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. 
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