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Tortuga is Rudolfo Anaya’s third novel of a trilogy that also includes Bless Me, Ultima (1972) and Heart of Aztlán (1976). It is a tale of a journey to self-realization and supernatural awareness. In the story, Benjie Chávez, the protagonist, undergoes the ordeal of symbolic rebirth in order to take the place of Crespín, the keeper of Chicano wisdom who, upon his death, leaves that task to the protagonist.

At the end of Heart of Aztlán, Benjie is wounded by his brother Jason’s rival. Benjie falls from a rail yard water tower and is paralyzed. He is transported to a hospital in the South for rehabilitation. His entry into the hospital is also symbolically an entry into a world of supernatural transformation.

The hospital sits at the foot of Tortuga Mountain, from which flow mineral springs with healingwaters. Benjie is also given the name Tortuga (which means “turtle”) after he is fitted with a body cast that makes him look like a turtle. What follows is a painful ordeal. The protagonist is subjected to demanding therapy and is exposed to every kind of suffering and deformity that can possibly afflict children. Not even this, however, prepares him for the visit to the “vegetable” ward, where rotting children—who cannot move or even breath without the help of an iron lung— are kept alive.

It is in the vegetable ward that Tortuga meets Salomón, a vegetable, but one with supernatural insight into the human condition. Salomón enters Tortuga’s psyche and guides him on the path to spiritual renewal. Salomón compares Tortuga’s challenge with the terrible ordeal newly born turtles undergo as they dash to the sea. Most of them do not make it as other creatures lie in wait to devour them. Tortuga must survive the path of the turtle’s dash in order to arrive at his destiny, which is called “the path of the sun.”

Another part of Tortuga’s ordeal includes a moment when Danny, another important character, pushes him into a swimming pool, where he nearly drowns, surviving only because other people rush to his aid. Tortuga symbolically survives the turtle dash to the sea. The vegetables are not so lucky. One night Danny succeeds in turning off the power to their ward. With the iron lungs turned off, they all die.

The end of the novel and Tortuga’s rehabilitation also brings the news that Crespín, the magical helper of Tortuga’s home neighborhood, has died. The news of Crespín’s death arrives along with his blue guitar, a symbol of universal knowledge, which is now in Benjie’s care.

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