of love. I needed to love!” (150) Culling tropes from Eliot and other modern poets who have metaphorically described the spiritual sterility of our times, Anaya dovetails the narrative to Tortuga's realization that Salomón had left him a legacy of regenerative mythopoesis: “We must create out of our ashes. Our own hero must be born out of this wasteland, like the phoenix bird of the desert he must rise again from the ashes of our withered bodies. … He must walk in the path of the sun … and he shall sing the songs of the sun.” (160) Tortuga nobly meets the task. Like Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima, he becomes a singer of songs; he will become a poet that will transmit the magical wisdom inherited from Ultima, Crispín, and Salomón. And, of course, he will sing songs of love. The concluding sentences of the novel describe Tortuga's homeward bound journey. His singing voice fills the bus and streams across the majestic expanse of the New Mexico desert. And Salomón's loving encouragement reverberates across the closing page: “Sing a song of love, Tortuga! Oh yes, sing of love!”

The avenue for Anaya's accomplishment in expanding and invigorating the Chicano novel has been myth and the mythopoeic art. Here lies the core of his novelistic invention. His archetypal imagination richly mines indigenous materials, fuses them with poetic images and symbols, and connects the past and the present to make something new from the old. On a smaller scale, Anaya possesses the gift and achieves the art credited to one of the twentieth-century exemplars of mythopoesis, Thomas Mann: “In a narrative tone that recalls the past, he reveals what we find disturbing in the present. He is at once old and new, and his gift is the mingling of the mythic and the present moment.”18

At one point in Tortuga, Salomón explains the mythologizing behind his stories: “Each carries a new story, but all these stories are bound to the same theme … life is sacred.” (42) Similarly, each of Anaya's novels presents a new story, but they are bound by one central theme: life is sacred and the love of life is the greatest human accomplishment. Anaya cherishes the kinder moments of the human race and sings a song that seeks to bind humanity. There is much truth in his song, and there is a largeness of heart in the man and his work. Anaya's work is eloquent testament that art can teach us to recognize our humanity. It is an exemplary achievement.


  1. Rolando Hinojosa, “Mexican-American Literature: Toward an Identification,” Books Abroad, 49, No. 3 (Summer 1975): 422–30.

  2. Daniel Testa, “Extensive/Intensive Dimensionality in Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima,Latin American Literary Review, V, No. 10 (Spring–Summer 1977): 70–78.

  3. Martin Bucco, “A Review of Bless Me, Ultima,Southwestern American Literature, 2, No. 3 (Winter 1972): 153–54.

  4. Dyan Donnelly, “Finding a Home in the World,” Bilingual Review, 1, No. 1 (January–April 1974): 113–18.

  5. David Johnson and David Apodaca, “Myth and the Writer: A Conversation with Rudolfo Anaya,” New America, 3, No. 3 (Spring 1979): 76–85.

  6. “Mitólogos y Mitómanos,” Maize: Xicano Art and Literature Notebooks, 4, Nos. 3–4 (Spring–Summer 1981): 6–23.

  7. Ibid., passim.

  8. Karl Kopp, “A Review of Heart of Aztlán,La Confluencia, 1, Nos. 3–4 (July 1977): 62–63.

  9. María López Hoffman, “Myth and Reality: Heart of Aztlán,De Colores, 5, Nos. 1–2 (1980): 111–14.

  10. Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), p. 184.

  11. “Myth and the Writer: A Conversation with Rudolfo Anaya,” 82.

  12. Ibid., 83.

  13. Ibid., 84.

  14. Northrop Frye, “Myth, Fiction and Displacement,” Myth and Myth Making, ed. Henry A. Murry (New York: George Braziller, 1960), p. 164.

  15. “Myth and the Writer: A Conversation with Rudolfo Anaya,” 79.

  16. C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W. S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1947), pp. 129–30.

  17. “Mitólogos y Mitómanos,” 12.

  18. Wright Morris, About Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 145.

Principal Works

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Bless Me, Ultima (novel) 1972

Heart of Aztlán (novel) 1976

Tortuga (novel) 1979

The Silence of the Llano (short stories) 1982

The Legend of La Llorona (novel) 1984

The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas (poetry) 1985

A Chicano in China (nonfiction) 1986

The Farolitos of Christmas: A New Mexican Christmas Story (juvenilia) 1987

Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcóatl (legends) 1987

Alburquerque (novel) 1992

The Anaya Reader (prose, essays, and plays) 1995

Zia Summer (novel) 1995

Jalamanta: A Message from the Desert (novel) 1996

Rio Grande Fall (novel) 1996

Farolitos for Abuelo [illustrated by Edward Gonzales] (juvenilia) 1998

My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande [illustrated by Amy Cordova] (short stories) 1999

Shaman Winter (novel) 1999

An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez [illustrated by Gaspar Enriquez] (poetry) 2000

Roadrunner's Dance [illustrated by David Diaz] (juvenilia) 2000

Rudolfo Anaya with John Crawford (interview date May 1986)

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SOURCE: “Rudolfo Anaya,” in This is about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, edited by William Balassi, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, University of New Mexico Press, 1990, pp. 83–93.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in May 1986, Anaya comments on his formative influences, the development of Chicano literature, his interest in mythology, and the problems of cultural identity and political consciousness in Bless Me, Ultima, Heart of Aztlán, and Tortuga.]

Rudolfo Anaya—novelist, short story writer, oral historian, editor, and college professor—has spoken frequently of his relationship to the llano, the harsh rangeland of eastern New Mexico, and his role as a groundbreaking Chicano novelist of the 1970s. Born in 1937, he grew up in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, where he attended school through the eighth grade. He moved with his parents to Albuquerque to complete his schooling at Washington Junior High and Albuquerque High School (1956), and then went on to the University of New Mexico, where he received a B.A. and M.A. in English literature. After graduation he wrote laboriously. He borrowed the backdrop of his best-known novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), from his early years in Santa Rosa. “Part of the land structure, the river, the llano, the hills, are there. Some of the church, the school, and the bridge is there. It seemed the major symbology that I work with was there but it had to be extracted, distilled through the creative process.” Hailed as one of the first major Chicano novelists, he went on to write two more books in succession: Heart of Aztlán (1976), a story of a family's hard migration from the llano to Albuquerque, and Tortuga (1979), the tale of the recovery of a paralyzed boy in a children's hospital deep in the desert. He also began to produce an ongoing series of anthologies, marking him as uniquely generous towards younger writers. He still lives in Albuquerque, where he is professor of English at the University of New Mexico and edits the literary magazine Blue Mesa Review. This interview with John Crawford took place in his office in May 1986.

[Anaya:] One of the most interesting experiences about coming to Albuquerque in the fifties was coming from a very small rural town into a big city barrio and being thrown into a completely different life-style. Recently, while attending the Writers of the Purple Sage Conference, it occurred to me that almost every writer there had shared a similar experience. No one lives in a small town any more; nearly all of us are city writers. Although I had all my upbringing in that small town, the majority of my life has been spent in the big city now. That's kind of shocking—we write about our roots that are close to the land, and then we get slapped with this new reality.

[Crawford:] In your novels there's a double move, from the llano to the small towns and then to the big city.

I think it's a progression that has happened in New Mexico. Historically, after World War II you have that exodus from the small towns into the metropolitan areas, especially from the Mexican working community. The new professions were being opened up, the GI Bill was sending some of the veterans to the university, and my writing reflects that historical pattern.

In Heart of Aztlán it sounds like the small factories were opening up in New Mexico and they were exploiting cheap labor where they could find it, and that would be a reason also.


One particular way I remember you writing about the space you grew up in had to do with interior space: the public library in Santa Rosa.

I would visit it periodically, starting at an early age, when I was in grade school. It was a little one-room library actually placed on top of the fire house on the first floor, where there was an old beaten up fire truck used on a volunteer basis when there was a fire in the town. We climbed up those rickety steps to the little room that was the library. That interests me too, you know, looking back at what was formative in my love of books.

In your novels the formative influences seem to be the figures who represent wisdom and knowledge, like Ultima and Crispin. Were there real people like that in your life who would serve such a function, or are those characters a sort of metaphor or composite?

I think it was a little bit of each. In our Hispanic culture there is a great deal of respect given to older people—and growing up in the forties as I did, the relationships that we had with older people were ones of trust. We listened to what they said and we learned from them. And there were specific people that I knew and held in awe. These fabulous vaqueros would come in from the llano and my father or brothers and I would visit them; to me, they were almost mythological figures, bigger than life. I think I felt the same way about teachers, because it was normal in our culture to be taught by anyone who was older and to give him or her respect. So when I came to write my novels, which basically have to do with a search for meaning or an archetypal journey, the person who can guide the hero turns out to be the older person not only out of the structure of myth as we know it but out of my background, out of my life. Those older people played very important roles. We believed that curanderas could cure; we saw them do it. We believed that there were evil powers that came to be represented by witches, because we lived in the universe where we saw those powers work.

And also that things were animated with life, like Tortuga the mountain. There were places that had power.

Most definitely. I think it's Clemente in Heart of Aztlán who recalls, “I remember there were times and certain places in the llano where I grew up where I would stand at this place and have a feeling of elation, a feeling of flying”—that's interesting, because there are cuentos or folk tales where you get these little stories about people who can fly—so in your mind you think, where does this power come from? Is it the power of imagination that we as a communal group are given by those older, wiser people, or can it actually be? So it was very interesting to deal with the power that the earth has to animate us—we are animated by the power of the earth—it is in Native American terms our Mother—it nurtures us, it gives us spirit and sustenance, and I guess if we're attuned enough or sensitive enough it can give us different kinds of powers. And so, coming out of that kind of complex universe where I grew up thinking of all these places, the river and the hills, having this life to them, this animation, it was very good not only for my growing up but for the imagination, getting fed by that very spiritual process that was in the natural world around me.

That must have come to you first in the cuentos themselves, the stories you would have heard while growing up. When did you start taking an interest in myth outside your own culture—was that in college—and where did this interest lead you?

It was probably when I was an undergraduate here at UNM. We were guided to read Greek mythology. I wasn't really making the connections because I was looking at it as stories that had to do with another time and place. I think it wasn't until I turned more toward Native American mythology that I began to see that there are these points of reference that world myths have, that somehow speak to the center of our being, and connect us—to other people, to the myth, to the story, and beyond that to the historic process, to the communal group.

You have a way of making the myths take on very specific roles in the novels. I'm thinking of the incredible way that the mountain and the boy interplay at the beginning of Tortuga, where the mountain actually moves and something in the boy moves. It must have taken a great deal of trial and error to find out artistic ways to make the myths connect up with the plots of the stories you were working. They seem highly integrated, in Tortuga especially.

I would hope that by Tortuga they would seem integrated, because it was my third novel and I had been consumed by that process long enough, and possibly also had learned a little bit about how to write a novel.

I have been told, when I travel around the country and read, that there haven't been that many American writers interested in the role of myth and in making myth work in contemporary settings—but I think now we see more and more writers doing that. All the Native American writers tend to do that, fuse their sense of myth into their stories but at least for awhile it's been rather new to people.

The other thing that people seem to remark on is that not too many writers are lyrical novelists—you know, Ultima opens with a great deal of lyricism, a song of invocation almost, if not to the Muse then to the Earth, because Antonio says “In the beginning she opened my eyes and then I could see the beauty of my landscape, my llano, the river, the earth around us.”1 There are other examples in American literature when that happens, but certainly it's been one of my preoccupations. I think the sense of diction and syntax and rhythms of language that come out of having grown up in a Spanish-speaking world, and the act of transferring that to English, creates a “fresh ripple” in people's sensibilities as they read this new language, this conversion of Hispanic language and world view into English. They may be a little shocked at the onset, but most people who get past it find it's refreshing, it's new.

I was especially struck by the freshness of the language in the Christmas play scene in Ultima and when the children go to the theater in Tortuga—partly, I think, because these are scenes of rebellion against the norms of authority and partly because these are children in their spontaneity. There is such vitality in these scenes, where one set of cultural and social expectations crosses another. I suppose when you were writing Ultima there wasn't much like that in prose, even in Chicano prose.

No, there wasn't—actually, I had read absolutely no Chicano prose during all my school years, including my university years. There were a few novels out there, and I suppose if you were into research you could have found diaries and newspapers, or in folklore you could have read the cuentos, but contemporary Chicano prose wasn't born until the mid-sixties during the Chicano movement, and so I think in a sense what we did in the sixties was to create the model itself, or as I have phrased it elsewhere, we set about to build a house and in the sixties we built a foundation. From that comes what we're seeing now in the eighties, an incredible amount of production and writing and unique forms and styles of writing. But all of that was new; it was new to me. In fact, in the sixties when I first began to work, I used Anglo American writers as role models. But I really couldn't get my act together until I left them behind. They had a lot to teach me and I don't underestimate that—you're learning whether you're reading a comic book or Hemingway or Shakespeare or Cervantes—but I couldn't tell my story in their terms. And it wasn't until I said to myself, let me shift for myself, let me go stand on my earth, coming out of my knowledge, and tell the story then and there—that's where Ultima came in. She opened my eyes as she opens Antonio's eyes at the beginning of the book, for the first time; so I sat down to write the story Bless Me, Ultima, thinking in Spanish though I wrote it in English. And it worked, because I was creating what to me was a reflection of that real universe that I knew was there.

It seems tremendously integrated—not only as to myth and plot, as we were just discussing, but the style. I know you said you put it through several drafts; it looks as if it just sprang out of heaven that way. That must have taken an enormous amount of work.

At least seven drafts is a lot of work. And then there is a concern for what you just said, that integration, that consistency that you don't want to give up in any one place, and a kind of conscious/subconscious working and interrelating of the myths and the symbols so that they all make a consistent pattern, like weaving a beautiful Navajo rug, you know? It's consistent because it reflects not only the particular person who does the weaving, but all the communal history that went into those symbols and those colors.

There also you have the sense of the llano, probably best described there of the three books—and also the farming communities and the towns. And there's a juxtaposition of one against the other, shown in the conflicts of the two families. Was that from your own background? Were both sides of that conflict present within your own family?

Yes, in fact, my mother is from a farming community and my father did most of his work as a vaquero—what you would call a cowboy or a sheepherder—out on the llano in the ranches; so there was the antagonism between the llaneros and the farmers in my family.

I love the way the farmers are people of few words. When they are talking to Antonio they will communicate in a few sentences what they have been thinking about all day. That seems to be true of farmers everywhere.

Yeah, I think it is a characteristic, isn't it, of people who work with the earth to have imbued in them a sense of patience. On the other hand, they also have their own storytelling, and I remember visiting those farms along Puerta de Luna, where my grandfather had a farm, and late at night people would gather around and begin to tell stories. But the tradition was kind of different. The llaneros (vaqueros to me) would always be the loud men; they made a lot of noise, they were rough, they were gruff, they laughed more and probably drank more, so what you learned from the respective groups was very different, had its own flavor. …

There's a strong sense in Ultima that the life experience cuts against some of the aspects of traditional Catholicism, so that there seems to be a sort of striving to supplant or transform it into a kind of world religion based on experience, especially mystical experience. Am I right about this? And did you encounter resistance from traditional Catholics for that message in the book?

I've never felt there was any resistance or opposition. I think quite the contrary, a lot of readers who are Catholic have seen an accurate portrayal of the church at least as it was in those times—you're talking now about forty years later, and things have changed. But I think it's fair to say that what goes on in the novel also reflects my attempt to get an understanding of the Native American tradition and those other religions that are not Catholic and not based in the Christian mythology.

Especially from the indio.

Especially from the indio. And again, not to give up the one tradition for the other, but to see if those points of reference I talked about can be reached, whether from my Catholic world I knew as a child or my exploration of the Native American world that is also part of me or the worlds that I read of in other mythologies, such as Buddhism. And so I think for me to look only in my Catholic background was too limiting, and Bless Me, Ultima begins to explore new ground.

I was struck by the richness of choices that Antonio has at the end of the novel. He has many things to think about, reconcile, bring together.

Well, his universe begins to get constricted. I think Antonio's life is—as he begins to see that he is losing the innocence of childhood—it possibly reflects the life of the Hispanic community in New Mexico, in the sense that we too began to lose that age when the only thing that affected us happened within our family or our village. The world was changing around us and was going to bring a lot of new and positive things to us, but also some threats. And we had a lot of decisions to make. Pretty quick.

There's a thread of continuity in the books—literally, the same family is mentioned first in Ultima, is the whole subject of Aztlán, and the boy carries on in Tortuga—but also, there is the thread of another kind of continuity. It seems to me that the three books are a trilogy, and in the third book is an overall interpretation you can bring—what the boy is going through personally somehow involves the whole culture, and his success, his survival, is a very important thing: an achievement for everyone.

It's strange that no one has ever said that, you know. And I agree with your interpretation, because it seems to me that one of the important things I was doing in Tortuga was taking the main character and trying to make him well again after he had been crippled by life, by the circumstances that occur in Heart of Aztlán. And I felt that as much or more than any other character I had ever created, Tortuga was Everyman of the Chicano culture, that indeed the culture was under assault, and that the paralysis reflected in Tortuga was that paralysis that had set on the community. Tortuga has not only to get well, he has to perform still more heroic tasks in the future; not only that, the Mexican American community has to find ways of breaking out of its bondage, its paralysis.

It's also true that there are people from other cultures in the hospital who are also afflicted. …

Yes, and in this respect I think the novel should acquire some kind of universal meaning, because what we have created of our modern society can paralyze all of us—those of us from minority groups get displaced more and used more, but I think if we are not careful the same forces that cripple us can do it to everyone. So you have in the hospital, even if they are never completely identified by ethnic group, representatives of all of them.

In all three novels, the power of love is the redeemer in some sense. In Tortuga it's very much a literal one: It's sexual love, it's also working together—there's a wonderful sense of the people pulling together in a more collective spirit within the room he's in; there's real affection between the boys there—in fact, that seems to be the dominant message that your novels carry. …

I think you're right. Though I have lived in and explored the existential universe, I have come back to a communal universe. I grew up in that tradition, I left it in some of my wanderings, and I returned to it; and what the tradition of the community has to teach us is what I've already alluded to—respect, love for the family and for the village that is the community. I think that's where the power of love comes in. I feel it has sustained all those Indian and Mexican pueblos that have occupied this region for such a long time; they must have had it as they came together and formed their bond—a bond not only of tradition and language and culture and heritage, but of love. That's how they were able to survive, and that's how they will be able to survive in the presence of all those powers that can cripple and kill us, you see.

In Heart of Aztlán there is also that spirit of coming together, within the community established in Albuquerque, in the various parts of the barrio whatever the difficulty of the circumstances.

One of the things that some critics have viewed as a failure in Heart of Aztlán has been that no structure, no political structure with a given political ideology, is put into place. But I guess my feeling is that while those structures may come into being, if they're not shored up by some common respect and a common goal that we have as human beings, they don't last long. And I do see their importance—they're the way we get things done in today's world. But I was more interested, I guess, in following the other side of that coin, and that is can we really get together as a community—not because of what's in it for me, but because of that old sense of value that has sustained all communities on earth throughout history. And to me, the element of love must play a large role in it.

That brings me to a political question. You had clearly stated ten years ago that you didn't feel Chicano literature was strongest when it was narrowly addressed to political struggle and resistance. Ten years ago, the climate was very politically charged. What do you think about this now?

What I have come to see is that there is even more need now for what we call a political stance, in our poetry and our novels. That seems to be a big change from where I was ten years ago. I guess I thought then that the literature we were writing would be very good for our community, one more place where we could reflect on our history and our identity and move on from there, and that we didn't have to overwhelm the reader with “message,” so to speak; we didn't have to hit the reader over the head with ideology. I think that's principally the reason I wasn't in tune with the political writings of the Chicano movement at the time. I felt all too often that the ideology came up short—all too often it was only a Marxist ideology—and, too, I tended to see in writers whose main concern was message a lack of aesthetic attention to what they were practicing, what they were learning to be. They didn't really want to be writers, they wanted to be politicians, and I think there's two different animals there. Can you get those two together in the same work? Can a very good writer who has learned and paid attention and practiced his craft communicate his political feelings about the society? I think yes; I feel stronger about that now than I did then. I still think it's probably the hardest kind of writing to do, because you tend to put the reader off. The reader wants story and you're talking message; the reader may quickly leave you. But it is important in this country, especially when you speak of our community, the Southwest. We have not only the story to write, we also have to remind our people about their history and their traditions and their culture and their language, things that are under that threat that we talked about right now, and liable to disappear if we don't look closely at ourselves in a historical process—and part of analyzing that historical process is not only story and myth and legend and tradition, it's a political space we occupy. How have we occupied it? How have we been used in that political space?

Recently I've played around with an essay in which I talk about writing in colonial space, which is a political concept, right? How do we feel as a minority group, a clearly recognizable ethnic group, when we have to respond to colonial space—how do we carve out our own identity? This is what the Chicano movement was all about, trying to create within colonial space the space for our own community, our literature. And that process is tied into the political process.

So in a sense you're always tied into it—I think my three novels are. The fact that they don't clearly call for one specific ideology may be interpreted as a critical fault in a political novel, but I didn't set out to write political novels. Though I do see their importance.

I think probably the novel that I'm writing now, which is again set in Albuquerque, is my analysis of my contemporary world, the present, today: What role do the different cultures of New Mexico play vis-à-vis each other? how is the Southwest changing? what is the concept of the Sunbelt all about? who is coming here and why are tremendous investments being made across the Southwest? what do they mean to our communities that have been here a long time? I think probably the only way we respond to some of these questions, critical questions if we're going to exist as a culture, is in novels that carry that social-political impact and perhaps allow the public to think on those questions that are crucial. But I'm still of the opinion that you do that through a well told story.

I've noticed there seem to be affinities between the ideas you're expressing and the writings of magic realism in Central and South America—being political in the broadest sense, describing what is happening in the Americas, and doing it with art—not leaving it to rhetoric. Do you have any direct relationships with Marquez or Fuentes or. …

No, I haven't. If I were more inclined to go around visiting with writers, I would have found ways, but I'm not. I have one short story called “B. Traven Is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca” which begins something like this: “I don't go to Mexico to meet writers; I go to write!”

I want to go back to Tortuga. It seems to me it's the most political novel you've done because it's the most concentrated on this extended metaphor we've been talking about—because that hospital is also a prison. The Indian boy that gets out dies very soon. It's as if people have been cut off from the land so that in going back to it, it becomes dangerous.

Yeah … the idyllic and pastoral llano and river valley of Bless Me, Ultima becomes the cancerous desert, the blinding sandstorms that you have to cross to get back home, the frozen mountain in midwinter that the Indian boy has to cross and that kills him. So even the land has almost become an antagonist, whereas before it was the nurturing mother. We get the sense of the unnatural storms, radiation, death in the desert, grasses described as brittle, and that's all part of the extended metaphor, the reflection of what we are doing to ourselves, what we are doing to our earth.

One thing you did in that book struck me in a very personal way, because I spent some time myself in children's hospitals. It's where you talk about pain. You say that for someone who's had a great deal of pain, it's very hard to avoid things like drugs and alcohol later, because pain is a high and you get used to it. That's a very clear insight. When I read that I thought, “This guy has been there.” You must have known something about that experience to be able to write that way.

Yeah, well, I spent a summer in one of those hospitals and that's where the germ of the novel comes from—the experience, some of the characters, and some of the things that he went through. Around that is the reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to the earth. It does have the hope in it that my characters seem to keep looking around—there must be somebody out there who I can make contact with—like the persons I knew in childhood who were a little wiser and more solid because they were sharing themselves. And even though the rest of the landscape alternates between the dead desert with the sandstorms and the frozen mountains around the hospital on the west side, the springs of the mountain are still running, there is still hope, it's not too late, and you can go there and you can bathe and be made whole. But there's very little of that left, you know. And we've got to touch base with it pretty quick. Otherwise, living in this region that has so much potential to it, because it's a very special corridor in this country, the Rio Grande Valley and the cultures that have been here for thousands of years—it's a very special place—if we don't realize that, we're going to lose part of the hope that this region has to offer us and the people in it.

We might end with one other question about that. It seems to me that some of the most responsible writers, as well as some of the best, from the three cultures here have written about this sense of place in one way or another—I'm thinking of Edward Abbey, who's really a westerner; Leslie Silko and Simon Ortiz; certainly yourself; and several others who have addressed it in a big way, in novels. What do you think the prospects are for this multicultural work becoming a national forum that people can begin to see as a model for such statements?

I think that has already happened. I see any number of regions around the country that are in a sense turning inward and looking at themselves and producing wonderfully gifted writers. I'm not sure that we in the Southwest caused that forum; the times themselves are calling for a truly representative speaking to each other, letting down some of these false borders that we've had between us. I think that's a very positive thing. What's happening in this country—if we are part of it, much more power to us—is that if we are able to take our different perspectives of how the world ought to be—alerted to the fact that there are people out there who thrive on destroying—and share these perspectives, you know, communicate among groups, then we have something to offer the whole country and the world. The world is interested; that's one thing that is conveyed to me every time a visitor comes through here. They've locked into the Southwest as a place going through a very interesting experiment—it has to do with how people can live with each other, can share—and this is as important to the whites and the Maori of New Zealand as it may be to the Catalonians and the Basques, the Nicaraguans and the Misquitos, you know what I mean? It's important to us to realize that we are a center of focus—a lot of people are looking at us, and we can do something very positive with all the changes that are coming across this land, or we can blow it. And I tend to want to work more on the positive things that are going on here, so that we can learn from each other.


  1. The first paragraph of Bless Me, Ultima begins:

    Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood …

Robert M. Adams (review date 26 March 1987)

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SOURCE: “Natives and Others,” in New York Review of Books, March 26, 1987, pp. 32–36.

[In the following excerpt, Adams explores the issue of ethnic identity in Bless Me, Ultima.]

Nobody in Santa Fe really belongs there unless his line stretches back, by one genealogical trapeze act or another, to the seventeenth century; so my wife and I—native New Yorkers both—have adapted without strain to being outsiders and aliens. Who doesn't feel like a transplant in America? Here there's nothing else to be. It's an oasis culture; nobody gets much more than his minimal quota of earth, air, and water, and who needs more? Every so often, just to make contact with our fellow transients, we drive down the valley of the Rio Grande to the flat marshlands of Bosque del Apache, south of Socorro, some 140 miles from our house in Santa Fe. Into these wide lagoons and stagnant pools thousands of wild fowl come every year to spend the winter months—visitors, like ourselves, with strong memories of northern places and deeper forests, but content for the time being with a for-the-time-being existence. There are Canada geese, sandhill cranes, a few rare whooping cranes, multitudes of mallard, teal, and a dozen other species whose names I don't know. To stand under the cloud of wings when five thousand wild white geese explode into the air all at once in a storm of honkings and flappings is an experience to stir the blood.

One can drive west from Socorro next day to the plains of San Augustin where stands the Very Large Array. It is a set of twenty-seven giant saucer-shaped receivers painted stark white and mounted on railroad tracks. They are designed to “see” electronically into the outermost regions of the cosmos—to collect infinitesimal impulses from inconceivably vast galaxies at a distance in light-years before which the imagination faints. From some of these outermost galaxies the entire array of telemetering devices receives in the course of a solid year a total amount of energy equivalent to a single snowflake falling on the surface of the earth. Yet by electronic enhancement the machines of the installation can print on a postcard the image of two galaxies, each millions of light-years across, and both at a distance from our little speck of dust too inconceivably enormous to be expressed. There is no reason why the bird refuge and the astronomical array should seem to be making complementary statements; and almost certainly what they say to me is not what they will say to someone else. But the double experience has always seemed to me purifying and exalting.

Daily life in our part of the world imposes odd perspectives too. In filling out certain bureaucratic forms I am occasionally asked to define my ethnic background—the form allows it to be either “Native American,” “Hispanic,” or “Other.” Given those three options, it isn't hard to figure out where I belong; but putting oneself down as “Other” is always a little jarring. “Anglos” in New Mexico are a very loose category indeed. Orientals are automatically Anglo; a PTA member will also be heard to say, “We have four Anglos in our school, two of them black.” Hispanics are divided by the length of their stay here: wetbacks and illegals (Mojados), old settlers (Manitos), and a tiny, almost hypothetical minority who have some connection with Spain itself.

Indians are divided among tribe, language groups, different pueblos, and an assimilated, often urban population the extent of which is anybody's guess. (In certain lines of commercial endeavor a tinge of Indian blood is a great advantage: Fritz Scholder, a foremost “Indian” painter, is one-fourteenth Indian, i.e., one of his eight great-grandparents belonged to a California tribe.) Local Indians often have Hispanic as well as Indian names; they combine, in a fashion that satisfies them completely, Roman Catholicism with the rites and rituals of their own basically animistic religion. Living on reservations, the land of which they jealously guard (they are in addition forbidden by federal law to sell it), they show one face to the white world around them, and live among themselves a life of their own, about which they are very secretive. The reasons for secrecy are not hard to imagine. I recall the story of an early anthropologist who, in company with his wife, was interrogating the elders of the Hopi tribe on their religious beliefs. The questions were probing, incisive, logical; the answers polite, evasive, and uninformative. At last the enraged wife, coming to her husband's help, unfurled a parasol, and began beating the “informants” over the head. They would tell her husband their most intimate thoughts, they must!

Much of Hispanic cultural life seems just as resolutely attached to the past. Not only is the reconquest of New Mexico reenacted annually, the folk festivals retell aspects of the nativity story every year, sometimes in language so traditional that the performers themselves have trouble understanding it. Every Christmas time, the stories of Los Tres Reyes Magos, of Los Pastores, or of Las Posadas are produced by neighborhood groups in the small towns and barrios of New Mexico. Stars of the show are, predictably, the devil, who grimaces, capers, and menaces to the shrill terror of small children in the audience, and the Virgin Mary, who is bound to be the prettiest girl available—no jokes allowed. It is a pageant, not a drama, all the more welcome as it is more familiar. Outdoors as well, people are reminded everywhere of the ancient story by little fires burning before people's houses wherever the householder wants to signal that the Christ child is welcome. The little fires—a few sticks of piñon—are luminarias, whatever the terminology may be in less careful parts of the world; the little paper bags weighted with sand, enclosing a candle, and set outdoors as Christmas decorations, are properly farolitos.

Rudolfo Anaya, who teaches at the University of New Mexico, is a leading Hispanic writer, largely because of his widely appreciated fiction, Bless Me, Ultima, published in 1972 by Tonatiuh International of Berkeley, California. More a series of semi-attached sketches than a consecutive novel, this book presents a nostalgic picture of life in a group of small eastern New Mexico villages during and just after World War II. Dramatic interest is provided by a running feud between the black forces of Tenorio Trementina abetted by his witch daughters—and the Ultima of the title, who is an idealized “curandera,” halfway between a white witch and a saint. The story's events are described as from a great distance, they take place in a largely closed world, and the conflict of magics, hexes, and folklore cures is taken with complete seriousness by all concerned; thus the story gives a strong impression of long ago and far away.

Mr. Anaya's narrator in this fiction is a precocious child in elementary school who is having some familiar problems with divine providence and some less easily defined problems in choosing between the models provided by his father's people (nomadic) and his mother's (agricultural). With the aid of some too tangible help from Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, young Antonio Márez gropes his way toward a meditative distancing, if not a resolution, of his problems. “Sometime in the future I would have to build my own dream out of those things that were so much a part of my childhood.” The book is in effect a Bildungsroman with most of the Bildung presented as a promissory note. John Nichols's Milagro Beanfield War (currently being reduced to a movie) is a novel about Hispanic life with problems of its own; talky and episodic, it's too melodramatic. But it's tough and funny in a here-and-now way, and it is worth setting against Anaya's nostalgic and credulous vision of the Hispanic outback.

Further Reading

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Barrientos, Tanya. “Rudolfo Anaya's Simmering Mystery Is a Recipe that Failed.” Chicago Tribune (25 September 1996): 3.

Barrientos offers a negative assessment of Rio Grande Fall.

Davis-Undiano, Robert Con. Review of Shaman Winter, by Rudolfo Anaya. Hispanic 12, Nos. 1–2 (January–February 1999): 106.

Davis-Undiano offers a positive assessment of Shaman Winter.

Espinoza, Marth. “A Passion for History.” Hispanic 12, No. 9 (September 1999): 64.

Espinoza provides an overview of Anaya's life, work, and achievements.

Klett, Rex E. Review of Rio Grande Fall, by Rudolfo Anaya. Library Journal (1 September 1996): 213.

Klett offers a brief positive assessment of Rio Grande Fall, calling the novel “a thrilling adventure.”

Lamadrid, Enrique. “The Dynamics of Myth in the Creative Vision of Rudolfo Anaya.” In Pasó por Aquí: Critical Essays on the New Mexican Literary Tradition, 1542–1988, edited by Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, pp. 243–54, University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Lamadrid examines Anaya's synthesis of archetypal and cultural themes in his fiction, particularly in Bless Me, Ultima.

Leslie, Roger. Review of My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande, by Rudolfo Anaya. Booklist 95, No. 22 (August 1999): 2043.

Leslie offers a brief positive assessment of My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande.

Nelson, Antonya. “Turf Wars in New Mexico.” New York Times Book Review (29 November 1992): 22.

Nelson offers a generally positive assessment of Alburquerque.

Perera, Victor. “Parable for Our Times: ‘Jalamanta’ Is More Spiritual than Story.” Washington Post (20 February 1996): D2.

Perera derides Jalamanta's lack of story and didactic tone.

Peters, John. Review of An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez, by Rudolfo Anaya. Booklist (15 December 2000): 811.

Peters offers a brief positive review of An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez.

Review of An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez, by Rudolfo Anaya. Publishers Weekly (20 November 2000): 68.

The critic offers a mixed assessment of An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez, arguing that the work “gets bogged down in flowery metaphors.”

Rose, David James. Review of Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. Hispanic 7, No. 8 (September 1994): 90.

Rose offers an unfavorable assessment of Bless Me, Ultima.

Taylor, Paul Beekman. “Chicano Secrecy in the Fiction of Rudolfo A. Anaya.” Journal of the Southwest 39, No. 2 (Summer 1997): 239–65.

Taylor examines Anaya's dual use of Spanish and English in his fiction and the underlying themes and cultural meanings that are mediated and obscured by such linguistic contexts, offering different perspectives for Chicano and Anglo readers.

Additional coverage of Anaya's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45–48; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 32, and 51; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 82 and 206; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors and Novelists; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Hispanic Writers, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; and Novels for Students, Vol. 12.

A. Robert Lee (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ethnic Renaissance: Rudolfo Anaya, Louise Erdrich, and Maxine Hong Kingston,” in The New American Writing: Essays on American Literature since 1970, edited by Graham Clarke, St. Martin's Press, 1990, pp. 139–64.

[In the following excerpt, Lee discusses the rise of American ethnic literature in the 1960s and focuses on Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima as an example of Chicano literature and its emphasis on cultural identity, tradition, and displacement.]

Ethnic art is the American mainstream. …

—Ishmael Reed, Interview, ‘The Third Ear,’ B.B.C. Radio 3, April 19891

Growing up ethnic is surely the liveliest theme to appear in the American novel since the closing of the frontier. …

—John Skow, reviewing Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club,Time, 27 March 19892


A vogue it may currently appear. But can it be doubted that ethnicity has ever been other than a key ingredient in American culture? One thinks of founding racial encounters: Columbus sighting his ‘gentle’ Arawak Indians in the 1490s and they him, Cortés imposing Spanish imperial rule upon Aztec Mexico and the American southwest after arriving at Mexico City in 1519, or those first twenty enslaved Africans being deposited in Jamestown in 1619 from a reputed Dutch man-of-war.3 One thinks, subsequently, of the great ensuing waves of European immigration, each the bearer of a culture in its own right yet each to be made over into a new hyphenation with America—Anglos, Irish, Scots, Germans, Slavs, Italians, Scandinavians, Jews out of Russia and Poland. To these has to be added the Asian diaspora, from the early Chinese who spoke of San Francisco as ‘The Gold Mountain’ to the Japanese to the latter-day Korean and Vietnamese. The process in no way abates.

There would emerge, too, a now familiar body of ethnic debate. Was America melting-pot or mixing bowl, a W.A.S.P. hegemony or a genuine quilt of all peoples?4 Yet however long-standing or endemic the issue of ethnicity in America, it was in the 1960s as never before that it took on new prominence, new assertion. For during that turbulent decade and thereafter ethnic America, and above all non-European ethnic America, re-announced itself. The process was political, economic, a bid for long-overdue empowerment. It was also cultural, a major and continuing surge of imaginative self-expression.

To cite the 1960s from an ethnic or racial perspective of necessity first means a reference-back to the call for redress by black America. No clearer index of change offered itself than the use of Black for Negro, the latter discarded as belonging to a time about to pass and to a more traditional and quiescent racial equation. Other changes, however, were nothing if not dramatic—the Civil Rights marches, the push for voter registration in the Dixie South, the long hot summers, the city burnings from New Jersey to Watts and from Atlanta to Detroit, and the emergence of Black Power groups like the Panthers and Muslims. Tragically, too, there was the litany of assassinations, whether Jack and Bobby Kennedy, or Medgar Evers, or Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, or George Jackson. Yet as the legislation got on the books, as a pantheon of new black leadership emerged, and as the American media increasingly took note of its black population, few doubted that an end to any supposed one-standard America lay in prospect.

Artists, film-makers, musicians, journalists, sports stars and comics all played their part, supplying fresh codes and images of American blackness. Literary figures, in especial, contributed. A fiction begun in names like those of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin has continued through into the generation of Ishmael Reed, James Alan McPherson and even beyond. A line of writing by Afro-American women has come to prominence, Ann Petry and Paule Marshall from an earlier time and Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gayl Jones from among their successors. New departures in poetry, theatre and film have made their impact, as has a rich vein of autobiographical work stretching from Malcolm X to LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and from Eldridge Cleaver to Maya Angelou. Then, too, there was the galvanizing effect of Alex Haley's Roots (1976), both the novel and the spectacularly widely viewed T.V. series. Whether ‘Black’ truly had become ‘Beautiful’ as the slogan ran, it had without a doubt called time on past assumptions. Not without cause has there been talk of a Second Renaissance of Afro-American art and ideas.5

But central as was this black efflorescence, it tended to eclipse others. Hispanic or Brown America lay in waiting, demographically the largest impending minority in America: Puerto Ricans in New York, emigré Cubans in Florida, Chileans, Salvadoreans, Argentinians and others in flight from dictatorship, and, above all, Mexican-Americans or Chicanos. These latter not only arose out of a profoundly non-Anglo tradition—Aztec-Spanish, Catholic, border Mexican—but out of their own variety of American Spanish and bilingualism. Theirs, too, was another geography, California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and southern Utah, not to mention another set of cultural styles from foodways to low-rider cars. Equally, they could look back upon their own interpretation of history, be it the Mexican-American War (1846–48), Mexican Independence (1910), the Sleepy Lagoon and Zoot Suit Riots (1943), or the continuing influx across the Rio Grande. The 1960s meant César Chávez and the struggle of his U.F.W. (founded in 1962) to fight the grape-picking wars. They also meant Corky González and the Denver Crusade for Justice and José Angel Gutiérrez and La Raza Unida of Texas. They even came to mean the increasing recognition of a Chicano input into general American usage—Aztlán as the mythical homeland of the Chicano people and words like la raza (literally ‘the race’), mestizo (someone of mixed Indian and Spanish blood) and pachuco (young male Chicano). In literary-cultural terms they also meant nothing less than a Chicano Renaissance: Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino, or the fiction of Tomás Rivera, Rudolfo Anaya, Ron Arias and others, or the poetry of Alurista and Bernice Zamora, or Richard Rodriguez's controversial autobiography Hunger of Memory (1982). Thus as The Milagro Beanfield War,East LA and Stand and Deliver win out in their depictions of Chicano life on American cinema screens, there can be little doubt that Chicanismo, too, has established new rights to attention.6

Blacks and Chicanos were to find their counterparts among the Indians of America. Reservation-based or urban, they in their turn felt moved to call time on their past demoralization. Typical was the replacement of the name ‘Indian’ itself with ‘Native-American,’ another break with white nomenclature. Typical, too, were events like the challenge of the National Indian Youth Council and the American Indian Movement (A.I.M., founded in 1969) to the traditional powers of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; or the occupations and land claims in Alcatraz, Taos, Maine and Massachusetts; or the seizure in 1973 by Sioux activists of the historic village of Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota; or the emergence of a militant new generation of leaders like Dennis Banks and Russell Means. To hand, also, were manifestos and re-interpretations like Vine Deloria's Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) and Behind the Trail of Broken Treatises (1974). Non-Indian scholarship likewise took up the call, none more so than Leslie Fielder's The Return of the Vanishing American (1968), an analysis of the hidden ‘Red America’ within both high and popular American culture, and Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), a history which examines the brutal cost to the Indian of the Winning of the West with its white triumphalist myth of frontier and settlement.7 Brown took as his departure-point the ‘graves of the dead’ as the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, once put it. All of this was to have its literary manifestation, nothing less than another genuine contemporary American renaissance. In quick order appeared fiction like: House Made of Dawn (1968) by the Kiowa, N. Scott Momaday; Seven Arrows (1972) by the Cheyenne, Heyemeyohsts Storm; Winter in the Blood (1974) by the Blackfoot, James Welch; Ceremony (1978) by the Laguna, Leslie Marmon Silko; and, to be sure, the Chippewa-inspired story-telling of Louise Erdrich. To these has to be added the poetry of talent like Gerald Vizenor, Simon Ortiz, Gail Tremblay and Joy Harjo. Once again, a new ethnic and cultural contract was being sought with America.8

Asian-Americans were to have their day slightly later, in the 1980s. Theirs, too, like ‘Hispanic’ has been a composite name, in need of clear particularization into Chinese-American, Japanese-American and the like.9 America's Chinese have had to fight off a more than usually entrenched set of popular-culture stereotypes, those of coolie, cook and launderer. Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan respectively bequeathed greatly influential images of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ Chinese, as likewise did Chop-Chop in the massively popular cartoon series Blackhawk (1941–84).10 Against these odds and the daemonology of ‘Red China,’ a new and largely West Coast flowering has been under way. So, at least, would be the evidence of the memoir work of Maxine Hong Kingston (her first novel, Tripmaster Monkey, is currently announced), the drama of Frank Chin—especially The Chickencoop Chinamen (1972) and The Year of The Dragon (1974)—and novels like Homebase (1979) by Shawn Wong, Thousand Pieces of Gold (1981) by Ruthanne Lum McCunne, and latterly, The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan. Similarly Japanese-Americans have had to contend against the inherited stigmas of Pearl Harbour, the Pacific islands wars, and their removal to Californian and other ‘relocation’ camps during World War II. That story, and more, has been told by the likes of Monica Sone, Hisaye Yamamoto and Toshio Mori. Furthermore, the Asian-American literary roster grows, as can be witnessed in the ongoing fiction and essays of the Filipino-American, Carlos Bulosan (America is in the Heart (1946, 1973) as notably as any), or in a novel like Clay Walls (1986) by the Korean-American, Kim Ronyoung, or in Blue Dragon White Tiger (1978) by the Vietnamese-American, Tran Van Dinh.11Time magazine, even if its focus was business and yuppiedom rather than culture, did no more than mirror another ethnic cycle of change when it gave over a whole issue in mid-1988 to Asian America.12

Anaya, Erdrich, Kingston: these three names, then, must do composite duty. They have every cause to be taken wholly on their own terms, powerful imaginations each. Yet as, respectively, Chicano, Native-American and Chinese-American, they also have drawn profoundly and quite inescapably from their different ethnic legacies. In each case, too, they have lived both within and yet at an angle from what passes as ‘mainstream’ America, a truly hyphenated or joint cultural citizenry as it were. In imagining ‘ethnically,’ thereby, they offer the paradox of having written into being an America the nation barely knew itself to be, another and yet the same America.


A historic first presence in the American southwest, a landscape as much of custom and language as of place, and the interplay of an ancestral Aztec legacy with a missionary-derived Catholicism—it hardly surprises that Chicano fiction has been so taken up with its communal past. Few Chicanos, writers or otherwise, have not pondered their pre-Columbian origins (for the most part it is carried in their facial appearance and skin colour), or the antiquity of their own legends and religion, or the push westwards and north into a supposed Yankee El Dorado. That consciousness, certainly, has pressed hard behind the landmarks of the achievement, novels like José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho (1959), generally acknowledged as the first Chicano novel and which portrays the Rubio family's bitter migration into California, or John Rechy's City of Night (1963), in line with his other fiction essentially a novel of homosexual transience but which also reflects his early Chicano and Texas origins, or Tomás Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra (… and the earth did not part, 1970), a story-cycle set in Texas and unfolded through the persona of an unnamed child as a conflict of Chicano and Anglo cultures (rightly it has been compared with Joyce's Dubliners and Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio), or, of late, Ron Arias's The Road to Tamazunchale (1987), a fantastical dream novel told as the last words of Don Fausto, a dying Chicano elder who looks back from the Los Angeles barrio upon his community's meaning and inheritance.13 To these has to be added a body of literatura chicanesca, writing about Chicano life by non-Chicanos, of which indisputably the foremost since the Robert Redford film version has been John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War (1976)—the first in a New Mexico trilogy.14

Within this frame, Rudolfo Anaya has equally laid down his own terms of reference and nowhere more so than in the novel which continues most to secure his reputation, Bless Me, Ultima (1972).15 Set in the rural New Mexico of World War II, it tells the rite of passage of 8–year-old Antonio Márez—Tony as he will become with anglicization—an evocation by turns tender and fierce of a unique Chicano childhood. For into its telling, Anaya brilliantly imports a whole stock of dynastic history, myth and belief, that of a people caught at the turning-point between a Mexican-hispanic past and an American-hispanic future. Presiding over the whole is the shamanistic figure of Ultima, known also as La Grande, a curandera or healer-sage under whose guiding kindliness Antonio falls. An inspired fusion of eventfulness and dream, the historic and the ceremonial, Bless Me, Ultima also yields its own Portrait of the Artist, the boy's emerging measure of his inheritance subtly rewoven into a first-person work of memory. Anaya's subsequent two novels, Heart of Aztlán (1976) and Tortuga (1979), the former which deals with the transition of a rural family into the urban barrio of Barelas in Albuquerque and the latter with the path into recovery and self-independence of a crippled boy (tortuga, tortoise, refers to his hospital plaster cast), may indeed represent a certain drop in power. But they share with Bless Me, Ultima, which deservedly won the prestigious Second Annual Premio Quinto Sol, a belief in the as yet still untold reaches of Chicano life.

‘Every morning I seem to awaken with a new experience and dreams strangely mixed in me.’ So Antonio looks back on his self-proclaimed ‘magical’ New Mexico upbringing, caught as he is between the Márez legacy of his father, one of vaquero or herdsman life on the llano (flatlands), and the Luna legacy of his mother, one of homestanding and cultivation of the land. Márez as against Luna might also be said to signify male and female principles, conquistador as against settler and homemaker. If, too, Gabriel hopes his son will reincarnate a nomadic past glory, his wife hopes the boy will become a priest and farmer like one of her own first ancestors. For Bless Me, Ultima portrays nothing if not worlds in transition. Gabriel Márez has moved in from the llano to the pueblo, works not with horses and cattle but in a highway repair crew, and if he looks backwards to the myth of his ancestors he also seeks to look forwards to his family's eventual (though unlikely) migration to California. A larger frame is also provided by the reference to the Second World War. Nearby lies Los Alamos (The Poplars), the testing site for the first atomic bomb and the instance of a technology at quite the other end of the time spectrum to that which has produced the Márez and Luna clans. Transition, too, is registered in the enlistment of Antonio's three brothers, eventual returnee GIs who come from battles in Japan and Germany not to stay but to become drifters seeking an easy pleasure in Las Vegas (The Lowlands). Aztec, Mexican or New Mexican as may be the sub-stratum of Antonio's land and history, yet, too, another transition pends—that brought on by his beginning studies of English, the pull of Yankee America for his cultural allegiance.

The novel's essential transitions, however, occur in terms of the boy himself, ‘experience’ and ‘dream’ indeed ‘strangely mixed’. In the former column, Anaya has Antonio witness the arrival in the family home of Ultima, his father's story-telling and drinking, intervals working the land with his mother's relatives at El Puerto, his first schooling, and the tugs and tensions of early boyhood friendship. He also witnesses four dramatically told deaths: that of Lupito, a war-veteran mentally damaged in Japan who shoots Chávez, the sheriff, and who typifies a madness imported from ‘the outside’; that of Narciso, the town's basically harmless drunk killed by Tenorio Trementina who believe Ultima a bruja or witch responsible for the death of one of his daughters but for whom Narciso has only gratitude and love; that of Florence, a boy who drowns and with whom Antonio has struck up a bond of private sympathy and ritual; and that of Ultima herself, who teaches him that death can be continuity and restoration as well as separation. He also undergoes a cycle of childhood fevers and acts of witness as when he sees the Lupito killing or is assailed by an avenging Tenorio astride his horse or sees Ultima cure with secret herbs a member of the Téllez family. Yet, wonderfully conceived and patterned as these events are, they in effect serve as supports to even deeper transitions taking place within Antonio Márez's inward being.

In these, dream and myth play key rôles, most of all in connection with Ultima. Antonio dreams of his own birth and ‘the old woman’ who delivered him (‘Only I will know his destiny,’ Ultima announces); he dreams several times of his three brothers, fugitive elder presences who strike out in directions he slowly realizes he cannot follow; he dreams of Tenorio's dead daughter (‘my dream-fate drew me to the coffin’), a vision with Macbethian overtones of witchery and magic; and, above all, he dreams of the legend of the Golden Carp, a huge fish which swims about the waters flowing beneath and about his pueblo and which is protected and half-worshipped by his friends Samuel and Cisco. The carp exists in fact and fantasy, a literal river fish but also a source of legend. Samuel explains how, in communal myth, the carp incarnates a protector-god, the deity of land and people:

… he went to the other gods and told them that he chose to be turned into a carp and swim in the river where he could take good care of his people. The gods agreed. But because he was a god they made him very big and colored him the color of gold. And they made him the lord of all the waters of the valley.

The carp, thus, mediates a world of fact and superstition, actuality and dream. And, for Antonio, it also supplies a counter to the Catholicism in which Father Byrne and the church have begun giving him instruction. A dilemma thus arises for the boy: which offers the better theology, an Indian animism or the Christianity of the Easter Week against which are set the later parts of the novel? Whichever Antonio's choice, both now co-exist as resources in the boy's nascent creative psyche.

So, too, and in overwhelming fashion, does Ultima. No obscure peyote or psychedelic cultist out of Carlos Castaneda, she is truly una última, one of the last of an ancient order. A Catholic believer, she nonetheless incarnates a oneness with prior and non-Christian stores of knowledge, the spirituality of the natural order. Not that Anaya turns her into mere formula or symbol; far from it. He depicts her as a credibly live presence, a bearer of the past but also for Antonio at least a major figure of his present. More still to the point, perhaps, she will be a crucial remembered presence in his future. From the start, too, he understands the meaning of the owl as her titular emblem (‘with Ultima came the owl’), a totem whose every successive cry heralds a major turn not only in her life but his own. It is the owl which attacks Tenorio in his first attempt to destroy Ultima and puts out his eye; the owl which accompanies her on her every mission; and the owl which when finally killed by Tenorio signals also her own inevitable death. Antonio acts both as her apprentice and her memorialist. She so in addition calls out his rising creative-imaginative sympathies, his artist's ability to see curandera and owl at once literally and figuratively yet without the slightest undue contradiction.

No account of Bless Me, Ultima, too, can pass over lightly Anaya's passionate sense of New Mexico not simply as region or place but as a storehouse of past Chicano identity. He himself has spoken of its hold for him in interview:

[The] landscape plays a major rôle in the literature that I write. In the beginning, it is an empty, desolate, bare stage; then, if one looks closely, one sees life—people gather to tell stories, to do their work, to love, to die. In the old days the sheep and cattle ranchers gathered in that small village, which had a train station, watering station for the old coal-burning trains. It was prosperous; they were good times. Then after the visit or the business at hand is done, the people disappear back into the landscape and you're left as if alone, with the memories, dreams, stories, and whatever joys and tragedies they have brought to you.16

Bless Me, Ultima clearly arose out of this store of ‘memories, dreams [and] stories,’ a triumph both for what they so palpably have given to him but which by the same token he has given back to them.


  1. Broadcast 18 April 1989, and repeated 23 April 1989. The interviewer was the present writer.

  2. Skow's review continues: ‘The Chinese-American culture is only beginning to throw off … literary sparks, and Amy Tan's bright, sharp-flavored first novel belongs on a short shelf dominated by Maxine Hong Kingston's remarkable works of a decade ago, The Woman Warrior and China Men’—Time, 27 March 1989.

  3. See, respectively: Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970); Julian Samora and Patricia Vendel Simon, A History of the Mexican-American People (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), and Lerone Bennet, Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America 1619–1964, rev. edn. (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1966).

  4. For a provocative contemporary cultural discussion of these issues see Werner Sollers, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

  5. The following offer accounts of this achievement: James M. McPherson, Laurence B. Holland, James M. Banner, Nancy J. Weiss and Michael D. Bell (eds.), Blacks in America: Bibliographical Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1971); Roger Rosenblatt, Black Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974); Addison Gayle, Jr., The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1975); Michael S. Harper and R. E. Stepto (eds.), Chants of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art and Scholarship (Urbana, Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1979); Robert Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana, Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1979); A. Robert Lee (ed.) Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel (London: Vision Press, 1980); C. W. E. Bigsby, The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980); A. Robert Lee, Black American Literature Since Richard Wright (British Association of American Studies Pamphlet No. 11, 1983); Keith E. Byerman, Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1985); and John F. Callaghan, In the Afro-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-century Black Fiction (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

  6. On Chicano history and politics, see especially: Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Rivera, The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972); Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America: The Chicano's Struggle Towards Liberation (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1972); Marcia T. García et al (eds.), History, Culture and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s (Ypsilanti, Michigan: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1983); John A. García et al (eds.), The Chicano Struggle: Analyses of Past and Present Efforts (Ypsilanti, Michigan: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1984); Alfredo Mirandé, The Chicano Experience: An Alternative Perspective (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985); Rodolfo O. de la Garza, Frank D. Bean, Charles M. Bonjean, Ricardo Romo and Rodolfo Alvarez (eds.), The Mexican American Experience (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1985); and Renate von Bardeleben, Dietrich Briesemeister and Juan Bruce-Novoa (eds.), Missions in Conflict: Essays on U.S.: Mexican Relations and Chicano Culture (Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1986). For the Chicano literary renaissance, see: Ed Ludwig and James Santibañez (eds.), The Chicanos: Mexican American Voices (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1971); Francisco A. Lomelí and Donaldo W. Urioste, Chicano Perspectives in Literature: A Critical and Annotated Bibliography (Albuquerque, New Mexico: Pajarito Publications, 1976); Francisco Jiménez (ed.), The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature (Binghampton, New York: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1979); Juan Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1980); Juan Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Poetry: A Response to Chaos (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1982); Salvador Rodríguez del Pino, La Novela Chicana Escrita en Español: Cinco Autores Comprometidos (Ypsilanti, Michigan: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1982); Jorge A. Huerta, Chicano Theater: Theme and Forms (Ypsilanti, Michigan: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1982); Charles M. Tatum, Chicano Literature (Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1982); Robert G. Trujillo and Andrés Rodríguez, Literatura Chicana: Creative and Critical Writings Through 1984 (Oakland, California: Floricanto Press, 1985); Luis Leal, Aztlán y México: Perfiles Literarios e Históricos (Binghampton, New York: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1985); Cordelia Candelaria, Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986); Julio A. Martínez and Francisco A. Lomelí (eds.), Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986); and Carl R. Shirley and Paula W. Shirley, Understanding Chicano Literature (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1988).

  7. Leslie Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1968); Dee Brown, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian History of the American West (New York, Holt, 1970).

  8. For general accounts of this renaissance, see Jack W. Marken (ed.), The American Indian Language and Literature (Illinois: A.M.H. Publishing Corporation, Goldentree Bibliography, 1978); Robert F. Berkhover, Jr., The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Knopf, 1978); Charles R. Larson, American Indian Fiction (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1978); Paula Gunn Allen (ed.), Studies in American Indian Literature (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983); Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983); Brian Swann (ed.), Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983); Arnold Krupat, For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985); and Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds.), Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature (Berkeley and Lost Angeles: University of California Press, 1987).

  9. For a relevant background, see H. Brett Melendy, Chinese and Japanese Americans (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1972; reprinted New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984).

  10. A most useful pamphlet which deals with these and other comic-strip ethnic stereotypes is: Charles Hardy and Gail F. Stern (eds.), Ethnic Images in the Comics (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, 1986). See, also, Eugene Franklin Wong, Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures (New York: Arno Press, 1978).

  11. See, especially, Amy Tachiki, Eddie Wong, Franklin Odo, with Betty Wong (eds.), Roots: An Asian American Reader (Los Angeles: U.C.L.A. Asian American Studies Center, 1971); Kay-yu and Helen Palubinska (eds.), Asian American Authors (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1972); Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusso Inada and Shawn Hsu Wong (eds.), Aiiieeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Authors (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974); Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and their Social Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982); and King-Kok Cheung and Stan Yogi (eds.), Asian American Literature, An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988).

  12. Time, 31 August 1988.

  13. To these I would add: Raymond Barrio, The Plum Pickers (1969), Richard Vásquez, Chicano (1970), Miguel Méndez, Peregrinos de Aztlán (Pilgrims of Aztlan, 1971), Oscar Zeta Acosta, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), Alexandro Morales, Caras Viejas y Vino Nuevo (Old Faces and New Wine, 1975), Rolando Hinojoso, Klail City y sus Alrededores (Klail City and its Environs, 1976), and Nash Candelaria, Memories of the Alhambra (1977).

  14. The other two are The Magic Journey (1976) and The Nirvana Blues (1978).

  15. Bless Me, Ultima (Berkeley, California: Quinto Sol Publications, 1972); Heart of Aztlán (Berkeley, California: Editorial Justa, 1976); and Tortuga (Berkeley, California: Editorial Justa, 1979). Among Anaya's other main publications should be included his several anthologies: Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1980) and (co-ed. Antonio Marquez), Cuentos Chicanos: A Short Story Anthology (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1984); his play The Season of la Llorona (produced by El Teatro de la Companía de Albuquerque, October 1979); his travel-narrative A Chicano in China (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1986); his collection The Silences of the Llano: Short Stories (1982); and his various essays and stories published in magazines like Bilingual Review/Revista Bilingüe, Escolios, Agenda, Rocky Mountain Magazine, Grito del Sol and South Dakota Review.

  16. Juan Bruce-Novoa (ed.), Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview (op. cit.), pp. 184–85.

Rudolfo Anaya with R. S. Sharma (interview date 7 April 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4599

SOURCE: “Interview with Rudolfo Anaya,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 68, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 177–87.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1992, Anaya discusses the state of Chicano literature in the United States, as well as his own literary aims, cultural concerns, and identity as a Chicano writer.]

This interview was taped on April 7, 1992 in his office at the University of New Mexico. R. S. Sharma teaches in the Department of English, Osmania University, Hyderabad, India.

[Sharma:] Rudy, I am in this country to learn about the writers. You are one of the major voices of Chicano writing and, in fact, one of the pioneers. What exactly is meant by Chicano writing and Chicano literature?

[Anaya:] We are very glad that you can be with us. Welcome to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. [Anaya's recent novel is titled Alburquerque. He insists on using the original spelling of the city, la villa de Alburquerque.] The Chicano movement began in the mid-1960s in California and in the Southwest, and in other places where there were Mexican-American communities. It was designated as the Chicano movement because the Mexican-American community was looking for a word, a label, that would most closely fit our identity—our present identity. And so they took the word Chicano from Mexicano; Me-shi-cano became Chicano. Embodied in that word was a sense of pride, a sense of revolution, a sense that we had to create our own destiny, a sense that we could not leave that destiny in the hands of Anglo-America; we had a history and a heritage and a language to preserve, to be proud of and to study.

That history had not been presented to us in the educational system. For me, Chicano means taking our destiny into our own hands. We are Hispano in the sense that we are a Spanish-speaking group; we are Mestizos in the sense that we are Mexicanos who came up (either recently, or in the last generation, or many years ago) from Mexico. Our ancestors came through Mexico and became part of the Mexican mestizo (a blending of the European with the Native Americans). In my case, my ancestors settled here along the Río Grande and for many centuries learned from, lived with, and intermarried with the Pueblo Indians. So Chicano also meant taking pride in the indigenous Native American roots that are a part of us.

Well, the question of tradition. Which tradition would you like yourself to be associated with? The European tradition, so-called American tradition, or the Spanish tradition in literature? Or would you like to create a tradition of your own?

You said in your lecture last week that India is, in many ways, an eclectic country. That it draws from many traditions and maybe that's its strength. I see myself as an eclectic person. I can draw from many traditions. If we are really to know ourselves, we have to rely on the vast storehouse of humanity, not just one narrow path. As a matter of fact, that's been the problem in this country. In the United States, Anglo-America has insisted on the tradition of one path to follow. (The melting pot, you see.) It doesn't fit. It doesn't work and it creates damage and harm.

You also hit the nail on the head when you said, “Would you like to create a position of your own?” I think that is what the Chicano movement has done. We have looked at our heritage and our history and re-analyzed it to create a Chicano literature. So, for the first time through the publication of books that go out to society and to the world, we created a literature from our own community, from our roots. And in it we are speaking of our identity, our history, our language, the oppression that we have suffered, and we were pointing to the future. The sense of identity is what we would like to see in our community—to revitalize it, to give it pride, and to become, in a sense, this multicultural eclectic group that can draw from many streams of thought.

You have talked about bilingualism. And Chicanismo as a bilingual culture. Now, do you have problems with that? Do you think culture is language specific? If it is language specific which would you prefer, English or Spanish?

One definition of culture is language specific: the language is the soul of the culture and if you lose the language, you lose the soul. I grew up speaking Spanish in a small village here in New Mexico. I spoke Spanish the first six years of my life, until I went to school. I didn't know a word of English. My grandparents and my parents spoke only Spanish, most of my family, most of the neighbors in that small village spoke Spanish. I still retain a great deal of my New Mexican Spanish and I speak it. Chicano youth of today are changing to English. I write now in English, as you know. I think what we can portray of our culture is now in the content of the story, the poem, or the play—in the content we can carry our culture and its values forward, even though the language is English. I would not like to see the Spanish language lost. I think we should preserve it, and I think this country should wake up and realize that being bilingual or multilingual is an asset and teach more language, but at the same time we're struggling with this very real contemporary problem: we have to do our best in English and see if the content will carry forth in that language.

Is the Chicano movement just a cultural movement? Are you just seeking cultural pluralism, or are you also seeking political pluralism? Do you have a politicalism now?

Yes, we have a political agenda; it was especially evident in the early years of the Chicano movement. There were many ideologies that were presented to the Chicano community, ranging from Marxism to cultural nationalism, the myth of Aztlán, for example, and its power to perhaps regenerate and gather the community together again. Wrapped up in those ideologies were the ideals of more representation, better jobs, better health protection for farm workers, and other workers. We sought entry into post-secondary education, and we wanted an education that was relevant to our children in the lower grades. We desperately needed professors and administrators in secondary education and at the university level. All that was part of a very definite political agenda. Part of that political agenda was a parallel stream: the cultural movement. We returned to Mexican music, Mexican art and created Chicano literature, Chicano theater, motion pictures, and one of the most lasting attributes of the Chicano movement, Chicano literature. The Chicanos found their voice and began to publish in small presses, to create from the beginnings in 1965 a few books, and now twenty years later, hundreds of books and a whole new generation of writers, a whole new generation of women writers—Chicanas who are lending their perspective to Chicano literature.

Would you prefer a Chicano existence within the corporate life of the U.S. or would you like to be associated with life in Mexico?

During the early days of the Chicano movement in the early 1970s I was traveling a lot to Mexico, almost every summer, and I was learning the culture and beginning also to speak more and more Spanish. I also studied the history and mythology, because I have made a great deal of use of mythology in my work. I like myth, I like the oral tradition that comes from the people and works its way into the novels. So, I was reflecting on the importance of that indigenous experience, whatever it is about me that is Mexicano. I filled myself up with those experiences, bringing them back with me to New Mexico where I was writing my novels.

My identity right now is tied to the Chicano identity. I can work in the Anglo-American world. I have been a professional teacher, secondary and also in the elementary, and the post-secondary schools at the university level. I can live in that world, I can work in it, I understand it. I could probably, after a very short time, also survive in Mexico, but my reality is here. My reality is in the United States as a person who has a particular history and heritage. Out of that heritage grew an identity that is strong, authentic, and proud. The United States should wake up and realize that those of us who are from different cultural groups want to keep up our identity within those groups, and we have every right to that identity.

You can see that I have a dark skin and features that don't fit the Anglo-American features, and you know that I was born here in New Mexico, my roots are here, so I demand to have a right to that identity. I can live in many cultures, and I can be multicultural and multilingual and still enjoy this identity. You see, the mainstream has tried to take that identity away from us. It didn't work. It caused too many problems and hardships and it ruined too many lives. People have to be free to choose their identity, so they can be fulfilled, so they can be liberated as authentic human beings.

The line of color, even in Mexico is not very well defined. In your writing you have recognized the Indian heritage as part of the Chicano heritage. Maybe as an American you have more in common with Anglo-America than with Mexico?

I probably do. Because I was born and raised in this country. I am a product of its school system, I am a product of an English department at the university and majoring in English language and literature, and the psyche and the history and the popular culture and the racism of this country, so I am a product of this country. I don't deny that. And as you say, probably more so than of Mexico. I have lived here all my life. But I still have to create my own identity, and I want to preserve my Nuevomexicano culture and its values.

You are a writer. Who do you write for?

Sometimes I write for the world, and sometimes I write for the Chicano community and sometimes that community is very specific. Sometimes I write for the Nuevo Mexicanos, the New Mexicans. Sometimes I will write either a scene or a passage thinking of a particular person enjoying that passage. Writing is a communication of my life to everyone. I am very much a part of this Southwest region. So I don't know if my work would strike a chord of recognition in India. But I hope it would, you see, because that's one of my goals, to write for everyone.

Yes. If literature did not have that universal element it will not register beyond its very immediate context. Many American ethnic writers are received very well in India, primarily because they have a great deal of feeling and emotion in their writing which is somehow missing in the mainstream. There is a great deal of experimentation with form.

I would add to that that it's not only our emotion and our passion for writing, we are also presenting to the United States and to the world a particular world view.

What is that world view?

For me, it's part European, it's part Anglo-American, it's part New Mexican, and it was formed in my childhood: the way of life that my parents and my grandparents lived, which was life in a small New Mexico village, a pastoral way of life with sheep, cattle, small farms along the river, very religious and spiritual. Religious and Catholic. Spiritual in the sense of oneness with the universe and the love of the earth which comes from the Native American traditions. A very communal approach to life, values of respect for the old, a very deep attachment to the earth that not only has to do with the pastoral lifestyle but, I think, it has to do with that Native American experience that the Mexicans learned in the Rio Grande. The earth is the mother that nurtures us all with the grains and fruit which we receive. Add the fact that historically we were colonized in the mid-nineteenth century by the United States and you have added a brand new dimension to the world view of the Mexicano. And when two distinct world views and cultures meet, you get an added dimension to life not always pleasant. Sometimes borrowing and sometimes sharing and sometimes growing with each other, but also very often an oppressive situation which I think some Chicanos would insist is the true definition of Chicano. That dialectic between the Chicano and the Anglo-American.

Your work also grows from a strong house of myths and you're also creating myths. What are they?

They are a way to understand the truth or to get to the truth. We want to understand the myths that all people have created on Earth, the spiritual myths of all communal groups. And maybe eventually we will learn the central storehouse of mythology. They're another way of looking at philosophy, spiritual thought, and wisdom. In my case they have to do with an indigenous experience. You know my book Lord of the Dawn, about Quetzalcóatl? It's based on a Mexican legend. I also have an interest in the cuentos (the oral tradition) of my culture. Native American myths resonate in me. They tell me something about myself. So I like to work those ideas into my novels.

Since the publication of your first novel you have done many other novels. Has your perspective as a Chicano writer changed?

I would hope so. I am still very tied to the original idea I had of writing a literature that relates to my community, a literature that describes our experience—in which people can recognize themselves. My perspective has not changed. I have been labeled a regional writer. That used to bother me—it doesn't bother me anymore. Because I see the importance of the work that I'm, that we're, doing.

The label “regional writer” was perceived, and is still perceived, as limiting. But you have the literature of the East, the whole range of writers; you have the literature of the South.

There is a whole world view wrapped up in the South that is defined by their history and their language and how they evolved. And we know so little about it. So we go to the writers and try to understand it. Through the literature we get a sense of their history. Someone said very recently, no one ever called Eugene O'Neill an ethnic writer. Of course he was, but he got incorporated into the canon, so it's much easier to marginalize us or pigeonhole us and put us to the side and say “Oh, those are the ethnic writers,” as if we didn't know anything. That's the problem of not accepting a more eclectic, multicultural point of view. Because then you don't give credit to each community and what it produces. To me that is hypocritical. As Chicanos we are here, and we are going to remain here and we're going to remain an active, creative people. The country will have to listen to us. We're going to make a difference.

Yes, I think there is a greater response to diversity in this country at the moment.

There is also a reaction. While we have more people aware of diversity, and more classes in the universities, there is this big reaction against it. So we have to deal with both sides. The new openness and the old status quo.

In India we have fourteen constitutionally recognized languages with their own literature. So we are familiar with the phenomenon of diversity; literary diversity, which you are not. Our students, when they read Chicano writers, or American Indian writers, still think of them as American writers. Are you happy with that kind of perception?

Yes, that's the way they see us in the beginning. But I think they have to dig deeper and realize the struggle that we've had within the society. We had to create our own literature and to create our own small presses. It hasn't been easy, you see. So, it's all right for your students to accept us that way, but also they have to know our history.

It would not appear to be true in your case considering that your first novel itself sold, if I'm right, more than a million.

No, no, not a million. I think we're at 300,000.

That's quite a reasonable sale for a first novel.

It's astounding in terms of book sales in this country. Bless Me, Ultima was published in 1972, it's now 1992, twenty years later … it's being used in high school, universities, around the world. I think many people still talk about it as a small press phenomenon. I'm very pleased. Now the publication houses of the United States are opening up a little bit to Chicano works. I see now that some of our writers are publishing with Doubleday, or Norton, or New Directions.

You mean there is a general acceptance of minority writing now in this country?

In a limited way. Afro-American writing has had an acceptance for quite a while, published by the big trade publishers. A few Native American writers have had that acceptance, and are recognized. Chicano writers are still on the tail end. I would say it's only been in the past few years that major trade publishers will look at a Chicano writer or publish them. So, the general acceptance is still not there.

Who do you think are the major Chicano writers now?

Maybe I'll give you a bibliography. That way you can look through the names. I think it's dangerous to talk about the major writers when we ourselves are struggling to get all the writers of our culture out and published. There has to be real concern to make sure that women within our culture have access to publication, and that homosexuals and gays have access to publication. That people who have not been able to share in that process have access. I think there is a new generation of young writers some of whom are gaining in importance. We are going to have Denise Chávez here on Friday, Ray González, Luis Urrea. José Montoya is still writing in California, one of the members of the old generation, but still very active. I can go on and on. There is now more of a gathering of other Latino writers in the United States. I think you're going to see the Puerto Ricans and the Cubans really come into the forefront and begin to learn about us and about each other. Virgil Suarez, down in the South is doing an anthology and he published my work, and he wants to come to New Mexico to make a connection with us. He's a Cuban-American writer. The new Latino literature is going to be very exciting in the next five or ten years.

But you will be still writing about the American experience. From a different perspective.

No, we will be writing—I will be writing about my experience within the American experience. There's a difference.

I have read about Chicano writers. Chicano poets. Women writing about literature, and I felt that many of them are writing the same way in which other women were writing than, say, different ethnic groups. Anything universal about this women's writing?

I think if you talk to the Chicana writers their universal response has to do with their struggle in a world that has been defined by men, and as literature has been defined by men, and largely taught and propagated by men. They have that common element. They are now presenting their own voice, which is a new voice, very much like the Chicano male writers presented their voice in the '60s and early '70s.

The ethnic writer wants to be heard. But you want something more than simply being heard by an all-American audience.

Well, isn't that idea of communication crucial to writing? In the beginning was the word, God wanted to be heard. Nothing wrong with a writer wanting to be heard. Because being heard means being able to create in the face of chaos (or in the case of oppression) your own identity. What is heard is your voice and your voice says, I too am a human being! I, too, belong to the human race and I have hopes and fears and aspirations: listen to me! I think that is a very important element of why we dare to write.

I think there is too much reliance on the past in much of the ethnic writing. Too much reliance on past history. Do you think there is a possibility of looking beyond the past into the future?

Writers writing about the future write science fiction, but I don't know too many ethnic writers writing science fiction. There's nothing wrong if your past has never been told, to tell it. We're trying to express our history, our community, our language, our language of the street, our bilingual language, everything that is us because it's never been told. This is what's exciting! We are concerned with the present and the future. That's where our children are going to live, and we have to give them skills to live in that world. But very many of us, or maybe I'll speak for myself, look at life now and into the future and don't see the things I value. Life is getting more violent, more war, more greed, and we are creating technologies that enslave us instead of help us. So why shouldn't I look at values that came from my past, that speak to the human being and my needs, not only as a person but as a spiritual person? Nothing wrong with that. We read world literature and the classics and philosophy, not only contemporary literature, because history gives us clues to the search we have for our identity.

I didn't mean there was anything wrong in that pursuit. How do you relate to the present?

My novel, Alburquerque, looks at my city, Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the traditional cultures of the Rio Grande, at the Chicano, Native American, and what's happening all around us in the city. Change, new people coming here, new industry, money, politics, what all these have to do with my life and my community. The majority of the work that I see coming out now looks at and analyzes our present situation.

There's too much reliance, also, on myths and folklore. What do you think about form? Myth and folklore are very important ingredients of your form, of Chicano literature. Are there any new experimentations in form?

Oh yes. Tremendous amounts of experimentation at the very beginning of the Chicano movement. Poets and writers were writing bilingual poetry, trilingual poetry, or poetry in four or five languages, English, Spanish, Black rhythm, Mexican Nahuatl, Indian, and our street Pachuco talk. [Nahuatl is the native language spoken in Central Mexico and Pachuco is the argot of the Mexican American (Chicano) zoot-suiters of the 1940s. Both languages are still spoken today.] Don't tell me that's not experimentation! It's been there from the beginning! In my own early novel, although it's a traditional story set in a small town in New Mexico, the Spanish language comes across as a crucial ingredient. Some of the newer writers now are very interested in experimenting with style. (Juan Felipe Herrera and Francisco Alarcon are examples.) My own interest is still a more conventional approach to the novel because I want to communicate with my community. That's important to me, so I don't see my role as a stylist. My work comes from the oral tradition, mythology, magical realism, the community, all adapted to fiction.

I gather that the literacy percent is very low among the Chicano community. Do you think lots of people read the literature?

I think many read, but unfortunately the history of the Mexican American people in this country tells us we have not had access to education. We have been a working people.

We have worked in farms and factories. Quite frankly, the generation after World War II and then my generation after the Korean War is the first Chicano generation to have widespread access to education. A small group of us became educated. Now we have a slightly larger group, the present generation, but it's still very low in comparison to the total society. So yes, literacy is a major concern in getting our stories, our poetry, and our theater out to our community. It is a major concern for me.

Do you have a kind of central body of Chicano writers? Something like the national association of Chicano writers?

No. We have a National Association of Chicano Studies that meets once a year. Writers are asked to read and present panels on their work and we meet each other. We really don't have a national association of Chicano writers. It's a good idea.

What are the major journals devoted to Chicano writing?

Las Americas from Arte Público Press and The Bilingual Review from the Hispanic Research Center in Tempe, Arizona State University, La Confluencia from Colorado.

Do you think a Chicano writer can live well by writing?

No. As a matter of fact very few writers can live well, even to say, pay their rent and have food on the table, by writing. Most writers in this country do another job.

Do you feel satisfied as a writer? With your role as a writer?

Extremely satisfied. I think it's the best life that the fates (el destino) could have granted.

I see that you have a large array of honors. What is your ultimate ambition?

I don't have an ultimate. I have now a project to write four novels based on the city of Albuquerque. I have written about the idea of change, people trying to change New Mexico into their own image and the harm that comes to people already here. I've finished the second one, Zia Summer, about storehousing of nuclear waste in New Mexico. I'm working on the third one. So I would say short-term it's to finish this quartet of novels.

Are there writers writing plays, drama? Do you have a tradition of Chicano drama?

Yes. We have a long tradition. In the old Mexicano newspapers of the Southwest, literature was included. And theater troops from Mexico used to come up and perform theater. We have folk theater and dances in the pueblos. And, now we have the Chicano movement, teatro. Luis Valdez was very important in Chicano theater, and he's gone on to make movies. Jorge Huerta is very well known. We have here in Albuquerque a bilingual theater company that has produced some of my plays, and the plays of other writers, not only from the state but international writers. A good theater movement, struggling but good.

Thank you very much. I avoided asking you more universal questions, criticisms and theory because I wanted you to talk basically to reach out to the students and teachers.

Well, it's also best, because, as you know, I think of myself as a writer.

Kevin McIlvoy (review date 30 August 1992)

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SOURCE: “Celebrating the Old Ways,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 30, 1992, p. 8.

[In the following review, McIlvoy offers a positive assessment of Alburquerque.]

Alburquerque is an archetypal story of a young man's initiation into self-acceptance and, finally, kinship with others. The truth offered in Rudolfo Anaya's newest novel is deceptively simple: Tu eres tu. You are who you are.

In Bless Me, Ultima,Heart of Aztlán,Tortuga,Silence of the Llano, and his works of nonfiction, this extraordinary storyteller has always written unpretentiously but provocatively about identity. Every work is a “fiesta,” a ceremony preserving but reshaping old traditions that honor the power within the land and la raza, the people. One account in Alburquerque explains:

It was in the fiestas of the people that I discovered the essence of my people, the Mexican heritage of my mother. There is a chronicle of life in the fiestas, beginning with baptism. La fiesta bautismo. I painted the padrinos at church as they held the baby over the font for the priest to bless el niño with holy water. In the faces of the padrino and madrina I saw and understood the godparents’ role. The padrinos would become the child's second parents, and the familial kinship in the village or the barrio would be extended. La familia would grow.

The exhilarating fiesta of Alburquerque is a splendid reading experience set in the contemporary city of Albuquerque, which, we learn, might have kept its original spelling if not for the Anglo stationmaster in the 1880s who remembered to paint both q's but could not remember both r's. In mixed admiration and disdain New Mexicans describe Albuquerque by saying, “It's not Santa Fe.” Albuquerque, they mean, has not yet become a parody of itself but, for the sake of “economic development,” it soon could.

At a time when the future identity of the city seems to be exclusively in the hands of the politicians and other power brokers, a young ex-Golden Gloves champion, Abran Gonzalez, tries to solve the mysteries of his own past and future. He has very little information at hand, only cryptic legends about his dead mother, Cynthia Johnson. He has, as well, some of her paintings. Abran has been told that “she painted an honesty into the Hispanos that's never been done before. Same faces you see on the street today, or in the villages. The gringo painters can't do that. Not a one can get the soul of the people. She did. In her paintings you look into the soul of this land.”

All the strands of Abran's life story, he finds, are held by others who, after his mother's death, withhold information about the personality of his mother and the identity of his real father. He struggles to learn more about his mother and father's choice to give him up for adoption. As he takes hold of more strands he is pulled across personal borders into new awareness: “He was a child of this border, a child of the line that separated white and brown. La raza called people like him ‘coyote.’”

A poignant element of the novel concerns how Abran's friend, Joe Calabasa, a “coyote” of Santo Domingo Indian and Mexican blood, unselfishly involves himself in Abran's search. Through these parts of the story new definitions of community emerge. Abran and Joe learn together the ways in which community and family might once more be linked by a lasting connection to “the earth and the rhythms of the people.”

He falls in love with Lucinda, whose family, like Abran's, has old roots in the Albuquerque community. What results from meeting and coming to know Lucinda's family is an understanding of the community's identity that becomes more important to him than his individual identity.

Alburquerque is unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of class lines and ethnic lines, but it is also convincingly optimistic—even in 1992, in the golden age of cynicism. How is that possible?

One answer is that Anaya treats the contemporary value of the old ceremonies, the fiestas that have inexplicably lasted: the cleaning of the acequia on the Santo Domingo pueblo, the pilgrimage to the church at Chimayo, the healing methods of the curanderas like Nana and dòna Tules, the stories retold by the old people like Juan Oso and by the new storytellers like Ben Chavez. In his patient, respectful portrayal of these ceremonies in Alburquerque, Anaya seems to passionately argue for them to be allowed to continue. The novel itself is a tribute to how storytelling traditions should be allowed to change and develop. Room must be made for all the ceremonies to co-exist in urban New Mexico, especially in cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe—which Lucinda calls “Santa Fantasy.”

When Anaya writes of these ceremonies, the prose shimmers like the air of northern New Mexico, dense with golden dust and pollen. An entry from Abran's mother's diary recalls the haunting fiesta of la matanza (the killing of hogs for winter meat). After the young people have been unable to muster strength or wisdom enough to gracefully act their parts in the very old, brutal drama, the patriarch of the family, don Pedro, takes charge:

When don Pedro had come face-to-face with the pig, he raised his hammer, and with the speed of a matador, there was a brief glint in the sunlight, the arc of his arm, a dull thud, and the pig jerked back and stiffened. The kill was complete and clean.

It had taken all the old man's strength to make the kill, but he had done it with grace. There was no loud thunder of the rifle, no crying children or barking dogs, just a clean kill. We stood hypnotized as don Pedro dropped to his knees in front of the quivering pig. Two of the men held the pig by the ears as don Pedro plunged the knife into the pig's heart. The blood flowed swiftly.

… When don Pedro withdrew the knife it seemed to come out spotless, unbloodied, and his hands were clean. Then the old man stood, and a shudder of fatigue passed through his frail body. He took a deep breath, and then sipped from the tin cup of water his wife handed him. He smiled at her, and when he looked at us, there was a serene beauty in his face.

The minor characters in this disturbing, memorable story-within-the-story, don Pedro and tia Ramona, are among many vivid figures who collectively make up the personality of the community. In “Albuquerque” the community itself, with its contradictory history of physical brutality and spiritual beauty, is as vital a character as Abran.

The author is less successful in distinctively portraying the subplot of political satire involving the mayoral competition between Frank Dominic, Marisa Martinez, and Walter Johnson. They are ruthless, ruthless, and ruthless, respectively. The battles between them are replays of familiar Southwestern political power struggles involving land grants and water rights. This mayoral race culminates in predictable melodrama; however it ultimately does nothing to diminish the quiet, rewarding surprises throughout Alburquerque.

Like his friend, Ben Chavez, Abran Gonzalez discovers in the “violence and fear … at the core of every city” the healing effects of public and private ceremony. Alburquerque invites the reader into a fiesta: a cleansing, blessing journey of simple steps through old and complex paths.

Jordan Jones (review date Fall 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Alburquerque, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 201–02.

[In the following review, Jones offers a favorable assessment of Alburquerque.]

At the age of twenty-one, Abrán González—the former Golden Gloves boxer and pride of the Albuquerque barrio—discovers at the deathbed of his birth mother Cynthia Johnson that he was adopted and is half Anglo. This revelation begins Abrán's quest for his father, which forms the center of a magical book that heals like the hands of a curandera shaman.

Alburquerque fairly brims with considerations of origins. The title reclaims the city's original spelling, lost when an Anglo stationmaster dropped the first r on the railroad sign. Abrán's search for his own beginnings thrusts him into Cynthia's high-society world. He meets Frank Dominic, one of Albuquerque's richest powerbrokers, Ben Chávez, a Latino novelist, and Marisa Martínez, Albuquerque's beautiful and committed mayor. These people and others help teach Abrán how to be himself—most do so by positive example; Frank Dominic does so by negative example. (Even Dominic is obsessed with origins; he fancies himself a descendant of the Duke of Alburquerque.) In the course of the novel, Abrán learns that, despite seeming ethnic complexity, he is who he is. As Doña Tules says to Abrán, “Tú eres tú.”

Anaya is at his visionary best in creating magical realist moments that connect people with one another and the earth. Cynthia Johnson's diary describes a certain “la matanza” (ceremonial killing of hogs) botched by young men who had lost their connection to life and the earth: “It was a ceremony, the taking of the animal's life to provide meat for the family. The young men needed to be reminded that it was not sport, it was a tradition.” Joe, Abrán's half-Indian, half-Mexican friend, woke up in Vietnam while about to kill a man: “‘I couldn't kill him. It would've been wrong, the old man wasn't a deer, he was a man.’” These visionary moments become, in the course of the book, ever more magical and curative, transforming the characters into nothing more nor less than themselves.

Rudolfo Anaya with Ray González (interview date March 1993)

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SOURCE: “Songlines of the Southwest: An Interview with Rudolfo A. Anaya,” in Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya, edited by Bruce Dick and Silvio Sirias, University Press of Mississippi, 1998, pp. 153–60.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1993 and published in The Bloomsbury Review, Anaya addresses his retirement from the University of New Mexico, his writing projects, the lasting influence of Bless Me, Ultima, and his views on contemporary Chicano literature.]

From The Bloomsbury Review, Sept/Oct 1993: 3, 18. Reprinted by permission of publisher and Ray González.

This interview was conducted in March 1993 during Anaya's visit to The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas.

[González:] You're retiring from teaching at the University of New Mexico and want to devote more time to your writing and other interests. At the same time your novel Alburquerque is reaching a larger audience. It's going to appear in a mass paperback edition along with Bless Me, Ultima. Do you feel all these things show that you are reaching a new phase in your long career as a writer?

[Anaya:] That's a very good way to put it: a new phase. I don't view leaving the University of New Mexico and teaching as retirement. I view it more as the mid-career change, to do a lot of writing and other things, like reading. I want to do more essays. So I think it's just a shift of energy into new areas.

You are one of the first Chicanos to get recognition with Bless Me, Ultima in the early seventies, before the whole idea of multiculturalism meant a larger audience and more opportunities for Latino writers. Who do you think your audience was twenty to twenty-five years ago? Has it changed much? Are there more publishing venues than twenty years ago?

Bless Me, Ultima, was published in 1972, the same time that the multicultural efforts in education and publishing began. At that time Bless Me, Ultima had two audiences: one, the Chicano community, because they had not had contemporary fiction to read by living Chicano writers; two, white America found an interest not only in the culture I was portraying but also the worldview that was portrayed in my work. The audiences are still the same. There is a growing audience in the Chicano community that wants to read its writers, and certainly in twenty years we've built up that audience. It's more aware, and it's searching for new writers. The rest of the country has developed a tremendous interest in the cultural differences we present in our work. I also think an international audience has grown—there's an interest in Europe, in Mexico. I've gotten translations in Poland and Russia, for example. The cultural nucleus of family that we represent as Chicanos in the U.S. has so many fascinating and interesting aspects to it, that appeals to an international audience. That to me is a growing component.

When you were doing your early writing in the sixties and seventies, did you feel alone as a writer? Was there an external community back then or do you feel that now, with the higher attention on Chicano writers, there is more of a community?

Definitely, I felt very much alone as a writer. I was writing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and teaching part time in grade school, then high school. I thought at the time, and I still do, that Chicano writers twenty years ago were composing the first models and aesthetics of what would be Chicano literature, for better or worse. I'll leave that to historical judgement. So we had that kind of isolation. We didn't have other contemporary works around us. It was the beginning of the whole Chicano movement.

In my case, I didn't have enough examples, especially in the novel. We had Pocho by Villareal, but even that we hadn't read. We really had to compose a style of our own, a sense of community, our sense of storytelling and the cuentos,corridos, the give and take of familia. We had to evolve that model that we would eventually present as our literature. The aspect that was not lonely was more of a subconscious energy; the Chicano movement itself. Literary movements are formed by this subconscious energy that is going on. You may not be aware of it, but you are being energized by it. By the time I hit the press in 1972 with Bless Me, Ultima, Quinto Sol was publishing Rolando Hinojosa and Tomás Rivera. Estela Portillo was also publishing. Out of that we created the base of contemporary Chicano literature.

Do you think that today Bless Me, Ultima offers its audience a chance to interpret the book differently than perhaps readers did twenty years ago?

I think that question could be better answered by critics from my point of view. They are still looking at the same things. In other words, teachers will tell me what their students think, or I'll get a group of letters from students, or I'll go to a high school and visit students. They are very interested in the life of Antonio, how he grew up, how it relates to them. They are interested in that element of our culture that is spiritual, that has to do with healing resources and with our long tradition of using the earth and its resources not only to feed ourselves but to heal us. All of that has come into a kind of fruition, and people are very interested. They still find the same kind of interest in Bless Me, Ultima, after all these years.

Even though there are more novels today by Chicano writers, the subject matter of Bless Me, Ultima is not found in too many of them. More of these contemporary novels are about urban life. The spiritual quest you offer in Bless Me, Ultima is harder to find in younger Chicano writers. Do you have any ideas of why that might be?

I think the movement from the rural to the urban setting is very natural. Chicanos have moved out of the farms, ranches, and small villages into urban settings. On the other hand, I insist that if there are universal values, that make us the community that we are, we have to take those universal values into the urban setting. Otherwise urban novels will reflect only chaos, violence, and disorientation of the contemporary urban setting. It's good too that writers reflect part of the realities as they try to give it meaning—as in Alburquerque—by not forgetting those roots. The roots of our universality as so deep and embedded in such a beautiful, indigenous tradition. Their fingers stretch back into Iberian and North African and Mediterranean traditions. We haven't begun to tap the deeper meaning of what constitutes our consciousness. That's what I find exciting—contemporary writers who will pay attention to what we can eventually call our alma, our soul, and reflect that in their work. There is so much to be done that we need dozens of writers poised to create the second phase of the Chicano movement, una nueva onda. We see it happening in the younger writers today. If we are going to reflect only on the disorientation and the chaos, then the question is, What do we reflect to our community? Part of my role as a writer is to reflect the deeper meaning of our universal experiences.

We've talked off and on about how there are more opportunities for younger Chicano writers. Do you ever wonder whether having more publishers going after their work, more agents, more reading and writing programs, take away from the sense of community among the writers? Can they get back to their people, or is there such competitiveness within the market that it removes the writers from their community?

I think it's natural in the evolution of any community to be caught up in the desires of the society at large. In many respects, its about time our writers had opportunities to publish with trade publishers that can distribute works to a wider audience. We write to communicate, and that communication somehow has to be gotten out. My only concern is that some of the publishers still view the Chicano community as one that really doesn't have depth of meaning, one still largely invisible to the American eye, invisible to white America. Exploitation may come about because they are now under pressure to publish the work of this community, which is big and growing. With the given world economics of this hemisphere, it is acquiring a force. We have to be careful not to join hands in that exploitation. We need our writers to be published and distributed. We need to make more movies, we need to get our music and art out because of our rich heritage. We have to remember one of our first jobs as Chicano artists is to try to reflect our own community and our own deeper reality of who we are as Chicanos.

You've written a number of other novels and several books of nonfiction, yet, Bless Me, Ultima, and its legacy are always with you and with readers and scholars of Chicano literature who know the history of the genre. How do you see yourself moving beyond that book and legacy, even though it's going to be a part of your biography forever? Has it been hard to live with that book and yet go on to other work?

Quite the contrary. Every author should be so lucky to have a first novel stay around twenty years. I see it as a blessing that I was able to write it in those early years while I was wrapped up in trying to find my soul within and the soul of my community, that I could pull enough together in one story to reflect that. People have told me that I'm lucky to hit that once in a lifetime. I was convinced as a young writer that what I wanted to do was go on and write, to try all kinds of genres, attitudes and attempts at storytelling. I've done nonfiction, travel journals, plays, and children stories. I learn more about myself and about writing by the constant exploration in those other areas. I'm darned glad I have a Bless Me, Ultima at the middle passage in my life. I can pay attention to a lot of things I want to write about. That's a very comfortable place to be.

When you read novels by other Chicano writers, especially younger ones, do you feel there is a sense of personal search or do you feel they are too busy reflecting on what's going on now, trying to be a part of the market and getting recognition? How do you approach these newer Chicano novels?

As I said earlier, I think it's part of a natural evolution to have this new bursting out, this flowering, this nueva onda, if you want to call it that, of young writers, especially a lot of women writers who are finding their voices. The only way we learn about ourselves is from a diversity of voices. You can't learn from one person. Even in the origin of our culture, we pay attention more to village elders as opposed to one chief priest. So we have that tradition, and new writers are the new chorus of the community. Being here, I was reflecting on how different San Antonio is from Albuquerque. We have to recognize that within the community we have these regional differences. We pay attention to different parts of our lives that have to do with the region and the landscape. We need the poets from San Francisco to read in New Mexico, and we need the writers from San Antonio to also read in New Mexico. They need us. That chorus is going to present a truer picture of who we are. In terms of the market, it is unwise for young writers to be fooled into exploitation by a market simply because it is there. Writing is an art. To me it's almost a sacred calling that we have. We are in the sense those new elders. We have to be careful that what we say is not exploited.

Albuquerque and the Southwest have been settings for a number of your books. In recent years, so-called border literature has been getting more recognition. Writers like Arturo Islas, Aristeo Brito, Denise Chávez, and yourself have been writing about this area. Why do you think there has been such a focus on the Southwest by novelists?

The ones you named live there. It is our turf, our tierra. One thing that makes writers strong is when they look at that field of energy, that tierra that has nurtured their body and their soul. It makes sense to write what you know.

Your most recent novel, Alburquerque, tells a different kind of history, of a familiar place to many people who either know New Mexico or have been to the area who like the Southwest. In many ways, it ties into your other novels like Tortuga and Heart of Aztlán because it continues to create and document a way of life that even many Chicano audiences may not be aware of. I sense Alburquerque is a very important novel in your career. It's gathered many things from your earlier work and put them into this story. How do you see the new book?

It is important in my career. You are right in saying it gathers the strands out of my first three novels. It is also quite a change in style for me. The lyricism I had as a young writer is not as prevalent. I saw myself moving into a new style by which to communicate to my community. Attacking political themes was something I hadn't done before. They certainly fit into the power struggles going on in the urban settings of the Southwest. The themes include problems of urban development that as an indigenous culture we have to deal with, and the growth of high technology in laboratories. The whole question will be with us forever—water usage, who owns, who dominates water usage, and how. In the West, it is a very important part of our lives. I'm in a new time and space. At the same time, I see that it has its roots planted in what is still nuevo Mexicano. The book is about what it means to me to be nuevo Mexicano.

Was it difficult to combine autobiographical details and the history of the area with these current political and environment problems? How did you come up with a story that preserves that past as you take on current issues about growth in New Mexico?

It was difficult in the sense that I worked on the novel for ten years. That may be indicative of the process I was going through. I was doing a lot of other things: anthologies, writing plays, editing, doing a few children's stories. But I constantly worked on Alburquerque during those years. The changes in subject matter and style were not easy. They were earned.

You have also edited a number of anthologies and continue to publish The Blue Mesa Review. What made you go beyond the normal life of a writer to become an editor and work with different writers?

I have been fortunate since I first published in 1972. I owe some of my time and energy to the writing community. Anthologies are a way of bringing new voices out and publishing them. The anthologies I did were for small presses, and there was no money to be earned. I did them so the presses would be able to publish another book. It's giving back part of my good fortune to the writing community.

When I talk to other Chicano writers about what's going on in publishing now, with a growing audience, your name comes up when we ask who are the writers who need to be read, who are the writers you need to talk to and find out what it takes to survive. People who talk to you and read your books learn some of the things that you've gone through. You are now one of the elders you mentioned earlier, one of the first ones who broke ground for those of us today. Are you still learning things yourself, or are you just passing things on to other writers?

Every day I sit down in front of my computer to write something new or revise something. I'm learning. If I weren't learning every day, I wouldn't be writing. The process for me is one of self-illumination. My goal is clarity. That's the basis of my worldview and was taught to me by my ancestors. It's my way of being in touch with the community, the earth, the universe. That process is good whether you are an eighteen-year-old writing your first short story or fifty-five and working on a new novel. People call me up and send me manuscripts. I try to help as much as I can because it's again part of that return. They may be at a level where they need a lot of help. I'm willing to give as much as I can. Chicano writers by and large are still not coming out of the MFA creative writing programs. We're still largely self taught. We need to help each other a lot. The most important thing you can give a young writer is an editorial vision about what the work has in it, how it can be improved, what you see happening. If I were going to set up a program to help young Chicano writers, I would set up a mentorship program between young and older writers so that they could work together for six months to a year. The give and take is helpful.

In the beginning of the interview we talked about your being in an important place in your career—reading, getting away from teaching, finding more time for the other things. Are there any projects or goals you have not reached yet?

I have in mind a quartet of novels: Alburquerque is the first one, Zia Summer is the second one. I've already written it. I'm starting now to work on the third one. The goal of a quartet is brand new, and it's going to take a long time. I want to shift a bit of attention into developing stories for children, because one of the most crucial areas where we can give our sense of community is to the niños, to the young people. It's a responsibility that we have. I also want to continue to travel and do readings. Maybe spend more time in my apple orchard.

You've been in New Mexico your entire life, and you've produced a body of work mainly set in New Mexico. You've taught there and continue to create there. You are a writer who has a real sense of place. That's hard to find in a lot of writers today. Is there anything about home that means the most to you as you look back on your career?

If you study the map, you will find there are certain migration routes that are used along what we call the frontera. Our ancestors used these routes because they were what the aborigines of Australia called the “songlines of the earth,” the songlines of la Madre Tierra's memory. The Río Grande valley and the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico for me are those kinds of places on earth. There is a great deal of spirituality attached to places. The sense of the memory of my ancestors and the memory of the earth is what gives me my power to write and reflect upon it. So I can't see uprooting myself in search of something new when it's right at my back door. Or I would say my door that faces east where the sun comes up every morning over the Sandia Mountains.

Feroza Jussawalla (review date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Alburquerque, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, p. 125.

[In the following review, Jussawalla offers a positive assessment of Alburquerque, but notes that it does not measure up to Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.]

Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is probably the best novel I have ever read. It has had a powerful impact on my thinking about differences in cultures and how we can bring them together through our own spirituality. Every semester I find some excuse to teach it, whether in children's literature, in my “Introduction to Fiction” courses, or in composition classes. Alburquerque is not such a novel and frankly does not measure up to Ultima’s greatness. It is, however, a touching story, one I could not put down once I had started it. Through some passages I wept copiously. Anaya is that kind of writer—gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, and one who leads you to an examination of your own life. If through Alburquerque he could get half the residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to examine their lives, as he led me to examine mine, he would fulfill his calling as a shaman and bring healing to our multicultural world.

Alburquerque is about Abran Gonzalez, an ex-Golden Gloves boxing champion who is the son of Cynthia Johnson and her Hispanic high-school boyfriend Ben Chavez. Cynthia, the daughter of a powerful white businessman, is forced to give up Abran shortly after his birth. Her father cannot stand the thought of his colleagues thinking that “Walter Johnson's daughter had lain with a Mexican kid and had a baby.” Cynthia gives up the child to her childless maid to raise him. The novel begins as Abran receives a letter from Cynthia, his birth mother, while she is dying of cancer at an Albuquerque hospital. His adoptive mother finally tells him her story but does not know who the father is. Abran reaches his birth mother's bedside minutes too late, and thus his quest for his father begins. In his search to learn who his real father is, Abran allows himself to be used by the cunning Dominic, who talks him into a prize fight through which Dominic hopes to raise money and to increase his own popularity as a candidate for mayor of Albuquerque in a forthcoming election. As Abran is being pounded in the ring, his girlfriend and the man he does not know is his father, Ben Chavez, go ringside to tell him he does not need to fight any more, that Chavez is his father. The knowledge having given him a second wind, Abran wins the fight.

Like its predecessor, Alburquerque portrays a quest for knowledge. Here, however, it is a much more intimate knowledge which in the long run leads to the kind of overarching knowledge that Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima struggles to attain: “Tu eres tu, a free spirit come to create his destiny in the world.” Alburquerque is a novel about many cultures intersecting at an urban, power- and politics-filled crossroads, represented by a powerful white businessman, whose mother just happens to be a Jew who has hidden her Jewishness (“the crypto Jews of New Mexico”), and a boy from the barrio who fathers a child raised in the barrio but who eventually goes on to a triumphant assertion of his cross-cultural self.

William Clark (essay date 21 March 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Mainstream Discovers Rudolfo Anaya,” in Publishers Weekly, March 21, 1994, p. 24.

[In the following essay, Clark discusses the enduring success of Bless Me, Ultima, and Anaya's increasing mainstream popularity and recognition.]

What may be most striking about the six-title, six-figure book deal that New Mexico author Rudolfo Anaya recently concluded with Warner Books is that this major recognition has been so slow in coming.

Long hailed as one of the founding fathers of Chicano literature, described in the New York Times Book Review as “the novelist most widely known and read in the Latino community,” in Newsweek as “the most widely read Mexican-American” period, Anaya is, as Newsweek also points out, “celebrated in the West and barely known back East.” But all that is about to change, beginning in April, when Warner will simultaneously publish mass market paperback and color-illustrated hardcover editions of Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya's classic Chicano coming-of-age novel. This is the first hardcover appearance ever of the highly acclaimed 1972 work.

Though the players in this deal decline to give precise figures, Susan Bergholz, Anaya's New York agent, characterizes it as “a significant six-figure arrangement.” A series of three contracts were settled between November 1992 and late 1993, calling for the appearance of five more books in the next three years.

In September, Warner will release a mass market paperback of Anaya's 1992 novel Alburquerque and a Spanish edition of Bless Me, Ultima—this publisher's first Spanish-language book, in a translation purchased from the Mexican house of Grijalbe. The Anaya Reader, composed of short fiction, essays and possibly a play or two, is scheduled for trade paperback publication in April 1995. Two new murder-mysteries will follow in hardcover—Zia Summer in June '95 and Rio Grande Fall in summer '96. And, as icing on that rich literary cake, last year Anaya also sold Hyperion a pair of children's books.

The quantity and diversity of this material, its mix of old and new, is partly what makes Anaya's Warner deal so unusual, notes Bergholz. “For a publisher to say, ‘We want to take you on as an author, with all your different masks,’ used to happen a lot years ago, but doesn't often happen now. It was a gutsy thing to do.”

To Anaya, Warner's commitment is emblematic of a dramatic shift in attitudes since the early '70s, when only academic publishers would accept Chicano writers. “We had nowhere else to go … it was extremely hard. But each community has art to offer, and now we've come to a place in American history where we celebrate that,” says Anaya, who, at 56, has lived his entire literary life in Albuquerque.

For 19 years, until his retirement in 1993, he taught creative writing and Chicano literature at the University of New Mexico, whose press issued several of his later works. Since the appearance over two decades ago of Bless Me, Ultima—which, published by a small California press called Quinto Sol, has sold more than 300,000 copies in 21 printings—Anaya has continued to produce at a prolific rate.

“This author has a huge following, was poised to launch into the mainstream,” says Warner editor Colleen Kapklein, who initiated negotiations. “We saw him as having a strong track record, and he was taking a new direction in his work—telling more commercial stories, wanting to reach a wider audience—a direction we'd want him to take. There was a lot of good timing in this deal.”

That timing also has to do, she says, with changes in the publishing industry linked to the debate about multiculturalism. “The industry has become much more open regarding what it can sell; you reach more readers if you publish more kinds of books, and readers are more open to different kinds of books.” With nice poetic justice, the success of several younger Latino writers, such as Ann Castillo and Sandra Cisneros, for whom Anaya provided inspiration and a role model, has helped create the climate for their mentor's breakthrough.

But there's further serendipity. Bergholz and Anaya connected in May 1992, and the agent soon floated their proposal for a package of books to a dozen publishers, all of whom expressed interest in parts of the package, but not in the whole vision. Meanwhile, Kapklein, who hadn't yet been contacted, saw the Publishers Weekly review of Anaya's novel Alburquerque and called Bergholz to discuss paperback rights. When she learned that Bless Me, Ultima was also available, along with two new novels, she swung into action and within three months a contract was in place for the initial phase of the deal.

Anaya is a quiet, reserved man, but this new arrangement, with its promise of national distribution, coming as it does just when he's finally able to devote all his time to writing, clearly gives him deep satisfaction. “What a writer wants is to communicate with people,” he says simply. “The other part of it—me going on writing, doing the things that interest me, following inclinations about where the work is leading me—will remain the same.

“But it's a whole new ball game.”

Ray González (review date 18 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “Desert Songs,” in Nation, July 18, 1994, pp. 98–101.

[In the following excerpt, González examines the lasting achievement of Bless Me, Ultima and Anaya's significance as a groundbreaking Chicano writer.]

After twenty-two years as the most important and influential Chicano novel ever written, although available only from a small press, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima has been reprinted in hardcover and mass-market editions by Warner Books. A timeless work of youth and rites of passage, Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol's edition sold more than 300,000 copies in two decades of classroom use and word-of-mouth readership. Despite Anaya's impact as a storyteller and mentor for many Chicano writers and the fact that he is one of the best fiction writers in the United States, it has taken all this time for his work to reach a mass audience. Up to now, his books have appeared through small and university presses, which meant consistent publication but limited distribution. This was the norm for the majority of Chicano writers until recently. With the boom in Latino literature in the late 1980s and its present flowering, many younger Latino writers—I'm thinking of Cristina Garcia, Julia Alvarez, Dagoberto Gilb and Denise Chavez, for example—will not have to “pay dues” for the length of time that Anaya has. The most recent example of this is Luis Alberto Urrea. His memoir Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (Anchor) was a best seller, and In Search of Snow, his first novel, enjoys the backing of HarperCollins.

The reason such marketing considerations have to be a part of examining these two novels is that the context in which Chicano fiction is received is changing as more work is available on a larger scale. Anaya is enjoying a period of prosperity in his career, though he never stopped writing and has endured for decades; Urrea, a talented essayist novelist and poet who is one of the hottest Chicano writers around now, is almost automatically a “mainstream” property early in his career. In Search of Snow is an ideal novel for the nineties because Urrea does not have to restrict himself to “Chicano” themes, or even characters. It is also an interesting contrast to Bless Me, Ultima because Anaya's famous characters of the boy Antonio Márez and Ultima, the curandera (healer), created the legacy and the world in which Urrea has his story take place.

Both novels revolve around male characters and how they come of age. Antonio grows up in the mythical town of Guadalupe, New Mexico, in a time when strong family ties were the key source in the education of a young boy. His mysterious dreams and his discovery of the natural world of the llano (plain), the desert, owls and the sheer isolation of life in the Southwest will strengthen his spiritual bonds to his family and to his own future. He is blessed to be brought up and guided by Ultima, one of the last curanderas, whose ties to a pagan past meant she had to pass her dying secrets to Antonio.

As one of the first bilingually canted novels, with its heavy use of Spanish phrases, Bless Me, Ultima set the stage for the unique Chicano genre of Catholic-pagan fiction. The now-familiar elements include a supernatural environment, a questioning of traditional Christian values and the presence of a strong mother figure to perplex and guide the young protagonist through his life. Early in the novel Antonio admits:

I was happy with Ultima. … I learned from her that there was a beauty in the time of day and in the time of night, and that there was peace in the river and in the hills. She taught me to listen to the mystery of the groaning earth and to feel complete in the fulfillment of its time. My soul grew under her careful guidance.

Anaya encompassed his native New Mexico landscape in this work, which turned out to be in sharp contrast with the more contemporary urban settings of later Chicano novels. While he was writing about the power of family myths and Antonio was learning the many names for the earth, other Chicano writers were dealing with the barrio, political protest in Vietnam-era America and confrontations in the streets. As a result, the formal style and unfolding beauty of the language in Bless Me, Ultima isolated it from the direction a majority of Chicano writers took in the seventies and eighties.

Reading this book decades after it was written, it is clear that Antonio's apprenticeship at the hands of Ultima is part of the natural evolution of Mexican-American culture. The boy's awareness of good and evil still reverberates in our hearts: Now, with gang death loyalty the only kind of love and brotherhood known to many young boys, Ultima's visionary gifts and Antonio's yearning for them are needed more than ever. This is Anaya's ultimate triumph as a writer and a leader in our community.

After all these years, Bless Me, Ultima endures because Anaya had the vision to see and capture the past, the present and the future of his people in one work of art. It is a difficult task to accomplish in fiction, yet Anaya did it with the same rare magnitude Gabriel García Márquez effected in One Hundred Years of Solitude.Bless Me, Ultima is our Latin American classic because of its dual impact—it clearly defines Chicano culture as founded on family, tradition and the power of myth. Through Antonio and Ultima, we learn how to identify these values in the midst of the dark clouds of change and maturity. Bless Me, Ultima also shows that, like García Márquez, Anaya recognizes that the Latino world is fluid and mysterious and can only be re-created by playing with time and the unpredictable environment that surreal-religious forces create in the lives of all, the young and the elderly, the isolated and the social, the powerful and the weak. …

The central messages of Bless Me, Ultima and In Search of Snow may be quite different, but this shows an evolving quality: These novels stand like opposing bookends in the historical and psychic shape of the Mexican-American experience, meaning this literature is succeeding in encompassing the choices we have as a culture, as writers, and as a people coming from the same landscape to redefine our spiritual and familial needs.

William Clark (essay date 5 June 1995)

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SOURCE: “Rudolfo Anaya: ‘The Chicano Worldview,’” in Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1995, pp. 41–42.

[In the following essay, Clark provides an overview of Anaya's life, literary career, and growing recognition as a founding father of contemporary Chicano literature.]

From the large, east-facing windows of his home high on the mesa west of Albuquerque, N.M., Rudolfo Anaya commands a sweeping panorama of the Rio Grande Valley. The city where this legendary 57–year-old Chicano author has lived his varied and prolific literary life spreads out below, threaded by the sinuous bosque, the forest of giant cottonwoods, that flanks the Great River.

“River of dreams, river of cruel history, river of borders, river that was home,” Anaya calls this artery of water, so vital to the arid landscape of New Mexico, in his novel Alburquerque. It is a region that, with its unique, centuries-old Hispanic culture—part Spanish, part Native American—he has made inimitably his own.

Anaya's father was a vaquero from Pastura, a horseman who worked cattle and sheep on the big ranches of this region; his mother came from a farming family in the Hispanic village of Puerto de Luna in the Pecos Valley. The windswept wildness and solitude of the llano, the plains, and the settled domesticity of the farm—“Those are the two halves of my nature,” says Anaya, a short, wiry man, quiet and reserved, with curly graying hair and a thick mustache reminiscent of Pancho Villa's that dominates his strong, rugged features, the face of the ranchero he might well have become.

“Much is in the blood,” he continues in his soft, resonant voice, “because the blood has memory, memory that has been imprinted, encoded, from the past—the whispers of the blood are stories. The rational mind works in tandem with that information; in fact, its job is to bring that to light, to tell us who we are.” Beyond the valley and the city's eastern sprawl, the Sandia Mountains rise in a sheer escarpment that marks the point of the sun's daily rebirth, an event that has deep spiritual significance for Anaya.

The sun is indeed the central symbol of Zia Summer, the new novel from Warner Books—and this versatile writer's first outing in the murder-mystery genre. The Zia is an ancient Pueblo Indian sun symbol, and it provides key clues in Anaya's tale of Albuquerque PI Sonny Baca, who, in solving the murder of his cousin, confronts a terrorist cult and the threat posed by the transport and disposal of nuclear waste.

Zia Summer is the second of a quartet of seasonal novels that began in 1992 with Anaya's Alburquerque (the original spelling of the city's name), whose protagonist, a young barrio boxer in search of his true Chicano identity, helps thwart a grandiose real-estate development scheme that threatens the traditional life of the region's old Hispanic and Indian communities.

Sonny Baca will return in Rio Grande Fall, the already-completed third book in this series, due out next year from Warner. That mystery deals with, among other matters, the pressing social problem of homelessness, Anaya says. He prefers not to speak of the final novel of his quartet, which is now in progress, beyond noting that Sonny will once again do battle with the eco-terrorist villain he first encountered in Zia Summer.


But, underpinning Anaya's most recent novels—with their new emphasis on contemporary social issues and the more accessible style he says he's consciously adopted—are the themes he has consistently probed since his first book, the seminal Chicano coming-of-age novel, Bless Me, Ultima, appeared in 1972: spirituality and healing; Chicano tradition and myth; the sacredness of the land; the role of shaman-like figures as mentors and guides; and the quest for personal, communal and cultural identity.

Though published by a small academic press, Bless Me, Ultima sold more than 300,000 copies in 21 printings before Warner finally brought out the first hardcover edition in 1994. Told with lyric magic realism, steeped in the traditional lifeways and folklore of New Mexico's rural Latino culture, the novel established Anaya's reputation as one of the founding fathers of Chicano literature.

Addressing matters that mirror not only Anaya's own life but also the experience of Chicanos throughout the Southwest, his next novel, Heart of Aztlán (Editorial Justo Publications, 1976) brought a rural Nuevo Mexicano family to Albuquerque and depicted their painful struggle to maintain the values of their Mexican-American culture within the new context of the urban barrio. His third novel, Tortuga (Editorial Justo, 1979), examined pain, loss and healing in a different way—through the experience of a boy hospitalized with a severe back injury like the one Anaya himself endured as a teenager, the result of a diving accident.

“I think of myself as a novelist,” Anaya muses, “but from the beginning, I wanted to try many things.” In the dozen years between Tortuga and the appearance of his next full-length novel, Alburquerque, he published a volume of short stories, The Silence of the Llano (Quinto Sol, 1982), two novellas and several plays; produced a book-length Chicano mock-epic poem and the travel journal A Chicano in China (Univ. of New Mexico, 1986); and wrote a steady stream of essays. One of his children's stories of that period, The Farolitos of Christmas, is due out from Hyperion in December, and Warner has just released a wide-ranging anthology, The Anaya Reader.

This productive career has brought Anaya more than a score of honors, among them the Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award for Bless Me, Ultima, the PEN-West Fiction Award for Alburquerque, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His lectures and readings have taken him throughout the U.S. and far abroad—a long way from the tiny village of Pastura on the plains of east-central New Mexico, where he was born, and the nearby Pecos River town of Santa Rosa, where he grew up.

Anaya's family left rural New Mexico when he was in the eighth grade and moved to Albuquerque, where he attended high school and went on to study English and American literature at the University of New Mexico, earning a bachelor's degree in 1963, then an M.A. in 1968. Though he began writing Bless Me, Ultima in 1963, he was also teaching in the Albuquerque public schools and attending graduate school part-time; he spent seven years perfecting that book. He was working, he says, “in a vacuum,” not yet involved with the Chicano movement then gaining momentum in the Southwest, of which he would soon become one of the most eloquent voices.


“With as much literature as I'd read and studied,” Anaya recalls, “when it came time to treat my own experience, other novels in the American experience didn't work as models. I had to find my own voice, my own expression, my own forms, working with my own materials, values, culture. What I set out to do—which is what every writer does—was to create a universe, one that had its roots in the Nuevo Mexicano experience. I just plunged into the material and tried to give it form, structure. I wanted to take those people I had known and make them breathe again.”

History would show that he succeeded masterfully, but getting this new work out—couched in the bilingual, Spanish-English form that Anaya pioneered and has pursued throughout his career—proved, to say the least, difficult.

“It was extremely hard,” he says. “I sent the book to dozens of trade publishers over a couple of years and found no interest at all. The mainstream publishers weren't taking anything Chicano and we had nowhere to go. For us, living in a bilingual world, it was very normal to allow Spanish into a story written in English—it's a process that reflects our spoken language—but [in approaching mainstream publishers] I was always called on it. Without the small academic, ethnic and university presses, we'd never have gotten our work published intact.”

Keeping faith in his work through those years of rejection, Anaya ultimately gleaned the address of one such obscure press, Quinto Sol Publications in Berkeley, Calif., from a magazine, and sent off his manuscript—which was accepted immediately and published in 1972.

But, even as his reputation as the “godfather” of the Chicano novel grew, Anaya would continue to publish exclusively with small presses for over two decades. In 1992, he met New York literary agent Susan Bergholtz and, in part because of her longstanding advocacy of Latino writers, signed with her—the first and only agent he's ever had. Together, they developed a proposal for a package of books, a mix of old and new work, and, by late 1993, Bergholtz had settled a series of contracts with Warner for the publication of illustrated hardcover, paperback and Spanish editions of Bless Me, Ultima and a paperback edition of Alburquerque in 1994, as well as The Anaya Reader and the three novels featuring Sonny Baca. That major recognition at last placed Anaya, after 20 years, squarely in the world of mainstream publishing, with access to the broad public he's always wanted.

Throughout his career, Anaya supported his family and his writing through work as a teacher and academic counselor. From 1974 until his retirement in 1993, he was a professor at the University of New Mexico, specializing in creative writing and Chicano literature—a field in which his own widely anthologized work has become standard fare. That long commitment to education connects with the idea of mentorship that is a consistent theme in his writing (most of his protagonists have spiritual guides) and which is, he says, “in a sense, the role of the writer.”

Anaya has provided a groundbreaking model for a whole generation of Latino writers, and his UNM students have included the likes of Chicana novelist and playwright Denise Chavez. “There seems to be a new wave in Chicano literature and visual art—it's booming, and Chicanos are coming into their own,” Anaya says, with one of the grins that frequently light up his face, hints of the strain of humor that pervades his work. “Any community, to be known, needs many voices to describe it, and that's what's happening.”

For two or three hours each weekday morning, Anaya, working on his computer, continues to add his voice to that vibrant chorus, pursuing his life's work in the adobe home he and Patricia—his wife of 29 years, who is also a writer—designed for themselves two decades ago. In his small study, a glass door faces the Rio Grande Valley, and one book-lined wall bears a row of santos, the statues of saints that are so much a part of Nuevo Mexicano life.

“The place where I work is very important, hard to duplicate,” he says. “It's where all the characters gather; they're used to this little room, comfortable visiting me here.” For Anaya, the process of fiction is “part meditation, part bringing up ideas that have been fermenting, but a lot of it involves characters speaking to you and forcing you to write their stories. There's no preconceived story line—the characters come alive and say: here's my story.”

In this “centered, sacred space,” Anaya will, he says, typically draft a novel within a year, then revise extensively through five or six drafts—each of them read by Patricia, his “frontline editor”—as he hones language, fills out characters, sharpens his focus. “What I've wanted to do is compose the Chicano worldview—the synthesis that shows our true mestizo identity—and clarify it for my community and for myself,” Anaya says. “Writing for me is a way of knowledge, and what I find illuminates my life.”

A. Robert Lee (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6116

SOURCE: “Chicanismo as Memory: The Fictions of Rudolfo Anaya, Nash Candelaria, Sandra Cisneros, and Ron Arias,” in Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 320–39.

[In the following excerpt, Lee explores the complex matrix of historical, geographic, and cultural legacies that underlies Chicano identity, as well as the significance of memory and remembrance in Chicano literature, particularly in Bless Me, Ultima.]


For those of us who listen to the Earth, and to the old legends and myths of the people, the whispers of the blood draw us to our past.

—Rudolfo A. Anaya, A Chicano in China

Mexican, the voice in his deep dream kept whispering. Mejicano. Chicano.

—Nash Candelaria, Memories of the Alhambra

I'm a story that never ends. Pull one string and the whole cloth unravels.

—Sandra Cisneros, “Eyes of Zapata”

I might say that I studied Spanish and Hispanic literature … because I had to know more about my past, my historical past.

—Ron Arias in Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors

Four Chicano storytellers, four calls to legacy. No less than other American cultural formations, chicanismo invites a play of memory coevally personal and collective. If one begins with the historical sediment, the substrata that have made up Chicano culture, it is first to underscore the human passage involved, those transitions from past to present that its novelists, poets, and dramatists have so remembered when making imagined worlds out of actual ones.

The Olmecs and Mayans provide a founding repository, passed-down legends, belief systems, alphabets, and an architecture. Los aztecas and the European intrusion of Hernán Cortés in turn bequeath the very memory of mestizaje, a first joining to be endlessly repeated through time. Mexican Independence in 1821, the Texas-Mexican War of 1836, the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, and above all the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917 again make for history as iconography, fact as also inward memory. Villa and Zapata, for their parts, supply the epic names, substance, and yet, as always, shadow. Seen from the 1960s and beyond, and to a population burgeoning by both birth rate and immigration, it comes as no surprise that Aztlán has found new currency, a term of rally and consciousness, yet always a remembrance, a reference back to chicanismo’s first homeland.1

Memory, thus, for virtually every Chicano/a, has meant a dramatic crossply, Nezahualicóyotl and Moctezuma invoked alongside Los Reyes Católicos, or La Malinche, La Llorona, and La Virgen de Guadalupe alongside Cortés, Coronado, and Cabeza de Vaca. It has meant overlapping cuentos of war and peace, from the aztecas to the conquistadores, or from the Alamo of the Mexican-American conflict to the Los Alamos of the atomic bomb. It looks to the transition whereby Alto México became the “American” Southwest of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, and Texas. Brujería and curanderismo, likewise, carry a folk pastness into a later Catholicism of First Communions and Mass. So rich a human “text” has increasingly found its literary equivalent, memory as the pathway into a renaissance of Chicano word and narrative.

In the same way as a Chicano legacy invokes the rural, a campesino life of crops and herding and festival, so does it invoke the urban. Barrios from East Los Angeles to Houston, Albuquerque to Denver, bear witness to the history of an estimated 60 percent of Chicanos who have now moved into the cities. If Harlem for African Americans carries the residues of both Dixie and Manhattan, then an East Los Angeles or Houston for Chicanos looks back to both el campo and the exhilarations and losses of inner-city life.

One refraction lies in popular culture, whether mariachi bands or Los Lobos, mural art or low-rider cars, work songs or “Latin” rap. Memory, at times nostalgia, it can be admitted, runs right through the cultural rebirth of the 1960s, from the music of Ritchie Valens to the actos of Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino, with, in train, the singing of Linda Ronstadt, the comedy of Cheech Marin, and the screenwork and directing of Edward James Olmos. In this latter respect, films like La Bamba,Zoot Suit,The Milagro Beanfield War,Stand and Deliver,American Me,Blood In, Blood Out (coscripted by Jimmy Santiago Baca), and even television's once mooted El Pueblo/L.A., for all their resemblance to the contemporary, could not have been more permeated by pastness, the appeal to shared recollection.

In like manner there has been the view of Chicano community, even in poverty, as in and of itself a kind of memorial art form, an inherited pageant of culture and custom. In this, Chicano foodways bear an especially ancestral insignia—a now familiar menu of chile,frijoles,enchiladas,mole,chimichangas, or tamales. If, however, a single token of legacy were needed, it would surely be found in the ristras hanging in almost every Chicano home.

In common with its nuyorriqueño and cubano-americano counterparts, chicanismo also involves a past held inside two seemingly parallel but actually deeply unparallel languages.2 For under American auspices English has long emerged as the language of power, leaving Spanish as the assumed lesser idiom, a signifier of illiteracy or migrant outsiderness. Even so, this is anything but to suggest that the two languages have not been historically symbiotic. Chicano Spanish, for its part, may resort to the street or vernacular caló of pachucos,vatos, and chulas, but it also abounds with borrowed anglicisms like watchar la tele or kikear (the drug habit). American English has in mirror fashion long made its own borrowings, like barrio and the all-serving gringo, as well as farm or ranch borrowings, like lasso,adobe,bronco,cinch, or sombrero. Endless repetition on television and other commercials of food terms like taco,tortilla, and nacho has made quite as marked an impact, one language's “history” remembered (or more aptly misremembered) inside another.

In the case of anglicization, Chicano memory has been stirred in another way as well. In categories like Hispanic or, depending on the user, even the more generally favored Hispano or Latino, many have heard the carryover of a note of condescension. “Ethnic” likewise arouses suspicion, a WASP hegemony's self-appointed rubric for patronage of minority culture. The English Only campaigns, now under way in more than twenty states, recapitulate the same discriminatory process. Here, in all its historic loading, is but the latest effort to make the language as well as the general sway of Anglo culture the presumed standard for America at large. Does not, then, an accusing politics of memory lie behind a reaction like “English Yes, But Only, No”?

A corrido, or folk song, like “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” adapted for the screen by PBS in 1982 from Américo Paredes's version with Edward James Olmos in the title role, nicely points up the discrepancy.3 The tale of a “Mexican” smallholder in the Texas of 1901 falsely accused of horse theft, it turns on how the word horse in English can translate into Spanish as both masculine and feminine, namely caballo and yegua. At issue, however, is infinitely more than a quirk of philology. The ballad speaks on the one hand to Gregorio Cortez's Mexican Chicano ancestry, and on the other, to the Anglo hegemony that lies behind the Texas Rangers who pursue him and the Yankee judge and court that try him for the murder of the sheriff. What is involved here is the remembrance of two value systems, two misreadings across the cultural divide. Much as English and Spanish might seem to have been saying the same thing, the gap has been symptomatic, and in this case, fatal.

Similar discrepancies in fact underlie a whole array of “popular” versions of American history. No better instance offers itself than the Siege of the Alamo (1836), and in its wake, the defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Told one way, the Siege has come to signify Anglo triumphalism. Where more so than in John Wayne's 1960 Hollywood version with its “Lone Star State” hurrahs and featuring James Bowie and William B. Travis as the truest of patriot martyrs? Told in another way, did not Santa Anna's attack on the Alamo represent a timely resistance, a counterforce to Yankee expansionism? Such a perspective, going against the grain, appears in Jesús Salvador Trevino's television film of 1982, Seguín.

These splits and divergences in memory extend more generally to the American Southwest and West, not least when they double as el norte. From a mainstream viewpoint, the link is to Manifest Destiny, an indigenista, tribal-Chicano world preordained to be won and settled. A Mexican or tribal viewpoint, however, speaks of colonized land, stolen tierra or patria. Counterversions of the Mexican Revolution similarly arise, on the one hand the Red plot, the Bolshevism so warningly reported (and then not reported) by, say, the Hearst press, and on the other hand the heroizing popular revolution of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (known as the PRI) and leftist recollection in general.

Sleepy Lagoon and the Zoot-Suit riots of 1942–1943 also yield their twofold interpretations. Were the assaults of a largely white Southern navy in wartime Los Angeles “straight” racism or, more obliquely, the fascination of one uniformed group (Anglo, English-speaking, Bible-Protestant, military) with its also uniformed opposite (Latin, Spanish-speaking, sexually knowing, baroque)?4 How, subsequently, should one remember 1960s movements like César Chávez's United Farm Workers, especially the 1968 grape boycott, José Angel Gutiérrez's La Raza Unida in Texas, and “Corky” Gonzales's Crusade for Justice in Denver? Do they best refer back to mainstream labor politics (in Chávez's case, on account of the alliances with Filipino and other Asian workers) or, when linked back into the wartime bracero programs, to a wholly more discrete Chicano politics?

Nor, however collective the memory, does chicanismo yield some unconflicted view of itself. The class hierarchy, for instance, created by the conquistadores who devastated Moctezuma's Aztecs, has had its modern footfalls, still based on blood, skin color, landedness, and, as often, family name. Old chicanismo plays against new, especially between certain New Mexico dynasties and those of a supposedly inferior birthright. Does this also not call up the disdain of Spanish-born gachupines for colonial-born criollos or Creoles, and theirs, in turn, for los indios (especially genízaros—Indians forced to lose their tribal language and to speak only Spanish), for mestizos, and for negros (a distinct but Spanish-speaking black population)?5

Just as a missionary-begun Catholicism largely took over from Aztec and other cosmologies (though obliged to coexist with vernacular practices like curanderismo), so did evangelical Protestantism increasingly make inroads into that same Catholicism.6 This, and the impact of Latin American liberation theology, has led to increasing doubts about the church's attitude to family, women, birth control, divorce, and authority in general. How are Chicanas, especially, to “remember” Catholicism? As spiritual sanctuary or as yet another patriarchy able to oppress with its gendered rules of conduct?

Another major contradiction lies in the continuing pull of California. It has, undoubtedly, promised betterment, the dream of abundancia, whatever the risk of repeated deportations by la migra. Somewhere in this persists the remembered myth of el dorado, the continuing lure of Las Siete Ciudades de Cíbola. But California has notoriously also flattered to deceive. Chicano unemployment has soared, as have high school dropout rates, barrio poverty and crime, and the wars of attrition with the police and courts. Yet as the continuing surge of cross-border migration bears out, and despite each amnesty over residence papers, California remains history both made and still in the making.7

Imagining and reimagining the past may well be, in L. P. Hartley's apt and rightly celebrated phrase, to visit a “foreign country”—especially in an America notoriously obsessed with the future. Yet Chicanos, no doubt having known the flavors of defeat as well as those of triumph, have had good reason to dwell there. Whether it was the conquistador regime, a border as redolent of human flight as El Río Grande, the history by which Tejas was reconstituted as Texas, or the duality of California as promise and yet denial, the prompt to memory has been always ongoing. For it is the memory that serves as solvent for each generation's telling of la raza, and nowhere more so than in the ongoing body of fiction of what rightly has become known as chicanismo’s literary renaissance.8

Certainly that has been the case for Anaya, Candelaria, Cisneros, and Arias, however differently they have styled their uses of memory. Indeed, the Chicano tradition can virtually be said to have thrived on the shaping energies of remembrance, a present told and reinvented in the mirrors of the past. This is true especially for one of the seminal novels of chicanismo. José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho (1959) not only offers the life of its writer-protagonist, Richard Rubio, as a portrait of the artist, it also locates that life within the history of migration from Mexico to southern California—thus memory as collective in scope yet specific, a single trajectory.9

In a story cycle as delicately imagistic as Tomás Rivera's “… Y no se lo tragó la tierra”/And the Earth Did Not Part (1971),10 another kind of memory holds sway, that of a single migrant-labor year of a Chicano dynasty headed for “Iuta” (Utah) in which all other similar years and journeys are to be discerned. Raymond Barrio's The Plum Plum Pickers (1971) makes for a linking memorialization,11 this time set in the Santa Clara Valley during the Reagan governorship. Its very accusations of labor exploitation and racism lie in remembrance. In Peregrinos de Aztlán (1974),12 Miguel Méndez takes a more vernacular direction—the memories of Loreto Maldona, car washer in Tijuana—as an anatomy of border life, of poverty and dreams, nationality and mestizaje. For his part, Alejandro Morales in Caras viejas y vino nuevo (1975),13 translated as Old Faces and New Wine in 1981, transposes barrio Los Angeles into a kind of working archive, a city of inheritances and the present-day told in its own imaginative right as at once then and now.

In Klail City y sus alrededores (1976),14 as in the rest of the “Klail” series, Rolando Hinojosa subjects Belken County to Faulknerian rules, a south Texas Chicano and white “mythical kingdom” invoked as through a lattice of multicultural (and bilingual) recollection. Daniel Cano's Pepe Rios (1991) attempts historical fiction of an older kind,15 the Mexican Revolution as an epilogue to colonialism and yet a prologue to chicanismo. Arturo Islas looks to memory as myth in The Rain God (1984),16 the portrait of a Tex-Mex dynasty descended in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution from the escaping but always imperturbable matriarch Mama Chona. In all these different modes of using chicanismo as memory, fiction lays claim to a special kind of authority, a heritage of time and voice given its own dialogic measure.

Memory has equally shaped an increasingly emergent Chicana fiction, in whose ranks Sandra Cisneros has been little short of a luminary. Isabella Ríos's Victuum (1976),17 through the psychism of its narrator, Valentina Ballesternos, renders womanist history as a kind of ongoing dream script. Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986) creates an epistolatory,18 and teasingly self-aware, feminist novel of women's friendship that also explores the pasts of America and Mexico, a historic mestizaje again taken up in her fantasia, Sapogonia (1990), and in her New Mexico almanac-memoir, So Far from God (1993).19 Cherrié Moraga's storytelling (and essay work), of which the anthology she co-edited with Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), and her Loving in the War Years (1983) and The Last Generation (1993) can be thought symptomatic, yields another remembrance, that of the “silence” that, by historic writ, has surrounded lesbian life in a culture so given to patriarchy.20

Literatura chicanesca, non-Chicano writing about Chicano life and culture, affords another styling of memory in John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War (1974).21 However specifically set in the 1970s or local the story, its drama of contested water rights again calls up an inlaid older history of Indian, Mexican, and Anglo conflict that, across four centuries, took New Mexico from a Spanish colony to a territory to America's forty-seventh state. Joe Mondragón finds himself fighting Ladd Devine and his Miracle Valley Recreation Area Development for the right to irrigate his land. In fact, what Nichols portrays tacitly is the fight for the Chicano heritage in which the bean field acts as a trope for the very soil, the nurturing medium, of a whole people's history. Nichols's novel and the Redford-Esparza movie of 1988 (with its appropriately multiethnic cast of Ruben Blades, Carlos Riquelme, Sonia Braga, and Christopher Walken) can so play “fact” against el mundo de los espíritus, the historicity of the past as open to a figural or any other kind of access.

Chicano autobiography as a related kind of “fiction” has been wholly as various in its uses of memory, whether Oscar Zeta Acosta's rambunctious, Beatnik-influenced narratives of the 1960s, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), or Richard Rodriguez's elegiac, if controversially assimilationist, Hunger of Memory (1981) and Days of Obligation (1992), or Linda Chavez's radically conservative manifesto, Out of the Barrio (1991), or Ray Gonzalez's El Paso “border” history, the lyric and pertinently titled Memory Fever (1993).22

For as these texts, too, “remember” (even those of an assimilationist bent) so, like the novels and stories they accompany, they inevitably contest and dissolve mainstream decreation of chicanismo. Perhaps, overall, Frances A. Yates's notion of “memory theatre” applies best—the forms of the past, however obliquely, always to be remembered and re-remembered in the forms of the present.23

“Some time in the future I would have to build my own dream of those things which were so much a part of my childhood.” So does the narrator of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972) reflexively look back to the pending cuentista or authorial self who will write that childhood, that past, into being.24 The note, for Anaya, is typical, one of retrospect, pastness, and memory as a textualized weave of events actual and imaginary, which, if less persuasively, also runs through his subsequent novels, Heart of Aztlán (1976), Tortuga (1979), and Alburquerque (1992).25

The novel typically begins in remembrance. “The magical time of childhood stood still,” says Antonio Márez at the outset. He repositions himself as the seven-year-old raised in the 1940s Spanish-speaking New Mexico who finds himself pulled between the vaquero, herdsman, Márez clan on his father's side and the farmer-cultivator Luna clan on his mother's. But he also acknowledges the writer-in-waiting who will learn to appropriate as his own the shamanism, the brujería, of Ultima, the anciana and curandera invited by his parents to spend her last days with the family.

Anaya enravels each inside the other, a Chicano childhood as literal event, in Antonio's case often the most traumatic kind, and a drama of inner fantasy and imagining. “Experience” and “dream,” he rightly recollects, “strangely mixed in me.” This blend makes the imagined landscape of Bless Me, Ultima not a little Proustian, a New Mexico there on the map and yet personalized and sacralized by personal remembrance.

One contour, thus, has the adult Antonio recalling his ill-matched parents, his sisters, Deborah and Theresa, and the three absentee brothers with their eventual disruptive return from the wars in Europe and Japan. It looks back to the Spanish of the home, the English of school, the latter having anglicized him from Antonio to Tony. It summons back his parents’ competing hopes for him: his father's dream of a new beginning in California and his mother's hope that he will enter the priesthood. He sees, too, as he could not have done in childhood, the irony of a horseman father now asphalting the highways as if to seal in, to inhume, the very tierra his family once proudly herded.

Yet another contour remembers the dreamer child within, drawn to the indio myths of earth, mountain, and river and to the legend of the Golden Carp—a creation myth of a god-protector of the village—in which he comes to believe under the tutelage of his friends Samson and Cisco. The center of all these memories, however, has to be Ultima—ancient, as her name implies, midwife at his birth, explainer of his pesadillas, or nightmares, teacher of herbs and flora, and martyr who at the cost of her own death has brought down the murderer Tenorio Trementina. Her grave, whose secret celebrant he becomes, serves the novel in two ways: as a figuration of both his past and his future, his legacy and at the same time his destiny.

Antonio thus finds himself irresistibly drawn in memory to her bag of potions, her nostrums, her deific owl with its links to a Christly dove or an Aztec eagle, and her very aroma. But if she signifies for him as at once guardian angel, muse, and the very anima of chicanismo, he, for his part, plays the perfect apprentice, the word maker with his own eventual kind of brujería.

This double weave, the memory of the “facts” of his history and of his first prompts to imagination, determines the whole novel. He thinks back to the deaths he has witnessed: Lupito, who, unhinged by his Asian war experiences, shoots at the sheriff only to invite his own destruction; Narciso, the harmless drunk who, all too true to his name, is killed by Trementina; Florence, the drowned boyhood friend who first guided him to the Golden Carp; and Ultima herself. Each death “happens,” or “happened,” but each, equally, goes on “happening” in his own chambers of memory, to await transcription by the memoirist he will become.

The back-and-forth movement of memory also encloses Jason's Indian, the unspeaking sentinel to a pre-conquistador past; like the carp and the owl, he embodies the tribal and vernacular folk past as against the Holy Weeks, Communions, and Masses of Father Byrne's parish church. There is a sheen, a membrane, that also settles over the novel's place-names, notably Los Alamos, as indeed the Poplars, but also, the irony of which is anything but lost on Anaya, as the atomic test site. More domestically, for Antonio, “El Puerto” (“refuge,” “harbor”) as the home of the Lunas and “Las Pasturas” (“pasture”) as that of the Márez family resonate with equal effect—even as they pass into time past. Memory, in other words, in all its overlapping and coalescing kinds, also yields mixed emotional fare for the narrator-memoirist, pain and warmth, breakage as well as love.

But “build my own dream” Bless Me, Ultima does, a landmark portrait of childhood's dream itself told as a dream. The spirit of the dream derives, overwhelmingly, from Ultima, her creativity carried by the narrator from childhood to adulthood, from first associations to written word. For the memory of her, as of his family, of his land, and of all the voices and myths that have made up his legacy of chicanismo, cannot be thought other (such is Anaya's triumph) than Antonio Márez's memory—and memorialization—of himself.


  1. The following usefully address Chicano history and politics: George I. Sánchez, Forgotten People: A Study of New Mexicans (Albuquerque, N.M.: C. Horn, 1940); Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (New York: Greenwood Press, 1948); Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Rivera, The Chicanos: A History of Mexican-Americans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972); Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: The Chicano's Struggle Towards Liberation (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1972); Richard Griswold de Castillo, The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850–1890: A Social History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979); Marcia T. García et al., eds., History, Culture and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s (Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1984); Alfredo Mirandé, The Chicano Experience: An Alternative Perspective (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985); Rodolfo O. de la Garza et al., eds., The Mexican American Experience (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1985); and Renate von Bardeleben, Dietrich Briesemeister, and Juan Bruce-Novoa, eds., Missions in Conflict: Essays on US-Mexican Relations and Chicano Culture (Tübingen: Gunter Verlag, 1986).

  2. See Andrew D. Cohen and Anthony F. Beltramo, eds., El Lenguaje de los Chicanos: Regional and Social Characteristics Used by Mexican-Americans (Arlington, Va.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1975); also Dogoberto Fuentes and José A. López, Barrio Language Dictionary: First Dictionary of Caló (Los Angeles, Calif.: Southland Press, 1974).

  3. Américo Paredes, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1979).

  4. A persuasive interpretation of these events is found in Mauricio Mazón, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1984).

  5. For the implications of this nomenclature, see Alfred Yankauer, “Hispanic/Latino—What's in a Name?” and David E. Hayes-Bautista and Jorge Chapa, “Latino Terminology: Conceptual Bases for Standardized Terminology,” both in American Journal of Public Health 77, no. 1 (1987): 61–68. I am grateful to Dr. Arthur Campa of the School of Education, University of Colorado at Boulder, for directing me to these references.

  6. A symptomatic publication would be Freddie and Ninfa García, Outcry in the Barrio (San Antonio, Tex.: Freddie García Ministries, 1988).

  7. Perhaps the most provocative history remains Acuña, Occupied America.

  8. For bearings on this achievement, see Joseph Sommers and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, Modern Chicano Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Clitts, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979); Juan Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1980); Juan Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors: A Response to Chaos (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1982); Salvador Rodríguez del Pino, La Novela Chicana Escrita en Español: Cinco Autores Comprometidos (Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1982); Charles M. Tatum, Chicano Literature (Boston: Twayne, 1982); Robert G. Trujillo and Andrés Rodríguez, Literatura Chicana: Creative and Critical Writings through 1984 (Oakland, Calif.: Floricanto Press, 1985); Luis Leal et al., eds., A Decade of Chicano Literature, 1970–1979: Critical Essays and Bibliography (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Editorial La Causa, 1982); Houston Baker, ed., Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literatures for Teachers of American Literature (New York: Modern Language Association, 1982); Luis Leal, Aztlán y México: Perfiles Literarios e Históricos (Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1985); Marta Ester Sánchez, Contemporary Chicana Poetry (Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press, 1985); Maria Herrera-Sobek, ed., Beyond Stereotypes: The Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature (Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1985); Julio A. Martínez and Francisco A. Lomelí, eds., Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986); Cordelia Candelaria, Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985); Vernon E. Lattin, ed., Contemporary Chicano Fiction: A Critical Survey (Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1986); Carl R. Shirley and Paula W. Shirley, Understanding Chicano Literature (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988); Francisco A. Lomelí and Carl R. Shirley, eds., Chicano Writers First Series, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 82 (Detroit, Mich.: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1989); Asunción Horno-Delgado et al., eds., Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989); Ramón Saldívar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990); and Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar, eds., Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

  9. José Antonio Villarreal, Pocho (New York: Doubleday, 1959).

  10. Tomás Rivera: “… Y no se lo tragó la tierra”/And the Earth Did Not Part (Berkeley, Calif.: Quinto Sol Publications, 1971).

  11. Raymond Barrio, The Plum Plum Pickers (Sunnyvale, Calif.: Ventura Press, 1969; rpr., with introduction and bibliography, Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1984).

  12. Miguel Méndez, Peregrinos de Aztlán (Tucson, Ariz.: Editorial Peregrinos, 1974).

  13. Alejandro Morales, Caras viejas y vino nuevo (México: J. Mortiz, 1975).

  14. Rolando Hinojosa, Klail City y sus alrededores (La Habana: Casa de las Américas, 1976); Generaciones y semblazas, trans. Rosaura Sánchez (Berkeley, Calif.: Justa Publications, 1978). Author's English version: Klail City (Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1987).

  15. Daniel Cano, Pepe Rios (Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1991).

  16. Arturo Islas, The Rain God (New York: Avon Books, 1984, 1991).

  17. Isabella Ríos, Victuum (Ventura, Calif.: Diana-Etna, 1976).

  18. Ana Castillo, The Mixquiahuala Letters (Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1986).

  19. Ana Castillo, Sapogonia (Houston, Tex.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1990) and So Far from God (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993).

  20. Cherrié Moraga et al., eds., Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1983); Cherrié Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981); Cherrié Moraga, Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por los labios (Boston: South End Press, 1983); Cherrié Moraga, The Last Generation (Boston: South End Press, 1993).

  21. John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1974). The rest of the trilogy comprises The Magic Journey (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1978) and The Nirvana Blues (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1981).

  22. Oscar Zeta Acosta, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1973); Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory (Boston: Godine, 1981) and Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (New York: Viking Penguin, 1992); Linda Chavez: Out of the Barrio (New York: Basic Books, 1991); and Ray Gonzalez, Memory Fever (Seattle, Wash.: Broken Moon Press, 1993).

  23. Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966). Some of these implications of “memory” I have explored elsewhere. See A. Robert Lee, “The Mill on the Floss: ‘Memory’ and the Reading Experience,” in Ian Gregor, ed., Reading the Victorian Novel: Detail into Form (London: Vision Press, 1980).

  24. Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (Berkeley, Calif.: Quinto Sol Publications, 1972).

  25. Rudolfo Anaya, Heart of Aztlán (Berkeley, Calif.: Editorial Justa Publications, 1976); Tortuga (Berkeley, Calif.: Editorial Justa Publications, 1979); and Alburquerque (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).

Works Cited

Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1972.

———. The Revolt of the Cockroach People. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1973.

Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: The Chicano's Struggle Towards Liberation. San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1972.

Anaya, Rudolfo A. Alburquerque. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

———. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley, Calif.: Quinto Sol Publications, 1972.

———. A Chicano in China. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

———. Heart of Aztlán. Berkeley, Calif.: Editorial Justa Publications, 1976.

———. Tortuga. Berkeley, Calif.: Editorial Justa Publications, 1979.

Arias, Ron. The Road to Tamazunchale. Reno, Nev.: West Coast Poetry Review, 1975. Reprint, Albuquerque, N.M.: Pajarito Publications, 1978.

Baker, Houston, ed. Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literatures for Teachers of American Literature. New York: Modern Language Association, 1982.

Barrio, Raymond. The Plum Plum Pickers. Sunnyvale, Calif.: Ventura Press, 1969. Reprint, with introduction and bibliography, Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1984.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1980.

———. Chicano Authors: A Response to Chaos. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Calderón, Héctor, and José David Saldívar, eds. Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Candelaria, Cordelia. Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Candelaria, Nash. Inheritance of Strangers. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1985.

———. Memories of the Alhambra. Palo Alto, Calif.: Cibola Press, 1977. Reprint, Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1977.

Cano, Daniel. Pepe Rios. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1991.

Castillo, Ana. The Mixquiahuala Letters. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1986.

———. Sapogonia. Houston, Tex.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1990.

———. So Far From God. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Chavez, Linda. Out of the Barrio. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público, 1983. Revised edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

———. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1991.

Cohen, Andrew D., and Anthony F. Beltramo, eds. El Lenguaje de los Chicanos: Regional and Social Characteristics Used by Mexican-Americans. Arlington, Va.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1975.

de la Garza, Rodolfo O., et al., eds. The Mexican American Experience. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Fuentes, Carlos. Cambio de Piel. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1967.

Fuentes, Dogoberto, and José A. López. Barrio Language Dictionary: First Dictionary of Caló. Los Angeles, Calif.: Southland Press, 1974.

García, Freddie, and Nina García. Outcry in the Barrio. San Antonio, Tex.: Freddie García Ministries, 1988.

García, Marcia T., et al., eds. History, Culture, and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1984.

Gonzalez, Ray. Memory Fever. Seattle, Wash.: Broken Moon Press, 1993.

Griswold de Castillo, Richard. The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850–1890: A Social History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Hayes-Bautista, and Jorge Chapa. “Latino Terminology: Conceptual Bases for Standardized Terminology.” American Journal of Public Health 77, no. 1 (1987): 61–68.

Herrera-Sobek, María, ed. Beyond Stereotypes: The Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1985.

Hinojosa, Rolando. Generaciones y semblazas. Translated by Rosaura Sánchez. Berkeley, Calif.: Justa Publications, 1978.

———. Klail City y sus alrededores. La Habana: Casa de las Américas, 1976. Translated by Rolando Hinojosa as Klail City. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1987.

Horno-Delgado, Asunción, et al., eds. Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Islas, Arturo. The Rain God. New York: Avon Books, 1984, 1991.

Lattin, Vernon E., ed. Contemporary Chicano Fiction: A Critical Survey. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1986.

Leal, Luis. Aztlán y México: Perfiles Literarios e Históricos. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1985.

Leal, Luis, et al, eds. A Decade of Chicano Literature, 1970–1979: Critical Essays and Bibliography. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Editorial La Causa, 1982.

Lee, A. Robert. “The Mill on the Floss: ‘Memory’ and the Reading Experience.” In Reading the Victorian Novel: Detail into Form, edited by Ian Gregor. London: Vision Press, 1980.

Lomelí, Francisco A., and Carl R. Shirley, eds. Chicano Writers, First Series, vol. 82. Detroit, Mich.: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1989.

Martínez, Julio A., and Francisco A. Lomelí, eds. Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Mazón, Mauricio. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1984.

McWilliams, Carey. North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States. New York: Greenwood Press, 1948.

Meier, Matt S., and Feliciano Rivera. The Chicanos: A History of Mexican-Americans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Mendez, Miguel. Peregrinos de Aztlán. Tucson, Ariz.: Editorial Peregrinos, 1974.

Mirandé, Alfredo. The Chicano Experience: An Alternative Perspective. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Moraga, Cherrié. The Last Generation. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

———. Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por los labios. Boston: South End Press, 1983.

Moraga, Cherrié, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981.

Moraga, Cherrié, et al., eds. Cuentos: Stories by Latinas. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983.

Morales, Alejandro. Caras viejas y vino nuevo. México: J. Mortiz, 1975.

Nichols, John. The Magic Journey. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1978.

———. The Milagro Beanfield War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1974.

———. The Nirvana Blues. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1981.

Paredes, Américo. “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1979.

Ríos, Isabella. Victuum. Ventura, Calif.: Diana-Etna, 1976.

Rivera, Tómas. “… Y no se lo tragó la tierra”/And the Earth Did Not Part. Berkeley, Calif.: Quinto Sol Publications, 1971.

Rodriguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992.

———. Hunger of Memory. Boston: Godine, 1981.

Rodríguez del Pino, Salvador. La Novela Chicana Escrita en Español: Cinco Autores Comprometidos. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, National Association of Chicano Studies, 1982.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Sánchez, George I. Forgotten People: A Study of New Mexicans. Albuquerque, N.M.: C. Horn, 1940.

Sánchez, Marta Ester. Contemporary Chicana Poetry. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1985.

Shirley, Carl R., and Paula W. Shirley. Understanding Chicano Literature. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Sommers, Joseph, and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. Modern Chicano Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Tatum, Charles M. Chicano Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Trujillo, Robert G., and Andrés Rodriguez. Literature Chicana: Creative and Critical Writings through 1984. Oakland, Calif.: Floricanto Press, 1985.

Villarreal, José Antonio. Pocho. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

von Bardeleben, Renate, Dietrich Briesemeister, and Juan Bruce-Novoa, eds. Missions in Conflict: Essays on US-Mexican Relations and Chicano Culture. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1986.

Yankauer, Alfred. “Hispanic/Latino—What's in a Name?” American Journal of Public Health 77, no. 1 (1987): 15–17.

Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Pilar Bellver Saez (review date Spring 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

SOURCE: A review of Zia Summer, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1996, p. 403.

[In the following review, Saez offers a positive assessment of Zia Summer.]

Zia Summer, Rudolfo Anaya's latest novel, is a detective story that develops the themes of cultural identification and survival. The murder of Gloria Dominic triggers a literary quest that leads Sonny Baca, an amateur Chicano private eye and Gloria's cousin, to uncover a terrorist plot to turn the city into a nuclear wasteland. Set against the background of New Mexico in the 1990s, a time of growth in the West, the story examines the perils of rapid and culturally blind economic change. At the same time, it warns the Mexican-American community to preserve “the old ways” in the face of instability generated by an unequal modernization.

Anaya's novel is an original contribution to the murder-mystery genre. As in the classic detective story, the plot hinges on an unsolved mystery: the strange murder of a woman, her blood drained, and the symbol of the Zia sun scratched around her navel. The work also shares with the hard-boiled detective novel of the 1940s a sense of social and political crisis. Like other popular dicks of the time, Sonny Baca, an honest but clumsy anybody, must find his way through a labyrinth of murder, political corruption, and greed, all against the background of the city's campaign for mayor.

Zia Summer, however, departs from the classic detective genre in significant ways. The harsh rapid dialogue of the hard-boiled classics gives way here to a language of poetic resonance and to a slow-moving narration that makes room for rich descriptions of the New Mexico desert. Don Eliseo, an Albuquerque old-timer, connects Sonny with his cultural past and teaches him respect and love for the beliefs and ways of his Mexican and Indian ancestors. Like characters encountered in previous works by this author (Ultima in Bless Me, Ultima or Crispin in Heart of Aztlán), he introduces into the narration a mythical world view that becomes central to the hero's resolution of the conflict. Moreover, far from fulfilling the stereotype of the individualistic detective who only relies upon a personally developed value system, Sonny Baca seeks in the collective wisdom of Don Eliseo and in the love and food of his girlfriend Rita the spiritual, mental, and physical energy necessary to solve the case. Becoming aware of his Hispanic past, Sonny comes to understand Gloria's murder as a symptom of the loss of a sense of unity with nature, brought about by modernization and misappropriation of the ancient cultural symbols by a new power-thirsty elite.

The detective in Zia Summer is on a quest not only to discover the murderer but also to find his cultural identity. Albuquerque, and more specifically the old Hispanic Alburquerque, becomes the true protagonist of this story. Anaya's focus on culture and history in the long run shifts attention away from the traditional whodunit focus of the detective novel; by the end, the unmasking of the murderer is no surprise and, ultimately, not important in itself. Anaya skillfully transforms the traditional detective novel into a novel that addresses the broader question of Mexican-American identity.

Farhat Iftekharuddin (essay date Summer 1996)

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SOURCE: “Gender Roles in Rudolfo Anaya's The Silence of the Llano,1 in Journal of Modern Language, Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer, 1996, pp. 121–28.

[In the following essay, Iftekharuddin examines traditional Hispanic conceptions of gender and the portrayal of women as temptresses and victims of sexual violence in Anaya's short fiction.]

A noticeable feature in Mexican American literature is the suggestion, at once implicit and explicit, that culture, history, and setting are the decisive factors determining identity and destiny. The shared history of two nations—Mexico and the United States—which is the inheritance of Mexican Americans, provides evidence to support this suggestion and also marks a partial focus for Mexican American literature. Nearly three hundred years of subjugation under Spanish rule has left indelible marks on Mexicans. Pure Indian bloodlines have given way to generations of mestizos (the mixed offspring of Indian and Spanish blood); the building of Spanish churches atop great pyramids and above hundreds of temples has placed Christianity astride the ancient pre-Columbian gods, thus nearly obliterating (or, at least, disguising) old beliefs. One obvious result of such a process of oscillating from self-rule to subjugation back to self-rule, of shifting from a polytheistic to a monotheistic faith, is loss of identity. In its more recent history, Mexico's loss of nearly half of its territory to the United States has only accentuated the problem of identity among its inhabitants. Mestizos and Criollos (descendants of Europeans alone) alike acquired under their new rulers novel classifications: “Mexicanos” in California, “Tejanos” in Texas, and “Nuevo Mexicanos” or “Hispanos” in New Mexico. Such general problems also become personal; through the evolutionary psychological process called “scripting,” external problems of subjugation and persecution became internal to this ethnic body. As a result, the already male dominant order among Hispanics has become even more persecutory. Thus, while Mexican-American writers enjoy the enviable resources of their intricate past—from cultures that have left behind them an art and an architecture that are testaments to human ingenuity—they also have the complex task of redefining themselves. Authors such as Rudolfo Anaya have felt the urgency to recreate their identity, to begin anew, particularly by addressing that cultural variant of the concept of primogeniture that subjugates women.

The works of Rudolfo Anaya—Bless Me Ultima,Tortuga, and The Silence of the Llano—deal primarily with this search for the self. They explore the defeats and triumphs of Mexican-Americans through the love/hate interactions of his male and female characters. As these characters attempt to reveal themselves both in their relationships to one another and in their singularity as individuals, they also battle to understand themselves, to understand the call of the “ancients” that courses through their veins. Thus, they are preoccupied with the myths that force them into rituals which may ultimately connect them to their past. Such a connection is imperative to self-definition. “Myth,” as Anaya himself has defined it, “is our umbilical connection to the past, to the shared collective memory.”2 It is this “shared collective memory,” which “resid[es] in the blood,”3 that Anaya's male and female characters alike attempt to share with us. In the story “The Silence of the Llano,” for example—from the collection of stories of the same name—we meet Rafael, who lives on the vast expanse of the llano, the plains surrounded by mountains. Rafael leads a solitary existence, traveling occasionally to town “to swap stories”4 and to “break the hold of the silence” (p. 4) of the llano. This is the land of his forefathers; it is the land of his hurt. At fifteen, he buried his parents following a blizzard that took their lives. Rafael's lonely existence changes as he meets and marries his beautiful wife, Rita, and brings her back to the llano. He tills the arid soil, plants trees, makes a garden, and impregnates his wife. Seasons change; a daughter is born; and Rita dies following childbirth. Rafael abandons his daughter, who is raised by the midwife whom he had called in to save his wife. This tragedy, instead of cementing a closer unity between father and daughter, creates a breach of communication that lasts for sixteen years: the garden dies; the child grows up, reaches puberty, and is raped by outsiders. Following this violation, Rafael communicates with his daughter, names her Rita, and turns the soil of the garden one more time. In this story, Anaya weaves the llano and his characters into an enigmatic mass. The llano is harshly silent and possessive. Its expanse hides human history; its solitude captures human souls; its silence mutes human tongues. It is the symbol of the shifting, ever-changing quality of its inhabitants, a microcosm reflecting their emptiness, the distance and isolated self, their fears and their challenges. The townspeople “whispered that the silence of the llano had taken Rafael's soul” (p. 3), but they also know that it is home which beckons him. Rafael flees not to town in order to survive the loss of his wife but deep into the llano.

The isolation of the llano provides Anaya with the playing field that his characters use to resolve their passions and their innermost fears without outside intervention or interference. Both father and daughter are tethered to the gravitational center of the llano, and that is their unnatural yet mutual bond. Here the roles of male and female are played out to resolution. Rafael abandons his daughter because, at the primary level, she is, to him, symbolic of lost love (the death of his wife) rather than the reflection of the mother. But there is also an implicit sinister undertone: the Hispanic male's fear of the female, as temptress, the source of animal attraction that gnaws away at social defenses. Both father and daughter contend with this subliminal perversion as they sleep in close proximity. As the girl reaches puberty and feels the “warm flow between her legs” (p. 16), she becomes “aware of her father” sleeping “on the bed at the other side of the room” (pp. 16–17). Her breasts grow; her hips widen; and she understands “the great mystery of birth which she had seen take place around the llano” (p. 17). As she observes the hen with her chicks, she realizes that “there is life in the eggs” (p. 17) and remembers seeing “the great bull mount one of the cows” (p. 17). In her dreams, “she saw the face of the man who lived there” and “was to be called father” (p. 20). She is awakened by the cry of the owl, and so is her father, but “each lay awake, encased in their solitary silence, expecting no words, but aware of each other as animals are aware when another is close by” (p. 21). The daughter is aware that “the coyote was drawing near” (p. 21). Then come the outsiders, followed by rape.

Rafael rushes home, drawn by the “cloud of dust” (p. 21), and finds his daughter virtually naked. She points to the “stain of blood” (p. 23) on the sheet and raises her hand, calling out for the first time “Rafael” (p. 23); he notices “the curves of her breast rising and falling” (p. 23), and he flees, riding his horse hard. The dream, the outsiders, the rape, and the name “Rafael” merge into a macabre synthesis. Male figures—father/rapist—become inseparable even as the mythological harbinger of bad omen, the owl, sounds a prophetic warning that fails to protect her. Thus, the girl becomes a victim of her anatomical weakness; as Octavio Paz laments in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “despite the vigilance of society, woman is always vulnerable. … [T]he misfortune of her open anatomy exposes her to all kinds of dangers, against which neither personal morality nor masculine protection is sufficient.” Ironically, the girl, as a result of being orphaned, abandoned, and raped, now qualifies for what Paz calls the “compensation mechanism” available in the myth of the “long-suffering Mexican woman.”5 This “compensation mechanism” operates in Rafael when “the ghost of his wife … the beauty of her features … [blur] into the image of the girl” (p. 24). The female duality of mother as giver of life and as temptress is also resolved here. The possibility of incest is countered by the rape, freeing Rafael from viewing his daughter as temptress. What remains is the merged image of mother/daughter, which provides Rafael with a religious escape.

Among Hispanics, according to Alan Riding, the myth of the long-suffering woman is “exemplified” by the pure image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as “personified by each” Hispanic's “own mother.”6 Therefore, the process of rejuvenation begins when Rafael names his daughter Rita, after her mother. The girl herself has undergone self-purification: “she bathed her shoulders in the cold water, bathed her body in the moonlight” (p. 25). Both Myth and religion are involved in this purification. As Rafael brings his daughter into existence by the act of naming, “a new dawn” (p. 25) appears in the east. Genesis, thus re-established, also forces a new form of communication between father and daughter, between male and female. Since Rita has grown up in virtual silence, she is unfamiliar with the language of her father, the language of males that nearly destroyed her. She recalls only the sounds of a select number of words that she has heard as a child from the mid-wife, Doña Rufina. Rita spoke them “aloud just to hear the sound they made as they burst from her lips, ‘Lumbre’ … ‘Agua’ … ‘Tote’” (p. 18). Language and action, thus transferred in matrilineal form, subvert the traditional concept of patriarchal dominance and transference of language. Rafael must now learn to converse with Rita on her own terms; he must learn to “imitate the call of wild doves … and wild sparrows” (pp. 18–19).

On the llano, a new man/woman relationship begins. The silence of the llano that had taken Rafael's soul is retrieved a second time by a female, first by his wife and now by his daughter. At the birth of his daughter, Rafael had felt betrayed, both because his wife had died giving birth to his child, but also because the birth of a daughter raises the question of his masculinity: a female issue cannot continue the family name. His misfortunes had led him to brood that “he was a man who could not allow himself to dream” (p. 16), but he escapes from this self-pity and undergoes a vital transformation in his acceptance of his daughter. He promises to “turn the earth,” and he asserts that “the seeds will grow” (p. 28).

The indignity of women at the hands of men is even more vivid in the story “The Road to Platero.” This is the story of Carmelita, who is raped by her father, now her husband, and bears a son from that sexual violence. The setting is again the desolate llano. Carmelita's horrifying experience has left her a bitter woman. She oscillates between memories of her father's love and her father's violence. She had been at one time “his jewel, his angel, his only daughter.”7 The terrible irony is that this is Carmelita's dream of what a father ought to be. The unfortunate reality is that to her father, Carmelita was and still is woman to be violently possessed. The females in this large family of vaqueros are reduced to animal levels. Carmelita's son recalls: “of all the women in Platero, my mother is the youngest. She is thin, her hair is long and black, her skin is smooth. … I have seen the vaqueros admire the sleek, beautiful mares and I have seen them look at my mother” (p. 34). As the vaqueros return home along the country road, riding their stallions, their women scurry to the windows, and “in the corral the mares paw the ground nervously” (p. 33). Except for the boy, the men and women know Carmelita's dark secret. The women remain silent, and the men drink for courage and to forget.

There are two images for Carmelita of the man who has fathered her son: one that remembers him as “a real caballero,” and the other as the one who violated her and her dreams. Because of this violence, the father loses identity for her and remains nameless. (As does “Mr.” in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.) Carmelita refers to this “m[a]n-creature” simply as “he” or “him” or “the man.” Her father/husband is aware of this loss of his identity; he is aware that as the daughter died in the rape, so did he. This is an insult to his masculinity and renders him spiritually and morally impotent. Unable to forget, and having lost respect and identity, the father/husband attempts to relieve his guilt onto Carmelita: “‘your sin is too dark to be forgiven … your sin is the sin of hell, and you will do penance by serving me forever,’” he tells her (p. 37). The male in this repetitive cycle of violence is trapped in the sins of his fathers. Carmelita's whispered love to her son is a warning and an assertion of this fact. “‘I have submitted to that beast,’ she tells the boy, ‘only to protect you my son, but you are a man like any other man. Will, you, too raise your spurs and rake your mother's flanks when you are grown?’” (p. 33).

Carmelita, like Rita, is the long-suffering woman. But, unlike Rita, her reconciliation with her father is violent. The story begins with a metaphysical triangulation: “‘Love came, death came, then you were born, my little son … ’” (p. 31), a tragic continuum which renders women inferior to men. Carmelita stoically resigns herself to this state of inferiority as she tells her son, “‘yes, we are slaves of our fathers, our husbands, our sons … and you, my little one, my life, you will grow to be a man … ’” (p. 33). She realizes that this is more a curse on her son than a blessing, and in her resignation she finds the source of redemption. As she kills her father/husband, exclaiming, “‘Now for you, my son’” (p. 39), Carmelita herself dies from a deep spur wound to her throat. Her sacrifice provides her son with a new beginning, as “peace” settles over the llano, and the “horseman who haunted the road” (p. 39) to Platero disappears.

In the role of the long-suffering woman, both Rita and Carmelita provide credence to Octavio Paz's observation that to Hispanic men the “inferiority” of women “is constitutional and resides in their sex, their submissiveness, which is a wound that never heals.”8 Women, thus dehumanized, are naturally destined to be violated. In this process of continued sexual violation, men themselves are caught in the web of their ancient gods. The Aztec hero Huitzilopochtli was “born in an instant” from the woman Coatlicue (“snake skirt”), who already had four hundred sons and one daughter who was their leader. Huitzilopochtli decapitates his sister with a snakehead scepter, thus achieving triumph over female authority and becoming protector of the wandering Mexicas.9 According to the version of the myth in the Popol Vuh, “Why the Earth Eats the Dead,” the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl created the earth by quartering Hungry Woman.10 In a variant of the myth of the Corn Woman's Marriage, the woman bears a son who grows up and marries his own sister, and the world is populated by their incestuous offspring.11 Even the coyote that both Rafael and his daughter recognize before the rape has its origin in the myth of the trickster Kauyumari. In order to control the reproductive process of females, Kauyumari (meaning “coyote” or “wolf”), at the command of the sun god, places “teeth in the women's vaginas” (la vagina dentada). As a result, the men—including Kauyumari—are mutilated. However, the coyote Kauyumari's sexual desire is “so great that his missing organ promptly regenerates.”12 In order to survive future castration, the coyote clears away the teeth in the woman's vagina with “a blunt instrument, usually a stick of wood.”13 Imbedded in such mythologized violence against women is the power that they have always held over men and their male gods. Women are both mothers, originators of the world, and temptresses whose vaginas are traps that fathers, husbands, and sons fall victim to. The violence perpetuated against Rita (the daughter) and Carmelita by the “men-creatures” (“Road,” p. 32) is a perverted and futile attempt at subjugation. In fact, such painful experiences strengthen their resolve, their resiliency. Through suffering, Hispanic women become “invulnerable,”14 and they “remain,” as Riding points out, “the pivot of the family.”15 Rafael's daughter, Rita, does win her father's recognition, and Carmelita's act of parricide suggests the end of male violence. Her sacrifice promises a better future for her boy.

While the female child acquires first stoicism and then strength from suffering, the male child battles for an identity independent of the female, be she mother, wife, or lover. His search for selfhood forces him into the community of men or “tribes,” as in the case of the young boy in “Salomon's Story.” Salomon leaves the pastoral beauty of his father's land and joins a group of youngsters who call themselves “a tribe.”16 He is an initiate in this fraternity, and the initiation requires that he kill the first animal that the tribe encounters. Salomon and the tribe venture into “unknown territory” (p. 57) along the river bank and eventually encounter a “giant river turtle” (p. 56). He is handed the tribal knife and following frenzied cries of “‘Kill it,’” he severs the head. But their celebration is short lived; the turtle rises and moves towards the river. Salomon thrusts his hand in the gaping hole of this female turtle in a desperate attempt to turn it over but is driven backward into the river by the power of the creature. As the turtle disappears into the depths from which it came, the tribe abandons the young initiate. Salomon “left the river, free of the tribe, but unclean and smelling of death. That night the bad dreams came, and then paralysis” (p. 61). Salomon responds to what he calls his “destiny” (p. 55). He has left his father, “a good man” who “kept the ritual of the seasons, marked the path of the sun and the moon across the sky, and … prayed each day that the order of things not be disturbed” (p. 55). But it had been a “wild urge” in his “blood” that “drove” him from his father (p. 55). In killing the turtle, Salomon violates the “order of things”; he disconnects the continuum of life, the primeval link between water and earth represented by the turtle. Unwittingly, he is guilty of usurping the gods of his own mythology: According to one Mesoamerican myth, the gods, in order to fertilize the earth, engaged in bloodletting around a turtle altar,17 and the ancient Mayans believed that the maize god was resurrected through the turtle shell.18 The young hunter pays through paralysis to atone for his unconscious transgression; like Tieresias, he is “forced by the order of [his] destiny” (p. 56) to be a storyteller. “Salomon's Story” is fatalistic; Salomon is “doomed” when he answers his “wild urge.” He cannot acquire an identity independent of patriarchal control, and any attempt to do so can lead only to tragedy.

However, seen within the context of the novel Tortuga, from which “Salomon's Story” has been extracted, the message may seem less disquieting. The characters in this novel are grotesques, disfigured and crippled children waiting out their lives in a hospital. Into this scene, a young boy arrives paralyzed from a broken back. He acquires the name Tortuga—“turtle”—when the doctor puts him in a hard body cast with only his legs and arms protruding. Lying on his back in a state of metamorphosis, the young boy comes to symbolize the paralysis of all the children as they struggle to prevail against a vast, meaningless, and unresponsive world. Viewed as a turtle, however, he is a symbol of life, of time and history. Tortuga's body cast—covering his breast and back—is analogous to the ephod worn by the high priest of Israel (I Samuel, 2:18), who was God's spokesman of justice and judgment (Exodus, 28:15). Salomon makes Tortuga the audience for his story, the spokesman who must tell the others of the “meaning of life and death” (p. 38). By attaching himself to Tortuga, the only patient who eventually walks out of the hospital, Salomon finally breaks from his “forsaken … initiation” (p. 58). The fatalistic vision of life is exchanged for one of hope and the future. Tortuga himself begins anew: on his way to his parents’ house, he stops at the home of his love, Ismelda, the actual catalyst in his healing process.

Anaya's stories are not an indictment of Mexican-American culture. Rather, they provide images that are part of their collective memory. Anaya's “men-creatures” of the Llano remind us of Samuel Ramos’ description of the pelado in his book Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico: to the pelado, his “sexual organ becomes symbolic of masculine force.”19 “It suggests … the idea of power. From this he has derived a very impoverished concept of man. Since he is, in effect, a being without substance, he tries to fill his void with the only suggestive force accessible to him: that of the male animal.”20 In provoking this recollection of the male as animal, Anaya asserts the fact that the future is not an isolated moment in time; it is linked to the past. Only by addressing the neurosis of the past can the perfections sought for the future be achieved. Anaya believes that “history moves us toward perfection through small epiphanies.”21

In his story the “Silence of the Llano,” his male character does experience an epiphanic realization. In finally recognizing his daughter as a part of himself to be loved and not coveted, he breaks from the ranks of the “men-creatures,” from the pelado. Rafael realizes, as Paul Smith points out in The Body Hispanic, that “the ground on which man takes up his position is, inevitably, woman.”22 If the paradoxical nature of woman as mother and temptress troubles Hispanic men, this lack of understanding also reveals their own contradictory nature. Rosalind Coward in Female Desire states that there has been intense investigation into the enigmatic nature of women, when “in reality,” it is “men's bodies, men's sexuality which is the true ‘dark continent’ of … society.”23 Perhaps in the past of Mexicans, “a mute and ancient past” as Carlos Fuentes terms it,24 confronting this contradictory aspect of men's sexuality was not an option. But in Anaya's stories, it is. Both male and female characters in his stories are forced into confronting their individual sexuality, and in the process they create new beginnings. The men realize that the women cannot be muted through oppressive acts. Parricide is not an option but an exigency of life necessary to counter the perditious effects of sexual violence. Recognizing each other and attempting to overcome the traditional dichotomy between the sexes are part of the sexual dialectics of Anaya's stories.


  1. Farhat Iftekharuddin, “Gender Roles in Rudolfo Anaya's The Silence of the Llano,Journal of Modern Literature, XX, 1 (Summer 1996), pp. 121–128. © Foundation for Modern Literature, 1996.

  2. Rudolfo Anaya, “Aztlan: A Homeland Without Boundaries,” Aztlan: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, eds. Rudolfo A. Anaya and Francisco A. Lomeli (University of New Mexico Press, 1991), p. 236.

  3. Anaya, Aztlán, p. 236.

  4. Rudolfo Anaya, “The Silence of the Llano,” The Silence of the Llano: Short Stories (TQS Publications, 1982), p. 3. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically.

  5. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude and the Other Mexico, Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexico and the United States, The Philanthropic Ogre, trans. Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos, and Rachel Phillips Belash, (Grove Weidenfeld, 1985), p. 38.

  6. Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, (Vintage, 1986), p. 8.

  7. Rudolfo Anaya, “The Road to Platero,” The Silence of the Llano, p. 32. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically.

  8. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 30.

  9. John Bierhorst, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America (William Morrow, 1990), p. 159.

  10. Bierhorst, p. 149.

  11. Bierhorst, p. 169.

  12. Bierhorst, p. 169.

  13. John Bierhorst, The Mythology of North America (William Morrow, 1985), p. 125.

  14. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 3.

  15. Riding, p. 9.

  16. Rudolfo Anaya, “Salomon's Story.” The Silence of the Llano, 1982, p. 55. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically.

  17. Mary Miller and Karl Taube, eds. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion (Thames and Hudson, 1993), p. 75.

  18. Karl Taube, The Legendary Past: Aztec and Maya Myths (University of Texas Press, 1993), p. 67.

  19. Samuel Ramos, Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico, trans. Peter G. Earle (University of Texas Press, 1962). p. 59.

  20. Ramos, p. 61.

  21. Anaya, Aztlán, p. 241.

  22. Paul Julian Smith, The Body Hispanic: Gender and Sexuality in Spanish and Spanish American Literature (Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 5.

  23. Rosalind Coward, Female Desire: How They Are Sought, Bought and Packaged (Grove Weidenfeld, 1985), p. 227.

  24. Carlos Fuentes, “How I Started to Write,” Myself With Others: Selected Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), p. 9.

William Anthony Nericcio (review date Autumn 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

SOURCE: A review of Jalamanta, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, pp. 957–58.

[In the following review, Nericcio offers an unfavorable assessment of Jalamanta.]

In January of 1996 a writer for Publishers Weekly, that chronicler of esthetically noteworthy textual effluvia, fell to reviewing Rudolfo Anaya's Jalamanta. The less-than-exhilarated reviewer found it “a sharp departure from the yeasty realism that won [Anaya] a large readership,” ultimately labeling it a “preachy New Age parable” with “lofty sentiments” which become “somewhat platitudinous with repetition.” I wish I could be as gentle.

Far and away, this is Anaya's most misbegotten literary experiment. Warner Books’ publicity hacks remind us on the book's dust jacket how Jalamanta comes from a scribe Tony Hillerman dubbed the “godfather and guru of Chicano literature”; they only succeed at increasing the disappointment. No Bless Me, Ultima,Jalamanta offers its readers a visit to a dystopic, mystical, allegorical terrain trod before by Frank Herbert and Carlos Castaneda. Juxtaposed as such, it does not come off very well.

Anaya's novel is set in and around a fictional “Seventh City of the Fifth Sun” and tells the story of Fatimah and her love, the exiled rebel teacher Jalamanta, né Amado. While waiting thirty long years for his return, Fatimah and her people live the sorry life of exploited exiles, “people who many years ago had revolted against the authorities,” “outcast[s] from their homes in the city.” The enemy are brownshirted forces of order, “authorities” who use “sacred books to oppress.”

Dominant motifs in Anaya's morality play include lights and veils, hence the telling name “Jalamanta,” “he who strips away the veils that blind the soul”—an important issue, we know, as Anaya reminds us repeatedly: dark is bad; light is good. No sartorial Beau Brummel he, Jalamanta's only material accessory is a “weathered staff made from the twisted roots of a desert tree, crowned by the carved heads of two entwined snakes.” Said staff once again resounding Anaya's binary emphases.

Speaking of binaries, Jalamanta has two boyhood friends: “Santos,” a saintly (get it?) friend who “spends his time reading holy books”; and “Iago,” Jalamanta's betrayer, a “wine merchant” whose “ways are secretive.” An Iago as traitor—how novel! As the book slowly paces toward its tragic, totally anticipated climax, you almost wish Jalamanta had sat through a performance of Shakespeare's Othello during his exile. Surely Jalamanta should know that trusting one's fate to a man named Iago is like mortgaging your house through a loan shark. Anaya's other bad guys are no more subtle. Take “Vende,” a representative of the central authorities, who “dresse[s] in a brown uniform and black boots” with a “cap sewn [with] an insignia of three skulls.” Vende translates as “sell” or “he sells.” Selling, bad; veils, bad; light, love, and truth, good. This is the structure of Anaya's experiment.

Jalamanta's patient lover Fatimah is a “healer”—no doubt echoing for fans of Anaya and of his singularly important first novel the memory of Ultima, the curandera in Bless Me, Ultima. I have read Bless Me, Ultima, written about Bless Me, Ultima, and Fatimah, you are no Ultima. Consider this: most of the book, Fatimah (Our Lady of?) waits around for Jalamanta and then quietly supports his absurdly monomaniacal quest. No day job, Jalamanta's whole vocation is that of “seeker.” In his own words: “I have wandered in the desert seeking the truth.”

Other problems derail Anaya's fable. At times, the writing is this side of a Barbara Cartland romance; Fabio would be at home on the cover of the paperback version. Imagine Harlequin Books inviting Castaneda or Herbert to author novels for them and you might not be surprised at some of the following riffs: “I offer you the kiss of life,” [Jalamanta] said, feeling the surge of love flowing between them, the energies of their souls becoming a filament of light in the stream of sunlight.” The romantic scenes are hard to get through—one motif, the Holy Grail, is used to an extent surpassed only by the comedy troupe Monty Python, and that was for comedy. One sample suffices: “[Fatimah] was the Holy Grail of [Jalamanta's] dreams.”

In the end Jalamanta brings about his own arrest by declaring that by allowing our souls to be filled with light, we are “becoming god.” As might be anticipated, the brownshirted authorities are not too keen on this kind of blasphemy; neither are they so finely attuned to the allegorical nature of Jalamanta's doublespeak. They take him at his word and throw him in chains. The final chapter of the novel is aptly named “Betrayal.” There Anaya's readers witness Iago's inevitable betrayal of Jalamanta to the authorities. A teacher and wise sage man, he should have seen it coming.

Speaking of allegory, betrayal here can read in two ways, for the term aptly characterizes “guru” Anaya's treatment of his readers. While cynical, I am not so churlish as to suggest the book has no redeeming qualities; when Jalamanta reminds us how “the germ of creation lies in chaos,” one dreams of what might have been if the novel itself could have more chaos.

In recent years Anaya has tried his hand at detective fiction, travel narrative, and now, with Jalamanta, ethereal allegory—he certainly cannot be accused of resting on his laurels. While we should champion this restless spirit which drives Anaya to new prose and fictional forms, we should also not be surprised when this restlessness leads our godfather down the wrong back alley.

Theresa M. Kanoza (essay date Summer 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5577

SOURCE: “The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya's Multi-Culturalism,” in MELUS, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 159–71.

[In the following essay, Kanoza presents a thematic analysis of Bless Me, Ultima and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, contending that there are “thematic and tonal links” between the two novels.]

In Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya presents a world of opposites in the New Mexican village of Guadalupe. The parents of the young protagonist Antonio have strikingly different temperaments, as dissimilar to each other as the backgrounds from which they hail. Maria Luna Marez, the pious daughter of Catholic farmers from the fertile El Puerto valley, steers her son toward the priesthood and a ministry in an agrarian settlement. Gabriel Marez, Antonio's adventurous father, is descended from a long line of nomadic horsemen; he expects his son to share his wanderlust, and he hopes that as compadres they will explore the vanishing llano (plains). The thrust of Anaya's bildungsroman, however, is not that maturation necessitates exclusionary choices between competing options, but that wisdom and experience allow one to look beyond difference to behold unity.

Historic continuity and spiritual harmony are recurrent strains in much of Anaya's work as he often laments man's weakened connection to the earth, to the past, and to the myths that reveal the proper balance of the cosmos. In “The Myth of Quetzalcoatl,” Anaya criticizes the heavy toll which economic and political realities exact from the fragile landscape of the Southwest and its ancient cultures, but, a conciliator, he also cites some merit in change. Rather than condemning or shunning innovation, as do many who, like Anaya, want to protect an endangered heritage, he advocates a measured application of modernization. “Technology may serve people,” he reminds those whom he claims are wont to retrench in the old ways, but “it need not be the new god” (198). Likewise, informed engagement in the legislative process, a political reality of the here-and-now, can serve the cause of preserving the landscape and the cultures it sustains. Anaya urges that just as the present can safeguard the past, historical awareness can “shed light on our contemporary problems” (198). He reaches back through the centuries to the Toltec civilization of Tula to bring instructive parallels to bear on current rapacious materialism in the United States (199). As a writer, Anaya practices the rich admixing across time and space that he preaches, for his novels of the American Southwest blend diverse cultural strains. In Bless Me, Ultima he draws deeply on Native American mythology and Mexican Catholicism,1 and, though the novel is written in conventional English that the protagonist deems a “foreign tongue” (53), the prose is to be read as a translation of the Spanish which most characters speak. When his characters use English, they typically engage in code-switching.2

Bless Me, Ultima has earned acclaim for its “cultural uniqueness” and is lauded for such distinctive Chicano features as its use of Aztec myth and symbol, its thematic emphasis on family structures, and its linguistic survivals. Furthermore, Anaya is renowned as one of the “Big Three” of the Chicano canon, alongside Tomás Rivera and Rolando Hinojosa (Sommers 146–47). Set in a sacred place imbued with a spiritual presence and long inhabited by indigenous peoples, his book presents a world where the Anglo is of little consequence to its strong Chicano characters.3

Yet this highly celebrated ethnic novel also reveals the strong imprint of Anglo-American belles-lettres. Many critics observe Anaya's reliance upon James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to relate the anguished rites of passage of his own protagonist.4 Both Antonio Marez and Stephen Dedalus ask bold questions about the nature of good and evil as they examine their roles within the families and Church that circumscribe their lives. William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Katherine Anne Porter, among others, have also been cited as literary influences on Anaya.5 But in a novel that uncovers shared tenets among seemingly discordant worldviews by an author who prizes cross-cultural connections, Anaya goes even further afield in choosing his literary models. Bless Me, Ultima, lauded as a masterpiece of the margins, also evokes that text which is most often cited as the epitome of the white, northeastern literary paradigm—Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.6 Both novels tap into biblical and mythological archetypes as their main characters plumb the mysteries of creation. In their quests for experience, knowledge, and mastery, the protagonists in each book break religious taboos and push the limits of human awareness as they try to fathom the unknowable mind of God. In fact, both novels have drawn similar criticism for their weighty, abstract subject matter and for their individualist rather than social focus.7

But to detect a Melvillian influence in Bless Me, Ultima is not to charge Anaya with being derivative, nor is it a back-handed attempt to “prove” the universality of the traditional canon by asserting that it presciently accommodates the Chicano experience. For in many ways, Anaya's book testifies to the triumph of the Chicano cosmology. As presented by Melville, the negative romantic and “sick soul,”8 the world is a place of horror and despair; Anaya, revealing his Jungian bent as he taps into the collective unconscious, finds vigor, beauty, and order there.9 Indeed, Anaya's text reads as though he, along with Ishmael, has survived the wreck of the Pequod but that he has lived to articulate the harmonies of the universe which Melville's sailors could not recognize. In Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya reconciles into a unified whole the dichotomies which loom chaotic and rend the cosmos in Moby-Dick.

Both Melville's Ishmael and Antonio Marez, the schoolboy protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima, are novices. Generally untrained in the ways of whaling, Ishmael proves to be a quick study after signing on as a deckhand aboard the Pequod. He is ostensibly in pursuit of whales and then more specifically the whale, after Ahab commandeers the crew to his own vengeful mission. But more significantly Ishmael pursues experience and wisdom, goals which make him a milder version of the blasphemous Ahab, who lashes out at the God-head to avenge his own human limitations. Antonio, also seeking to understand the complexity of life, tracks a fish of his own, the legendary golden carp, the avatar of an Aztec nature-god.10 By sighting the river-god which swims the waters that surround Antonio's village and by pondering its history of sacrifice for the salvation of others, Antonio hopes to learn the secrets of the universe. His journey into paganism is an exhilarating quest but one which induces guilt and anxiety as he breaks the first commandment of his Christian faith.

Guadalupe, an isolated village that is set apart from the greater New Mexican landmass by a river which encircles it, is at once as insular and internally diverse as the Pequod, the island ship which sails the world's oceans. Melville's sailors represent widely differing nationalities and religious beliefs: Ahab is a Quaker-turned-atheist, and Ishmael a Presbyterian; the harpooners are described as heathens, Queequeg as a Polynesian idolater and cannibal, Daggoo as a “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage,” and Tashtego an “unmixed Indian” (107). Of Ahab's secret East Indian crew, Fedallah, a Parsee, is a fire-worshiper. Although not as wildly diverse, a varied constituency also comprises Antonio's world. Besides the stark differences in the mores and temperaments of the peaceful farmers who are his maternal relatives and his raucous, rootless paternal uncles who ride the llano, Antonio finds sharp contrasts among his friends. Catholic and Protestant classmates taunt each in the schoolyard about their conflicting beliefs of heaven and hell, while those secretly faithful to the cult of the golden carp, such as Cico, Samuel, and Jason, are contemptuous of these arcane concerns. Children of no particular religious persuasion, some of whom are eerily animal-like in appearance and endowed with preternatural strength and speed, watch the squabbles in amusement. All are terrified by the three Trementina sisters, who are legendary for practicing black magic.

Both Melville and Anaya ascribe a mystical, seductive beauty to the natural world—or more specifically to bodies of water—for, as Ishmael explains, “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (13). In “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael describes the magnetic pull of the ocean. Seeking a spiritual sustenance not found in the commerce that occupies them during the workweek, “crowds of water-gazers” gather at the wharfs during their leisure. Ishmael pronounces these “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries” (12) to be narcissists, for they seek in their reflections thrown back by the mirror-like “rivers and oceans … the ungraspable phantom of life … the key to it all” (14). Ishmael, of course, is no exception to these questers. Hoping to learn the secrets of the “wonder-world,” he says he is drawn to the whaling voyage by “a portentous and mysterious monster [that] raised all my curiosity” (16).

Later in “The Mast-Head” when Ishmael is assigned watch high above the ship's deck, he experiences the dangerous allure of pantheism. As a meditative man surrounded by the glory of the universe, he fears he could lose himself both literally and figuratively in the beauty of nature.

Lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every … undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, the spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space. …


To yield rationality to revery, Ishmael cautions, is to lose one's footing and plummet to the sea; to merge with the natural world is to surrender one's distinct identity. He concludes his warning with the stern note, “heed it well, ye Pantheists” (140), and Melville proves that it is advice best followed. In “The Life-Buoy,” a subsequent chapter, a crew member who passes into a “transitional state” while posting lookout from the crow's nest falls to his death in the sea.

A pantheistic-like spirituality is an equally strong contender for the religious affections of the soul-searchers in Bless Me, Ultima. Anaya handily debunks the merits of dogmatic Catholicism in the cold and ineffectual Irish priest whose sole method of reaching his first communicants is a meaningless catechism. The children respond by rote but have no deeper understanding of the faith to which they are being indoctrinated; Father Byrnes neither encourages nor facilitates any fuller awareness. Antonio's pathologically devout mother, though honest and loving, is further testament to the Church's ineffectuality and harm. A fearful, superstitious woman for whom religious devotion means passivity, she is the epitome of weakness that Melville derides in Roman Catholicism as “feminine … submission and endurance” (315).

Worship of nature—wild, free, and seemingly benevolent—is an attractive alternative to the Catholicism which many in Antonio's world find stifling. (The parish church, in fact, is described as dark, dank, and musty). But Anaya, like Melville, also conveys the danger of a spirituality derived from nature. When the cult member Cico seeks to convert Antonio to his pagan beliefs, he is careful to caution the initiate about the possible hazards that loom in a mystical merger with the natural world. Like Ishmael, Cico is a “water-gazer,” one who is drawn to the river by its “strange power [and] presence” (Bless 108). He recounts to Antonio that he became spellbound while perched on an overhanging cliff high above the hidden lake, and that he only narrowly resisted the strange music that beckoned him to the depths below: “It wasn't that the singing was evil,” Cico explains. “It was just that it called for me to join it. One more step and I'da stepped over the ledge and drowned in the waters of the lake” (109).

Actual fatalities follow Cico's close call. Narciso, a cult member (whose name echoes the narcissists who gaze into the water to find their bearings at the outset of Moby-Dick), is, like the drowning victim of Melville's “Life-Buoy,” trapped in his own “transitional state.” Pegged as the pathetic but good-hearted town drunk who has lost control over his faculties, Narciso is eventually murdered by the villainous Tenorio Trementina. Another casualty of nature-worship is Florence, Antonio's friend, whose tortured boyhood has destroyed his faith in God. Though scornful of the limitations and cruel paradoxes of Catholicism, Florence is no simple heretic. He searches for “a god of beauty, a god of here and now … a god who does not punish” (228). He is drawn to the lake, much as Antonio and Cico are, but, unable to resist the beckoning water, he drowns. Florence's death dive is described as an underwater exploration that lasts too long.

In seeking to resurrect the spirit of the land and the power of ancient myth, Anaya is certainly sympathetic to Cico, the believer in “many gods … of beauty and magic, gods of the garden, gods in our own backyards” (227). Yet when Cico counsels Antonio to renounce Christ, whom he calls a jealous deity that would instruct his priests to kill the golden carp, Anaya does not endorse this exclusionary vision. For though Cico observes the link between the natural and the divine, he does not recognize the affinity between Christianity and the indigenous spirituality. The kinship of Christ with the nature-god, who transformed himself into a carp so as to live among and protect his people who were likewise transformed into fish as punishment for their sins, is lost on Cico.

With his blindered vision, Cico is reminiscent of those Melville characters who also reduce the complex unity of the world to polarities. Richard Slotkin has named “consummation” as the main thrust of Moby-Dick, a merger conveyed through such metaphors as the Eucharist, marriage, and, more literally, the hunt. But he explains that, finally, Melville delivers no such consolidation since his characters achieve no lasting spiritual balance or cosmic bonding. Ishmael, for example, heeds too well his own warning to pantheists. While he warns that mysticism can leach away individuality, he also bemoans social interdependence as one of life's “dangerous liabilities” (271).11

Ahab, like Cico, is unable to reconcile seeming opposites; like Ishmael, he perverts the notion of unity. If Ahab sees a “common creaturehood” with Moby Dick, his own self-loathing forces him to destroy what he perceives as an extension of himself (545). And if Moby Dick is an avatar of God and the wound it inflicts is a punishment, the whale represents the power which Ahab covets and can attain only by subduing. For the monomaniacal sea captain, there is no co-existing with the white whale, no possibility that Moby Dick is a mediator between the human and the divine. Ahab believes he must either kill the whale, or be killed by it. His binary vision makes him hopelessly paranoid: what he cannot fully understand he construes as malign and warranting pre-emptive destruction.12

It is Ultima, an ironic counterpart to Ahab in their shared capacity as mentors, who teaches Antonio to look beyond difference to recognize transcendent parallels. Though their respect for life varies greatly and, indeed, their worldviews clash, the curandera (medicine woman) of the New Mexican llano and the captain of the Pequod are similarly enigmatic and powerful figures. Their marred outward appearances attest to their intense engagement with life—Ahab with his ivory leg and the scar that runs the length of his body and Ultima with her shrunken frame and wizened face. Both are cut off from family. Ahab was orphaned before his first birthday, and as an adult he chooses Moby Dick and the sea over the wife and infant son he leaves in New England. Ultima, aged and apparently childless, is homeless until Antonio's father Gabriel moves her from the unsheltered llano into his home in Guadalupe.

The most significant parallel the two share is their own hybridity from which they draw their awe-inspiring strength. Captains Bildad and Pelag, the Pequod’s owners, aptly sum up Ahab's contradictory nature. “He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man. … Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals” (76). “Old Thunder” vows to lash out at the sun should it insult him, a threat he later carries out by smashing the quadrant that requires him to rely on the heavens to determine his bearings in the sea. Yet he clearly “has his humanities,” as when he consoles the crazed Pip or recalls the warm home he has left behind. He is vulnerable too, dwarfed and deformed as he is by his uncontrollable obsession. Such dualities within Ahab do not comport well; they are in constant conflict and drive him to war with the universe. His internal chaos manifests itself in his fractious nature, which causes him to perceive a fragmented outer world. He will brook no compromise nor accede to any mediation: Moby Dick is pure evil and Ahab must destroy him, or lose his life trying.

Ultima is not without her own dark side, since she too encompasses dualities. “La Grande,” as she is called, is part saint but also part witch. Her ability to cast out demons and to remove curses derives from her own acquaintance with evil. Yet her dualities do not taint or confound her; they complement her. In fact, her understanding of evil enhances her capacity for goodness. Recognizing that the disparate elements of creation work in concert, she instructs Antonio to respect rather than to fear difference, for “we fear evil only because we do not understand it” (236). Her universe, in all its splendid diversity, is coherent, not chaotic.

In the broad sweep of Ultima's vision, cooperation rather than competition is the driving force of the cosmos. For her, pagan and Christian precepts are not mutually exclusive. Whereas Cico counsels Antonio to renounce the Christian trinity as impostors so that he might pledge his faith to the golden carp, Ultima, who also worships the golden carp, integrates her heterogenous beliefs. As Cordelia Candelaria observes, Ultima's spirit, embodied in the owl which always hovers near her, suggests at once Christ as dove and Quetzalcoatl as eagle (Chicano Literature 39). There is no hypocrisy or sacrilege as she joins Maria in praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe, nor in her attendance at Sunday mass with the Marez family. Yet as much as she is a companion to the devout Maria, she is the compatriot of Gabriel, the begrudging Catholic and restive villager. He is unfulfilled by the Church and reluctant to join Maria in praying the rosary. Instead he draws spiritual sustenance from the llano, where he finds “a power that can fill a man with satisfaction.” Ultima, who participates in Catholic rituals but whose faith is never dictated by dogma, shares Gabriel's reverence for the untamed plains and responds in kind to his praise for the land: “and there is faith here … a faith in the reason for nature being, evolving, growing” (220). The merger of her pagan and Christian beliefs is complete in her answer to Antonio's plea, which is the title of the novel. As she offers her blessing, she adopts the cadence of the Catholic benediction and invokes her own secular, benevolent triune: “I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful” (247).

As Ultima's apprentice, Antonio learns that Christianity and native mythology are compatible. Initiated into the awareness that the whole is comprised of its many parts, he resolves as well the conflicting agenda his parents set for him. When Antonio dreams that he is being riven by his parents as each issues a self-interested plan for his future, Ultima intercedes on his behalf. Maria claims that her son is a true Luna, a child of the moon who was baptized by the holy water of the Church and thus destined for a vocation as a priest; Gabriel counters that the boy, like all Marez men, is a product of the restless salt-water sea, and that he is therefore meant to ride the plains. Ultima refutes his parents’ false and limiting dichotomies to reveal an underlying mystical holism:

You both know … that the sweet water of the moon which falls as rain is the same water that gathers into rivers and flows to fill the seas. Without the waters of the moon to replenish the oceans there would be no oceans. And the same salt waters of the oceans are drawn by the sun to the heavens, and in turn become again the waters of the moon.


Ultima's insight into the harmony of the universe is the understanding which Ahab lacks. Her cosmology features no aspect of creation as foreign, superfluous, or malign, for each has a contributing and complementary role. “The waters are one,” she tells the relieved Antonio. “You have been seeing only parts … and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (113). Just as Antonio comes to comprehend the kinship of the golden carp and Christ,13 he realizes the obvious—that as the offspring of his mismatched parents he is living proof that opposites can integrate. As Ultima's eventual successor, he will grant his mother's wish for a priest by ministering to the needs of others and by mediating between the earthly and the spiritual; and, blending his Christianity with pagan mysticism, he will fulfill his father's desire for an heir who is in touch with the supernatural forces of the land.

The union achieved in Antonio Marez is always thwarted in Moby-Dick. Aboard the Pequod, co-mingling is misconstrued as a blurring of identity that threatens the extinction of the self, or as a dominion over another. Queequeg's taste for human flesh and Stubb's relish for freshly killed whale meat further perverts the Eucharist into cannibalism. Suggestions of fertility and fruition merely tease, as in the crew members’ coming together to manipulate the spermaceti in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” a pleasurable and erotic bonding but one that is ultimately frustrating and unproductive.

That Ahab works against rather than with nature is clear in his uneasy alliance with the instruments by which he navigates the seas, such as the quadrant that he destroys and the compass which reverses itself. The interchange over the ship's log and line, tools for gauging speed and direction, further reveals that he is out of sync with the dynamism of the universe. When the rotten line snaps and the log is lost, Ahab announces that he “can mend all” (427). The claim is self-delusory, since Ahab, having denied the synergism in the complex world around him, cannot forge the vital nexus he desires. In proposing to “mend the line” as he reaches out to Pip, who then urges that they “rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white” (428), Ahab suggests that he will continue and fortify his lineage through crossbreeding. But the union will not hold: the partners are not of sound mind as they take their vows. One is “daft with strength, the other daft with weakness.” Reeling in the broken line as Ahab departs with his young black “mate,” the Manxman prophetically observes, “here's the end of the rotten line. … Mend it, eh? I think we had best have a new line altogether” (428). The prognosis for any new hybrid “line” is grim, since Ahab persists in seeing the world as inexorably oppositional: He dies pursuing the whale that he maintains is wholly evil, the ship and crew go down, and Ishmael, the lone survivor, is left afloat on a coffin until the Rachel, on its own death watch, picks him up.

When in Bless Me, Ultima the townspeople of Guadalupe object to the sacrilegious over-reaching of science as manifest in the atomic bomb tests that are conducted south of their town, they could easily be describing Ahab's quest for omniscience. “Man was not made to know so much,” they contend. “[T]hey compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself. In the end, that knowledge they seek will destroy us all” (183). Ahab, dissatisfied with what he deems his lowly place in the universe, seeks mastery through destruction. In contrast, Antonio, who, like Ahab, pursues and attains wisdom, is not antagonistic in his search for knowledge. He comes to luxuriate in the synchronized workings of the world, for he credits Ultima with having taught him to “listen to the mystery of the groaning earth and to feel complete in the fulfillment of its time.” Through her he learns that his “spirit shared in the spirit of all things” (14).

Communion in Moby-Dick is perverted by a murderous urge; man's relationship to nature and to God is adversarial, and his goal is destruction or the absorption of another. True “marriage,” Richard Slotkin asserts, occurs only when there is a mutual acceptance of each by the other, in which neither is destroyed (554). Bless Me, Ultima achieves this beneficent reciprocity. In tune with the cosmic harmonies, Antonio joins together diverse and discordant beliefs, temperaments, and values, for he realizes that he can “take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp—and make something new” (236). His communion is neither conquest, as it is for Ahab, nor the cancellation of the self, which Ishmael fears; it is true consummation.

In Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya's method is his message. The worldview which Antonio achieves by reconciling a host of opposites is repeated in Anaya's own literary multiculturalism. Influenced by Biblical and Indian mythology, Spanish lore, and the traditional canon, Anaya reveals his pluralistic cultural consciousness. He attains the “integrity of memory” which coheres across boundaries of time, ethnicity, and ideology.14 Such mutually respectful and beneficial co-existence is the mode of being that Anaya advocates for Chicano literature in the United States, even as he seeks a broad readership for his work.15 Chicano writing need not be self-sequestered nor shunted aside by others under a dubious celebration of “difference” to be legitimated, nor should it be stripped of distinguishing characteristics so as to gain entry into the traditional canon. “I believe that Chicano literature is ultimately a part of U.S. literature,” Anaya maintains, continuing to see the whole as the sum of its parts. “I do not believe that we have to be swallowed up by models or values or experimentation within contemporary U.S. literature. We can present our own perspective. … But ultimately it will be incorporated into the literature of this country” (Bruce-Novoa 190). The thematic and tonal links between Moby-Dick and Bless Me, Ultima—as well as their divergent outlooks and resolutions—attest to cross-cultural interconnections amid rich heterogeneity.


  1. Carmen Salazar Parr explains that, more specifically, the Indian lore reflects Nahuatl thought, that of the Mexican and Central American tribes (139).

  2. Translating and discussing “Degradacion y Regeneracion en Bless Me, Ultima,” by Roberto Cantu, Cordelia Candelaria notes Cantu's more grim observation about language use in the novel. Claiming that Antonio undergoes a loss of spirituality, Cantu cites a progressive absence of Spanish after Antonio enrolls in school as evidence of this decline. See “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso,” Chicano Literature 47.

  3. The setting of Bless Me, Ultima is often regarded as a world apart, a separate and protected enclave. The German critic Horst Tonn, however, detects the encroaching Anglo presence—in the highway that runs near the idyllic town of Guadalupe, in the tours of military duty which Antonio's three older brothers must serve during World War II, and in the atomic bomb tests run close to the Marez's New Mexican village.

  4. Raymund Paredes's “The Evolution of Chicano Literature” and Robert M. Adams's “Natives and Others” explore Anaya's ethnic distinctiveness as well as the influence of Anglo-American writers upon his work.

  5. Candelaria notes the influence of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha stories in the way characters from Bless Me, Ultima return in Heart of Aztlán (1976). In Anaya's third novel, Tortuga (1979), Candelaria finds echoes of the persistent turtle from The Grapes of Wrath and of Katherine Anne Porter's use of a hospital as a microcosm of humanity in Ship of Fools. See “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso, Chicano Literature.

  6. Anaya's graduate work in the 1960’s emphasized the traditional canon, and he cites an abiding interest in American Romanticism. See Juan Bruce-Novoa, “Rudolfo A. Anaya,” Chicano Authors 188.

  7. Paul Lauter maintains that literature of the American Renaissance is tantamount to escapist fiction in its portrayals of single (white) males striking out for a frontier of some sort—the sea, the woods, the prairie. Many minorities, he reminds us, faced the other side of the adventure, invasion. Lauter contends that for them, “individual confrontations with whales or wars were never central, for the issue was neither metaphysics nor nature but the social constructions called ‘prejudice,’ and the problem was not soluble by or for individuals … but only through a process of social change” (16). Hector Calderon uses Anaya and Bless Me Ultima as examples of a too-heavy emphasis on meditative abstractions and individualistic introspection. Antonio's egocentrism, Calderon claims, comes at the expense of a collective vision (112–13).

  8. See William James for a discussion of the opposing temperaments, sick souls and healthy minds.

  9. Candelaria discusses Anaya's use of Jungian themes in “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso,” Chicano Literature 36–39. In “Rudolfo A. Anaya,” Dictionary of Literary Biography she is critical of Anaya's penchant for happy endings, which, she charges, gloss over unpleasant or grim realities. Anaya's search, Candelaria contends, “always finds its uplifting grail of enlightenment and happiness. Alienation, irony, ambiguity, and the myriad uncertainties of a dynamic cosmos, whether ancient or modern, seem to lie beyond the boundaries of his fictive universe” (34).

  10. Herminio Rios and Octavio Ignacio Romano connect the myth of the golden carp to Atonatiuh, the first cosmic catastrophe in Nahuatl cosmology (ix).

  11. On numerous occasions Queequeg and Ishmael are happily in sync and mutually served by each other, as in “The Monkey Rope” for example. Yet Ishmael remains ambivalent at best about their interdependence. Consider D. H. Lawrence's reading of Ishmael's casual regard for Queequeg after bunking with him at the Spouter-Inn in “A Bosom Friend”: “You would think this relation with Queequeg meant something to Ishmael. But no. Queequeg is forgotten like yesterday's newspaper. Human things are only momentary excitements or amusements to the American Ishmael” (147–48).

  12. See Slotkin's discussion of Ahab's Puritanical response to the spirit of nature, which allows only two lines of action: he can either be nature's captive or its destroyer (547–48).

  13. Vernon Lattin, rather than seeing Antonio's accommodation of Christianity and pantheism, contends that Antonio rejects the Church to embrace the pagan gods. Likewise, Raymund Paredes sees Antonio affecting no reconciliation of his parents’ conflicting ambitions for him. He maintains that “at the end of the novel, Antonio rejects the confining traditionalism of the Lunas in favor of the Marez's doctrine of personal freedom” (101).

  14. Explaining the “integrity of memory” and its role in canon revision, Annette Kolodny urges Americanists to dissociate themselves temporarily from reassuringly well-known texts to become immersed in the unfamiliar. The result she foresees is an awareness made full by interconnections and new decipherings previously unrecognized.

  15. William Clark explains that Anaya, “wanting to reach a wider audience,” has recently completed a six-title contract with Warner Books. The mass marketing deal includes paperback and color-illustrated hardcover editions of Bless Me, Ultima (24).

Works Cited

Adams, Robert M. “Natives and Others.” Rev. of Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo A. Anaya. New York Review of Books 26 March 1987: 32.

Anaya, Rudolfo A. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International, 1975.

———. “The Myth of Quetzalcoatl in a Contemporary Setting: Mythical Dimensions/Political Reality.” Western American Literature 23 (1988): 195–200.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Canonical and Noncanonical Texts: A Chicano Case Study.” Redefining American Literary History. Eds. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA, 1990. 196–209.

———. ed. “Rudolfo A. Anaya.” Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin: U of Texas P, 1980. 183–202.

Calderon, Hector. “The Novel and the Community of Readers: Rereading Tomás Rivera's Y no se lo trago la tierra.Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Eds. Hector Calderon and Jose David Saldivar. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 97–113.

Candelaria, Cordelia. “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso.” Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Eds. Julio A. Martinez and Francisco A. Lomeli. Westport: Greenwood, 1985.

———. “Rudolfo A. Anaya.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Chicano Writers, First Series. Eds. Francisco A. Lomeli and Carl R. Shirley. Vol. 82. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989.

Clark, William. “The Mainstream Discovers Rudolfo Anaya.” Publishers Weekly 21 March 1994: 24.

James, William. Writings, 1902–1910/William James. New York: Viking, 1987.

Kolodny, Annette. “The Integrity of Memory: Creating a New Literary History of the United States.” American Literature 57 (1985): 291–307.

Lattin, Vernon. “The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction.” American Literature 50 (1979): 625–40.

Lauter, Paul. “The Literatures of America: A Comparative Discipline.” Redefining American Literary History. Eds. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA, 1990. 9–34.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. New York: Viking, 1961.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Eds. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 1967.

Paredes, Raymund. “The Evolution of Chicano Literature.” MELUS 5.2 (1978): 71–110.

Parr, Carmen Salazar. “Current Trends in Chicano Literary Criticism.” The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature. Ed. Francisco Jimenez. New York: Bilingual P / Editorial Bilingue, 1979. 134–42.

Rios, Herminio and Octavio Ignacio Romana. Foreword. Bless Me, Ultima. By Rudolfo A. Anaya. Berkeley: Quinto Sol, 1972. ix.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973. 538–65.

Sommers, Joseph. “Critical Approaches to Chicano Literature.” The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature. Ed. Francisco Jimenez. New York: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1979. 143–52.

Tonn, Horst. “Bless Me, Ultima: A Fictional Response to Times of Transition,” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 18.1 (1987): 59–67.

Margarite Fernández Olmos (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7932

SOURCE: “Bless Me, Ultima,” in Rudolfo A. Anaya: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 25–44.

[In the following essay, Olmos provides an overview of the major themes, narrative techniques, and critical interpretations of Bless Me, Ultima.]

In Rudolfo Anaya's first novel he turned to his life experiences for inspiration. The story of the awakening of the consciousness of a young boy growing up in a small New Mexico town shortly after World War II closely parallels the author's own life (see chapter 1 herein). At the same time, however, Bless Me, Ultima is a highly original work with a unique story and a universal appeal that established Anaya's international reputation. This chapter will focus on his best-known novel, a work of poetic beauty and richness that introduces the themes and motifs that have become the hallmark of Anaya's writing.


How can a story told from the vantage point of a seven-year-old boy express profound insights and complex ideas? Bless Me, Ultima accomplishes the task by being an extended flashback—that is, by assuring the reader from the very beginning that the events described, although seemingly occurring in the present, in fact occurred at an earlier time. The narrator is, therefore, by implication, an adult. Anaya is able to maneuver this tension of the older implied narrator and the younger voice of the child-protagonist Antonio Márez by carefully re-creating the reactions of a small boy. Antonio's comments reflect the expected limitations of a child of that age. For Antonio, World War II is a “far-off war of the Japanese and the Germans,” for example, and other historical events are explained in an equally simple, age-appropriate manner.

The reader is informed that Ultima, a respected midwife, came to stay with Antonio Márez and his family the summer that he was almost seven years old. Her arrival marks a beginning—“the beginning that came with Ultima” (1)—and, indeed, Antonio's story begins and ends with her. Subsequent references in the same chapter to a time “long after Ultima was gone and I had grown to be a man” (13) affirm the fact that, although the story is presented in the voice of a young boy, the events are actually those of a remembered youth. Time and chronology assume additional significance; time is described as “magical,” it “stands still” and is linked with the character of Ultima. She represents origins and beginnings. Her very name implies extremes and the extent of time and distance that Antonio will travel on his passage from innocence into awareness.

Bless Me, Ultima is an accessible novel despite its grounding in Chicano folk culture and myth and its occasional use of Spanish. It follows a linear, or straightforward, story development, a plotline that is clearly defined, and avoids the more experimental prose styles of other writers. Levels of narration are delineated for the reader by the use of italics, a device Anaya employs frequently. Antonio's dream sequences, for example, are separated from the rest of the narration by italics, indicating a different dimension of consciousness. The first chapter serves important functions in plot development and structure. It gently guides the reader toward essential story elements such as setting, characters, and historical background, and it introduces the major conflicts that will form the basis for the dramatic tension throughout the novel. The technique of foreshadowing, which can often provide structural and thematic unity to a work, first appears in the introductory chapter.

“Foreshadowing” refers to the device of hinting at events to come; later events are therefore prepared for or shadowed forth beforehand, building suspense and reader expectation. In Bless Me, Ultima foreshadowing ranges from statements that openly indicate future events to symbolic premonitions in dreams that suggest them. After Antonio's home is described in Chapter One as a place that offers the young boy a unique vantage point from which to observe family incidents, he refers to the tragedy of the sheriff's murder that has yet to occur, the anguish of his brothers’ future rebellion against their father, and the many nights when he will see Ultima returning from her moonlit labors gathering the herbs that are folk healer's remedies. Ultima, who rarely speaks and whose words are therefore significant, states that “there will be something” between herself and Antonio, suggesting a strong and important relationship yet to come. But the most effective foreshadowing technique is found in Antonio's dream sequences throughout the novel, the first of which occurs in Chapter One. These sequences express the dread and anxiety of his inner world but are also frequently premonitions of the future. Antonio's dreams provide both a structural and thematic framework for the novel as they illustrate past events and suggest future conflicts.


The setting is of particular importance in this novel, as it is in most of Anaya's fiction. Nature is part of the magic that will teach young Antonio that seemingly incarnate elements are actually living beings, whose beauty and value the young boy will discover with Ultima's help—a river that sings, land that impresses its mysteries into the narrator's “living blood” (1). The setting, the world of nature in rural New Mexico, assumes a significance similar to that of a character in terms of its influence on people and events. Since setting is of paramount importance in so much of Anaya's work, the landscape, the environment, the forces of nature, the llano (plains) of New Mexico all combine to create a powerful sense of place that produces an experience Anaya has referred to as an “epiphany,” a sudden flash of enlightenment or a revealing intuition often occasioned by something trivial or apparently insignificant. This is the type of experience we observe in Antonio, for example, in several scenes in which he allows himself to be transformed by opening his eyes to the beauty of the simple objects in his natural environment. Anaya has occasionally described this experience using a term invented by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “inscape,” by which is meant a type of mystical illumination or insight into the fundamental order and unity of all of creation.


Family history and New Mexican history are inextricably linked in Bless Me, Ultima. Antonio's father, Gabriel Márez, teaches the young boy about his past, which is tied to the Spanish colonial period of the region. Gabriel is a vaquero, or cowboy, but this is more than just an occupation: it is a “calling” that has united Antonio's father and his paternal ancestors to the New Mexican plains, described as vast as the oceans. (Indeed, Antonio's father's surname, Márez, derives from the Spanish word mar, meaning the sea.) Social and economic changes in the state severely curtailed the free-spirited, aggressive lifestyle of the vaqueros, however, when Anglo settlers took control of the land. The novel refers to such background information as part of the process of Antonio's education concerning his family's past. These facts also serve to provide readers with the cultural and historical foundation that will broaden their appreciation of events in the novel.

Antonio's mother, María Luna, is also linked with local culture but from a different perspective, as her own surname, Luna, implies. (The Lunas are a people of the moon, tied to the land as farmers.) The Lunas represent a different tradition within the rural U.S. Hispanic culture of the Southwest: the farming tradition—settled, tranquil, modest, devout, tied to old ways and customs. María had convinced her husband to leave the village of Las Pasturas and a lifestyle she considered coarse and wild, to move the family to the town of Guadalupe, where better opportunities existed for their children. The move separates Gabriel from the other vaqueros and the free llano life he loves. He becomes a bitter man who drinks to soothe his hurt pride and his loneliness. The differences between these two cultures form the basis for the first major conflict affecting Antonio's family. These tensions, as we will discover in others throughout the work, are presented as dichotomies: Márez/Luna, vaquero/farmer, free-spirited/settled. Antonio must find a balance in these divided forces, which tug at him from opposite directions.

The first dream sequence in Chapter One illustrates his anxieties. Antonio describes a dream in which he witnesses his own birth assisted by an old midwife. After he is born she wraps up the umbilical cord and the placenta as an offering to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the town (and of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in general). In his dream Antonio observes a terrible quarrel between the two branches of his family. The Lunas hope that the baby will become one of them, or possibly even a priest (his mother's fervent hope); the Márez uncles smash the symbolic offerings of fruits and vegetables brought by the mother's clan, replacing them with their own emblematic gifts of a saddle, a bridle, and a guitar. They hope Antonio will follow their free-spirited ways.

Both families frantically attempt to take hold of the placenta, hoping to control the baby's destiny by disposing of it in their own allegorical fashion. The Lunas want to bury it in the fields, tying the boy to the earth; the Márez family wishes to burn it and scatter the ashes freely to the winds of the llano. The families nearly come to blows over the issue until the old midwife steps in, claiming her rights as the person who brought the young life into the world to dispose of the afterbirth herself.

That old midwife is Ultima, the curandera, or folk healer, who eventually comes to live in their home. One issue upon which both parents agree is their obligation to provide and care for the elders, respecting customs and traditions. Therefore, when Antonio's father discovers that Ultima will be living alone in the llano as people abandon the village of Las Pasturas, he and Antonio's mother decide to invite her into their household in gratitude for her years of service to them and the community. Ultima is a respected figure, referred to as “La Grande,” the old wise one. Outside of the family, however, Ultima is feared by some. Her healing powers are suspect, and she is considered a bruja, or witch. The suggestion of witchcraft brings a shudder of fear to Antonio and is a warning to the reader as well; the idea that witches can heal but can also place and lift curses with evil powers is another example of Anaya's foreshadowing of things to come.

Ultima is associated with ancient traditions and wisdom; in Bless Me, Ultima she is also equated with the forces of nature. Her meeting with Antonio is accompanied by a whirlwind, an oft-repeated motif representing magical power and/or a warning of danger. As in traditional witch stories, Ultima is identified with a specific animal—in this case an owl. The animal is reputed to be a disguise assumed by witches, but Ultima's owl does not frighten Antonio. On the contrary, her owl protects, defends, and soothes him, an observation legitimized by another of Antonio's dreams in which the owl flies the Virgin of Guadalupe on its wings to heaven.


From the very first pages of the novel, Anaya interjects the Spanish language into the narration, in the form of individual words, characters’ names, local references, and, on occasion, entire sentences of dialogue, as well as the chapter numeration. This interjection is accomplished with a naturalness that avoids interrupting the flow of the story. Spanish words are not italicized or differentiated in any way from the rest of the text, nor are there footnotes or a glossary to define them; rather, they are explained in a subtle, unobtrusive manner where appropriate. Occasionally an English equivalent will appear in sentences after a Spanish term has been introduced, or an explanatory phrase will clarify some term for those unfamiliar with the language. In several instances the syntax and phrasing of some of the dialogue in English sounds like a literal translation from Spanish. The bilingual use of language is limited but nonetheless effective in creating a distinctive tone in the novel. It is rationalized in the first chapter when Antonio affirms that the older people of his community speak exclusively in Spanish and that he himself learned English only after attending school (10). The use of Spanish is a carefully and minutely crafted device that is accepted by the reader as natural and logical, something not unexpected.


Throughout Bless Me, Ultima Antonio's dreams serve several functions: they sometimes anticipate events to come, but more important they are an index to the main character's emotional and psychological development. Anaya has skillfully blended the external plot events with Antonio's frequent introspective musings and his world of dreams, a combination of personal experience, fantasy, and mythical legend. The blending is often achieved by the main character himself; reflecting on the importance of his dreams, Antonio will interpret their significance in the narratives that follow them. After the second dream in Chapter Two, which ends with his mother crying because Antonio is growing old (26), for example, the narrator begins the following chapter remarking on his fleeting youth (27), repeating the same message of his growing maturity. Indeed, Anaya leaves little to the reader's imagination regarding the interpretation of Antonio's dreams and other plot elements. The narrator often regulates our reading of the work by commenting on events and repeating their message. Comments such as “That is what Ultima meant by building strength from life” (247) ensure that the reader will remain on the right track.

Antonio's dreams pervade his waking hours; each influences to some degree his conduct and attitude. In Chapter Nine, for instance, aware that his brothers frequent “Rosie's house,” the town brothel, Antonio's musings on his brothers’ behavior mirror his own apprehensions with regard to women and sexuality, innocence and the concept of sin. The young boy represses his disturbing feelings by transferring them to a dream about his brothers’ restlessness as they experience the restraints of a small town and their parents’ aspirations. Their behavior is rationalized in the novel, in great part, by their lineage; the notion of blood and heredity is a motif throughout Bless Me, Ultima. Just as Gabriel's aggressiveness and María's gentle, subdued manner are understood as hereditary qualities in the “blood,” Antonio's brothers’ attitudes and actions are attributed to their father's character: “The Márez blood draws them away from home and parents” (72). Antonio's mother attempts to link his destiny with that of a Luna ancestor, a priest who supposedly established Guadalupe generations earlier. In his dream Antonio's brothers declare him to be a Luna who, for their mother's sake, will become a farmer-priest like their maternal ancestor. The dream sequences serve as good examples of the cross-weaving of the external and internal conflicts that drive the plot.


After her arrival in the home of Antonio's family, Ultima settles into a bucolic life. All the family members benefit from her presence: Antonio's mother is happy to share her days with another adult female, his sisters’ chores are lessened with Ultima's assistance, and Antonio's father has someone to whom he can relate his frustrated dreams of moving westward to California with his older sons. World War II has taken them from his side, upsetting his plans. Antonio enjoys Ultima's presence as well; she is his mentor in the ways of nature and spirituality. This time of innocent joy gives way, however, to his first terrible experience of violence and death, to which Ultima's owl will sound a warning cry, as it does whenever it senses danger that could affect the family.

The dramatic events that propel the evolution of the main story (the external events that effect change in Antonio) are initiated dramatically in Chapter Two with the murder of the town sheriff, Chávez, and the revenge taken against his murderer, Lupito. Lupito is a disturbed man whose mind has been traumatized by war. His senseless killing of the sheriff incenses the men of the town, who form a search party to capture and punish the culprit. Hiding in bushes near the river, Antonio observes them. Despite attempts to sway the group, the men kill Lupito and thereby rouse Antonio's first doubts of conscience. Issues of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, the concept of God and justice are thoughts that assail his young, impressionable mind. This is the first of four tragic deaths that Antonio will encounter in a brief space of time. Ultima's influence is felt here too in the presence of her owl, which accompanies Antonio and calms his fears, temporarily dispelling his anxieties.

As in most novels of the coming-of-age genre, a significant element of the young narrator's development is his or her relationship with peers. School and a social network form a crucial component of the type of knowledge a young child will require to survive and flourish beyond the family orbit. Antonio is successful at making friends, among them Jason Chávez, Samuel, and Cico, who introduce him to a world of native legend and a type of spirituality and morality outside of official, established religion. The catechism lessons he studies in order to receive the sacrament of First Communion in the Catholic Church conflict with the folk traditions he learns from his friends. They propose an alternative religiosity and code of morality based on indigenous beliefs and offer a contrasting pagan deity to his family's devout Christianity. In Chapter Nine the boys relate the well-guarded secret of the golden carp (a secret known to few children and only to adults who, like Ultima, are “different”). The story is first told to Jason by the only Indian in town, a character referred to simply as “Jason's Indian.” The legend holds that the carp had once been a god. The people who lived in that earlier time had sinned, and their punishment was to become fish. Loving his people, the god also became a fish to swim among them and protect them. The waters of the rivers and lakes that surround the town of Guadalupe hold other secrets as well, including that of a mermaid, a siren whose singing pulls those who hear it into the dark waters of the Hidden Lakes (115–117).

These stories create more religious dilemmas for Antonio, adding to his already confused spirituality. As in previous circumstances, Antonio confronts and partially resolves these conflicts in his dreams. In one dream the waters of the mermaid and the golden carp transform themselves into the stormy waters of his parents’ fierce struggle over his future. The sweet water of the placid Luna moon tries to claim his loyalty, while his father rages that the salt water of the oceans is what truly binds him as a Márez. The conflict grows into a cosmic storm that threatens to destroy everything until Ultima intercedes. She brings peace to the dream (and to Antonio's tortured psyche) as she clarifies the meaning for Antonio, explaining that the moon and seas are not divided or distinct, but are, in fact, part of a holistic cycle of oneness, each replenished by the other.

Antonio's early doubts regarding established religion and conventional beliefs are heightened in Chapter Ten when the devoutly Catholic Lunas turn to Ultima to cure a family member who had been cursed by the three daughters of Tenorio Trementina, the town barber and owner of a run-down saloon. The women are believed to be witches and are referred to as “cohorts of the devil.” María's brother Lucas had inadvertently witnessed one of their demonic rituals and had confronted them. Their evil powers bring him to death's door, and Ultima is summoned when Western medicine and the Catholic priest fail to break the spell. This chapter is one of the most effective in terms of creating an atmosphere of suspense and mystery. The narrator reiterates words that suggest wickedness and fear: sinister signs, Black Masses, the appearance of devils, and an “early horned moon” combine with familiar clichés regarding female witchcraft (for example, dancing with the devil, vulnerability to bullets etched with a sign of the cross, ritual sacrificing of animals, the use of dolls to create harmful spells). The drive to the Luna farm, normally a pleasant journey, is now “filled with strange portents,” the atmosphere of the family home is “deathly quiet,” and even the weather responds to psychic forces (90–91).

When Ultima confronts Tenorio and requests that his daughters cease their evil curse on Antonio's uncle or accept the consequences of their actions, a mournful whirlwind provides the background to the scene: the sky grows dark, blocking out the sun to produce an atmosphere described as “unnatural” (94–95). These and many other details contribute to the suspense that builds up to the process of the cure itself, a type of exorcism in which Ultima, with Antonio serving as his bewitched uncle's spiritual double, will rid Lucas of the evil curse. The three days that Antonio will suffer along with his uncle and his symbolic death and rebirth to save another are all part of Antonio's spiritual challenges. More powerful than the three witches and even more powerful than the priest and doctors, Ultima's faculties extend to retribution as well. Tenorio's daughters will pay for their crimes. One by one they fall ill and die. Ultima will be accused of witchcraft herself and put to the test by Tenorio and his friends, but her power is greater, and she is vindicated. Ultima's actions, however, set in motion the chain of events that will eventually lead to her own death at Tenorio's hands.

Chapter Fourteen combines many different plot elements that build toward the climax and contribute to the outcome of Antonio's ultimate understanding of himself. The chapter begins with Antonio's return to school, where he has found acceptance and a sense of belonging. It contains a rare note of humor in the depiction of the school Christmas play. A terrible blizzard prevents the girls of the school from attending and playing their assigned roles. The boys substitute grudgingly. The production is a calamity but ends in good-humored bedlam.

The relief of tension is short lived, however. Another of Tenorio's daughters falls ill, and he repeats his vow to kill Ultima and Narciso, a friend of the family. After school Antonio braves the blizzard alone and heads for home. He witnesses an argument between Tenorio and Narciso, who leaves to warn Ultima of the danger. Not realizing that he is being observed by Antonio, Narciso stops on his way at Rosie's brothel to warn Antonio's brother, Andrew, of Tenorio's plans. This scene adds to Antonio's confusion: Why does Narciso search for Andrew in such a place? Which Márez is Narciso calling for at the door? Could his own father be inside? In a prior dream Andrew had told Antonio that he would not enter Rosie's until his young brother had lost his innocence. Had young Antonio's experiences of death and violence, of magical cures and pagan gods, opened the path for sin to enter his soul? His crisis is exacerbated by his brother's appearance by the side of a young prostitute who convinces Andrew to remain with her instead of assisting Narciso. Still hidden by the storm, the boy observes Tenorio ambush Narciso and murder him.

Antonio runs home and informs his parents, succumbing to a fever and a terrible pesadilla (nightmare); his apocalyptic, end-of-the-world dream is one of the novel's most vivid. The main character's sense of confused guilt and terror fuses with figures and events from his past life in a chaotic frenzy. The thunderous voice of a vengeful God frightens the boy, who relives in his dream the murder, satanic rituals, and other forms of wickedness, as well as terrifying biblical tortures. The nightmare will end in resolution, however, effected by the healing power of nature. The golden carp swallows everything—good and evil—taking with it all the pain and strife of humanity. Antonio's subconscious discovers order and harmony in nature and native mythology.

Subsequent events in the novel continue to test the young boy's faith in God and humanity and the belief system he has been raised to maintain. In Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen the catechism lessons he must take fail to satisfy his spiritual needs. When a friend, Florence, challenges Antonio's religious beliefs, schoolmates force Antonio to play the role of priest to punish Florence for his ideas. In several other instances Antonio inadvertently finds himself in that same role: “Bless me” are the final words he hears from Lupito before his violent death near the river, and Narciso's dying wish is for Antonio to hear his confession. The religious event that Antonio had so anticipated is disappointing; all the doubts he believed would be answered with the experience of First Communion receive no reply: “The God I so eagerly sought was not there, and the understanding I thought to gain was not there” (222).

Tenorio's threats against Ultima continue, but his evil extends to others as well. In Chapter Twenty a curse has been placed on a family that seeks Ultima's assistance. Stones rain from the sky on the Téllez family home, which even the priest's blessings were unable to prevent. Ultima determines that the curse was laid on a bulto (ghost) that haunts the house. The curse is linked in the novel with historical abuses against the indigenous peoples of the region. Ultima explains that the area was once the land of the Comanche Indians. Displaced by the Spaniards and Mexicans, three Indians had raided Téllez's grandfather's flocks for food and were hanged as punishment. As their bodies were not accorded a customary burial, their wandering souls can be used to harm others. Tenorio's daughters have awakened the Indian ghosts of the past to harm the Téllez family, but with Ultima's guidance a ceremonial cremation gives the Comanche spirits rest and eliminates the curse. Events such as these add to Antonio's anxieties and undermine his faith in God, who was not able to free the Téllez family from the curse.

The reappearance of the golden carp in the lake, however, soothes his worries: “Seeing him made questions and worries evaporate, and I remained transfixed, caught and caressed by the essential elements of sky and earth and water” (237). Antonio would like to share this feeling of tranquillity and illumination, “the beginning of adoration of something simple and pure” (238), with Florence, who had been alienated from Catholicism and spirituality by his own life experiences, but the protagonist will not get that opportunity. That same day Florence drowns in a tragic swimming accident in a forbidden section of the lake.

Antonio's family sends him to the Luna farm to rest from his terrible experiences and spend the summer assisting his uncles, a time he describes as “the last summer I was truly a child” (250). A heart-to-heart talk with his father during their trip to the farm brings them closer to an understanding, but trouble will reach Antonio even in this tranquil environment. Tenorio's second daughter has died, and he resolves again to take his vengeance. This time, however, he will attack Ultima's owl realizing that it is her very spirit.

After attempting to kill Antonio with his stallion, Tenorio makes for the boy's home. Antonio tries to warn Ultima, but he is too late. Tenorio points his rifle first at Antonio, but Ultima's owl takes the bullet in his place, mortally wounding her. “That shot destroyed the quiet, moonlit peace of the hill, and it shattered my childhood into a thousand fragments that long ago stopped falling and are now dusty relics gathered in distant memories” (258). Another attempt to destroy Antonio brings Tenorio's death, as he himself is killed by one of Antonio's uncles. The novel ends with Ultima's final blessing on the young boy, who gives her owl the burial Ultima has requested. The reader is left with the impression that Antonio will go on, better able to understand himself and find the answers he so wishes to discover.


Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of an important relationship between a young boy and an old woman who helps him discover the beauty and complexity in life and in himself. As both protagonist and narrator, Antonio gradually reveals himself to the reader through his own words and through his dreams; he is both an evolving character and a narrating voice. Ultima, on the other hand, is revealed to us more by her actions and by the other characters’ reactions to them. Many of the important events of the novel center on her. Her importance as a character is more functional: her character advances thematic concerns and helps to expose Antonio's qualities. Although less developed than Antonio's character, Ultima is integral to the novel nonetheless. As stated before, Bless Me, Ultima begins and ends with Ultima, and the relationship between her and Antonio propels the process of the boy-hero's development as a character.

Inquisitive and courageous, sensitive and thoughtful, Antonio's character evolves on several levels: on the objective, external plane his character passes through a variety of experiences, some typical of most young boys, some highly unusual. Many of his experiences can be compared to those of other rural Hispanic children in the U.S. Southwest of a certain era: he is raised in a Spanish-speaking home where traditions are maintained and respected; he confronts an Anglo-oriented school system where he is linguistically and culturally socialized into mainstream society; he is indoctrinated into the Catholic religion even as he is surrounded by competing influences.

Other experiences are less typical and even extraordinary: in a short period of time Antonio confronts violence and murder, tragic death, witchcraft, and supernatural phenomena. He will actively participate in ritual healing and even experience a symbolic death and rebirth as a part of his spiritual and psychological maturation. What Antonio cannot face or understand on a conscious level is deciphered in his dreams. His doubts and uncertainties are echoed on the subconscious level and occasionally resolved there as well. His reactions to these events as expressed in his dreams are the most revealing insights into the growth and evolution of the character, providing a thematic framework of his gradual transformation.

As noted earlier, Antonio's first dream is of his own birth; both his biological mother and his spiritual mother (Ultima) are present. The dreams that follow reflect concerns about family and fear of losses (of people and illusions) that prepare him for his passage into adulthood and individuality. The critic Vernon E. Lattin divides the nine remaining dreams that follow the birth sequence into groups that reveal the path to Antonio's destiny (“‘Horror of Darkness’” 51–57). Dreams three (45), five (70), and seven (140) reflect the fear of loss: Antonio foresees that he will not become the priest his mother had hoped for, his innocence will be lost as he faces the temptations of sexuality, and the vision of Ultima in her coffin foreshadows the loss through death of his spiritual mother. Dreams two (25), four (61), and nine (235) reflect anxieties concerning Antonio's brothers and the larger world beyond, foreshadowing the experience of loss that he must assimilate in order to attain adulthood. In dreams two and four Antonio's brothers confront their own destinies beyond the family. With Antonio's help they can face the dangers of the treacherous river, but Antonio comes to realize that he cannot always assist these giants of his dreams, and by dream nine he resigns himself to the fact that they are lost to him and to his parents. Like the souls of the Comanche spirits calmed by Ultima's ritual cremation, the souls of his brothers are put to rest in Antonio's anguished psyche.

Dreams six (119), eight (172), and ten (243) are considered by Lattin and other critics as the most significant, “the dreams most homologous with the experience of the sacred, and as they present the dark night of the soul, they prepare the soul for its rebirth” (Lattin, “‘Horror of Darkness’” 55). Dream six is the calm of reconciliation after the storm, an important step in solving Antonio's dilemma of good versus evil. The eighth dream becomes progressively more violent as despair and destruction are vividly communicated to the young boy: his home is set afire, his family is destroyed, Ultima is beheaded by an angry mob, and all life around him disintegrates. From this cosmic nothingness, regenerative powers emerge. Although Antonio's final dream, the tenth, is filled with the terror of death, the reader senses that he is now more prepared to accept and understand the realities of life. Having by now witnessed so much of Ultima's healing power, the messages of her teachings and of his own dreams have revealed themselves to him. Toward the novel's end he reflects: “And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart” (249).

Ultima, as previously noted, is a less developed character than Antonio, but she is crucial nonetheless. At once a stabilizer and a catalyst for growth and change, the story revolves around the transference of her knowledge and worldview to Antonio. In Ultima Anaya has created a fascinating character who embodies the combination of indigenous traditions, ancient beliefs, and shamanic healing. Ultima is seer and natural scientist, teacher and herbal doctor. Despite her never having married or having had children of her own, she is a symbolic mother figure representing the mysteries of life, death, and transformation.

Ultima is a conciliatory force in the novel, guiding Antonio between the extremes of his parents and the myriad other tensions he must attempt to resolve. Respected as “una mujer que no ha pecado” (a woman who has not sinned) she is also feared. Her skills were acquired from a renowned healer, “the flying man of Las Pasturas,” and hence many consider her a bruja. Ultima's characterization goes beyond the usual expectations regarding gendered roles for men and women because she is a curandera; she is afforded a place in the public world not usually given to women in traditional patriarchal cultures. Her power comes in part from her knowledge of herbal remedies, spiritual healing, and magical rituals. Her spiritual approach comes from numerous sources: from modern medicine, time-honored Native-American curative practices, Christianity, and pagan traditions. The complexity of this character derives from these differing sources that are blended in her. Ultima represents a Mexican/Amerindian tradition that has often been preserved precisely by women curanderas. Though uncommon in U.S. letters, curanderas have been a part of the Hispanic tradition for centuries and are familiar characters for many Hispanic readers.

Although somewhat ambiguous as to Ultima's status as a bruja, the novel clearly distinguishes between good and evil witches in its portrayal of Tenorio Trementina's three daughters. We learn of their practices through other characters. Tenorio himself is a troublemaker, his daughters bad-tempered and ugly. These characters are more stereotypical depictions of witches, participating in evil rituals with the devil, concocting terrible curses and brews, capable of assuming animal forms. Being labeled a bruja, however, is life threatening here, as evidenced in Tenorio's attempts to have Ultima declared a witch. A bruja is hated and feared even to the point of murder.

Tenorio and his daughters, along with other characters in the novel outside of Antonio and Ultima, are more functional than integral. They are one-dimensional and, in some cases, like that of the evil witches, little more than stereotypes. Some characters also serve an allegorical function, representing stages in Hispanic history in the region, recalling that the first Spanish settlers who arrived in the 1600s created a self-sufficient ranching and farming economy. In particular, the Márez side of Antonio's family epitomizes the early Spanish explorers, and the Lunas correspond to the brief Mexican period in New Mexico's history (Critics believe that the reference to the Luna farmer-priest ancestor who settled the town is an allusion to the historical figure of Father José A. Martinez, a New Mexican clergyman in the nineteenth century who played a key role in the Taos revolt of 1846.)


Given the density of symbolism, myth, and cultural references in Bless Me, Ultima, it is not surprising that the novel has inspired a variety of critical responses. On the most fundamental level the novel's major theme is the coming-of-age and self-realization of a young Hispanic boy in New Mexico. Other topics are the quest for personal and cultural identity, the significance of Chicano tradition and myth in spirituality and healing, and the role of mentors and guides in psychological and spiritual growth and development. Ultima fulfills that role in Antonio's life; her intimate knowledge of nature and healing introduces him to the sources that will facilitate his understanding of himself and his world. The varied elements in the novel that determine who the boy-hero will eventually become have prompted numerous and diverse readings of the novel.

Bless Me, Ultima emphasizes the protagonist's need to reconcile the opposites in his life. The novel offers numerous conflicts the young boy must confront and presents them as seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies. The most evident is the clash between his father's pastoral lifestyle and his mother's farming tradition. The differences between the two are repeated throughout the novel, underscored by their very surnames—Márez and Luna. Other striking examples are the conflicts between male and female, good and evil (personified in the beneficent mother figure Ultima versus the evil father Tenorio), love and hate, town and country, a Christian God versus the golden carp, and so forth.

Ultima's role is that of mediator, from the first dream in which she resolves the dispute between the two families who wish to control Antonio's destiny to the dream in which she reconciles the dichotomy of the waters of the sea and the moon by reminding Antonio that “the waters are one.” Antonio, however, is also a mediator, searching for a middle ground, attempting to please both parents in the house they built in a space in-between them—not quite in the fertile valley but at the edges of the llano. The boy's chores will please both mother and father: he feeds the animals but also tries to create a garden from the rugged soil of the plains.

Some critics have also noted the message of reconciliation, synthesis, and harmony that is apparent in the novel. Conflicts and imbalances find a solution in harmony, balance, and a message of oneness; synthesis resolves opposites and mediates differences. Generally the balance and mediation is brought about by Ultima or Antonio; in other instances the wisdom of nature itself restores harmony.

Some readings of the novel portray it as a nostalgic text, romanticizing an era that has little relevance for contemporary Chicano readers, who are largely urban and for whom the conflicts among rural Hispanic traditions are issues of the past. Other critics disagree. For Horst Tonn, Bless Me, Ultima can be read on another level at which “the novel constitutes a significant response to relevant issues of the community. In broad terms, these issues are identity formation, mediation of conflict, and utilization of the past for the exigencies of the present” (“Bless Me, Ultima: Fictional Response” 2). At the time Anaya was writing his work the society of the United States was experiencing a crisis of values similar to that portrayed in the novel in the mid-1940s. The theme of the pressure of change portrayed in the novel that Tonn identifies is underscored in the scene in which the townspeople react to the detonation of the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945: “They compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself. In the end, that knowledge they seek will destroy us all” (190).

The disruptive effects of World War II on veterans and their families, as well as the internal migration from rural areas to the cities, have their counterpart in the social upheavals of the 1960s, when Chicanos participated in movements for social change and began to question their cultural values and identities. Bless Me, Ultima proposes responses to the contemporary crisis of values based on the need for healing and reconciliation. Just as Antonio and Ultima function as mediators, healing a community suffering from strife and disruption, “the novel itself can be said to share in and contribute to a mediation process at work in the Chicano community during the 1960s and early 1970s” (Tonn, “Bless Me, Ultima: Fictional Response” 5). Juan Bruce-Novoa agrees that Bless Me, Ultima is truly a novel reflective of its era. In the midst of conflict and violence, some present at the time proposed the alternative responses of “love, harmony, and the brotherhood of all creatures in a totally integrated ecology of resources. … Bless Me, Ultima belongs to the counterculture of brotherhood based on respect for all creation” (“Learning to Read” 186).


An analysis of Bless Me, Ultima based on myth theory and criticism emphasizes the developing dream life of its protagonist and Anaya's expressed affinity for myth (see chapters 1 and 2 in this book). Myth theory and criticism examine such questions as the origin and nature of myth and the relationship between myth and literature. Scholars and critics who have attempted to respond to these issues have done so from such diverse disciplines as philosophy, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, folklore, and political science.

The ideas of psychiatrist Carl G. Jung have inspired many literary critics, particularly in the field of archetypal criticism. Although often used synonymously with myth criticism, archetypal criticism has a distinct history, evolving specifically from Jung's theory of archetypes. As was noted earlier in chapter 2, Jung was a student of Sigmund Freud, who referred to dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious.” For Freud dreams reflected individual unconscious wishes and desires. Jung, on the other hand, believed that the recurrence of enduring symbols in dreams reflected a more universal and collective unconscious (inherited feelings, thoughts, and memories shared by all humans). He referred to the patterns of psychic energy that originate in the collective unconscious (and are normally manifested in dreams) as “archetypes” (the prime models upon which subsequent representations are based). The Jungian approach to mythology, therefore, is based on a belief of a common human access to the collective unconscious. Mankind in the modern world would encounter in dreams the same types of figures that appear in ancient and primitive mythology.

Jung described several of these archetypes specifically. Among them are the Shadow, the archetype of inherent evil; the Anima, the feminine principle that has multiple manifestations including the Earth Mother, the Good Mother, and its opposite, the Terrible Mother; and the Wise Old Man, who represents the enlightener, the master, the teacher. Often critics will use the term more loosely, referring to characters as archetypes to indicate that they represent universal principles. Rudolfo Anaya is well versed in these theories and has reflected on their validity: “One way I have in looking at my own work … is through a sense that I have about primal images, primal imageries. A sense that I have about the archetypal, about what we once must have known collectively” (Johnson and Apodaca, “Myth and the Writer” 422).

Bless Me, Ultima offers ample opportunities for archetypal interpretations. The archetypal feminine principle—the intuitive, loving, life-affirming protector and nurturer—can be attributed to Ultima, the Good Mother/Earth Mother, and on another level to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appears often in Antonio's dreams and is his mother's spiritual protector. The Terrible Mother—the frightening female figure, emasculating and life threatening—corresponds to La Llorona, the legendary mother who destroyed her own children and threatens those of others. Female characters are presented as contrasts: Tenorio's daughters are the evil counterparts of Ultima's beneficent magic. The female temptress, representing female sexuality, appears on several levels: on the idealistic plane in the sirens and mermaids that lure men into dangerous waters but also in the prostitutes that work in Rosie's brothel, who cause men to stray from their rightful path. The archetypal Shadow is illustrated in numerous places, most obviously in the form of evil that Tenorio embodies, but the novel also teaches that evil can reside within people, hidden at a deeper level. Antonio's dreams, for example, force him to confront his own sinful temptations and self-doubts that must be overcome if he is to evolve and grow.

Antonio's character has been interpreted as that of the classic boy-hero who must successfully complete the universal rite of passage of separation, initiation, and return. He must depart the comforts of his mother's hearth and cross the bridge into the wide world of the town, with its perils and challenges. His trials will extend from witnessing Lupito's murder to actively participating in his uncle's ritual exorcism, during which he sacrifices himself for the sake of another. After three days of agony he will emerge as if reborn, a new, more mature boy who can reconcile himself with his father and mother and the world around him. Ultima provides him with the symbolic tools (her pouch of herbs) and the spiritual weapons (her teachings) that will assist him in this development.

A Jungian approach to Bless Me, Ultima could run the risk of leading to a static, unchanging mythical perception, however, one that certainly would not be faithful to Anaya's views on mythology. For the author mythology is not simply a refashioning or retelling of ancient or universal tales and patterns. Myths should speak to our contemporary lives, give significance to a community. Historically constructed over generations, myths can help us understand contemporary realities and conditions. A more dynamic approach to myth criticism in Bless Me, Ultima is described by Enrique Lamadrid as “an ongoing process of interpreting and mediating the contradictions in the everyday historical experience of the people” (“Myth as Cognitive Process” 103). In the novel this is manifested in the oppositions (for example, good versus evil, love versus hate) that are mediated by Ultima and Antonio. Their role is to reconcile these contradictions to arrive at harmony and synthesis and, in keeping with the original role of myth, resolve the internal schisms of their community.

A myth criticism interpretation of Bless Me, Ultima should bear in mind, however, that Anaya describes a specific culture, a particular belief system. An analysis of the character of Ultima may reflect universal principles, but it must be remembered that Ultima, as a shaman/curandera, represents an actual vocation, that of a healer or spiritual leader, a role with a useful and important function in an authentic culture. The role of the shaman and that of the curandera are often indistinguishable. Both can resort to dreams and visions for help and guidance; both practice medical, magical, and spiritual arts. A specialist in the use of spells and incantations as well as herbal remedies, the shaman is believed to have the power to change her or his human form into that of an animal or spirit (see discussion of shamanism in chapter 8 herein). The curative practices of a curandera are intertwined with religious beliefs and respect for nature. Disharmony and imbalance cause a disruption of health; healing is a return to oneness and harmony with nature.

These alternative healing values have endured for centuries and continue to provide contemporary answers to age-old questions. Bless Me, Ultima demonstrates that myth criticism and a culturally specific approach to a work of literature need not be mutually exclusive. Anaya's novel is historically relevant and magical, both ancient and contemporary.


Rudolfo Anaya Long Fiction Analysis


Anaya, Rudolfo A(lfonso)