Rudolfo Anaya defined the West like no one else

The writer showed us magic, mystery and where Manifest Destiny failed.

 

Sophomore year, Anaheim High School, fall of 1994. School administrators had just kicked me out of honor’s English for being too lippy to Mrs. Patsel, and kicked me over to Mrs. Lafler. My classmates switched from overachieving nerds to stoners, cholos and other misfits.

Mrs. Lafler was the petite, bespectacled white woman in charge of saving us. She should’ve stood no chance. We frequently talked back, didn’t bother with homework, and basically checked off every box in the underachieving Latino high schooler book.

Then she assigned Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.

A life-long resident of New Mexico, Rudolfo Anaya is considered one of the founders of Chicano literature.

The classic coming-of-age novel about a young Hispano boy in 1940s New Mexico immediately resonated with us, and not just because it included curse words in equal parts English and Spanish. Mrs. Lafler told us about the book’s history — how dozens of school boards had banned it in the decades since its 1971 publication for, as she told us, daring to depict Mexicans as humans.

Outlaw literature for kids cast off by administrators as outlaws.

The main protagonist, Antonio “Tony” Juan Marez y Luna, lived and sounded like us: a chamaco (young boy) who got in trouble, whose parents fretted for his future, and who lived in a small town rooted in generational conflicts that made little sense except when they inevitably ended in tragedy.

More importantly, though, there was a pride in Anaya’s words that we had never read before, namely because he was the first Mexican American author any teacher of ours had ever bothered to offer.

Something where joy must always waltz with melancholy, so you might as well have a fiesta for it.

I can’t remember any of the term papers or projects we did for Bless Me, Ultima, but I do remember the class respected Mrs. Lafler after we were done with it. The book stuck with me in a way few others did from high school ever have. (Sorry, Wuthering Heights.)

Part of it was representation, yes. But Anaya and his work, the rest which I ended up devouring years after I graduated college (my university professors didn’t teach him) also touches at what I feel is life itself: beautiful, but always in conflict and never guaranteed. Something where joy must always waltz with melancholy, so you might as well have a fiesta for it.

And only upon his passing did I realize this was the West.

Rudolfo Anaya visits with his sister, Edwina Garcia, at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2017.

Anaya, who died June 28, at the age of 82, never again reached the mainstream heights of Bless Me, Ultima, which is now part of the high school canon and became a movie in 2013. And it’s a shame. He was a Chicano Faulkner, except that Anaya didn’t have to create a Yoknapatawpha County.

Because his native New Mexico and surrounding Southwest proved mysterious and magical enough to serve as a sketchbook in which he documented and defined the region like no one else.

His characters, whether Bless Me, Ultima’s Tony, the past-his-prime boxer Abrán González in the 1992 epic Alburquerque, or hardboiled detective Sonny Baca (who starred in four of Anaya’s books), were proud people with a connection to the land that went back generations and from which they drew their life force. It was a reflection of Anaya’s own worldview.

“When people ask me where my roots are,” he once told an interviewer in 1979, “I look down at my feet and I see the roots of my soul grasping the earth.”

Anaya’s West was a Promised Land where Manifest Destiny tried to destroy Chicano and Indigenous people and their traditions — and failed. People of color were centered instead of stereotyped. White people were problematic interlopers, a speck of dust in the region’s grand narrative.

Anaya refused to allow the weight of ethnic expectations stop him from experimenting. He was always a proud Chicano, but one who stressed that el movimiento didn’t have to live and breath revolution all the time.

“When people ask me where my roots are, I look down at my feet and I see the roots of my soul grasping the earth.”

“This is a danger if we are to develop artists,” he told the same 1979 interviewer. “There will be some political works, and there will be some that will be concerned with the smallest, most practical details of day-to-day living, concerned with love, joy, and tragedy. That is the kind of freedom we must have.”

This philosophy came out in a prodigious bibliography that included plays, poetry, short stories, children’s books, travelogues (A Chicano in China remains one of the few Latino-penned entries in the overwhelmingly gringo genre) detective novels, essays and even witty wine reviews in an Albuquerque alt-weekly.

Nevertheless, Anaya knew what his life’s work was: Solving the wound of the West. It was, he once wrote in an essay, “the challenge of our generation, to create a consciousness which fosters a flowering of the human spirit, not its exploitation. We need healing in our world community; it can start here.” 

For those of us who have tried to walk in his footsteps, it’s a reminder that our work will never be done — and that’s even more reason to continue it. Because that’s what Rudy did.

Gustavo Arellano is a features writer for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. 
Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.