Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso
Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya
Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya (born 1937) has been hailed as one of the most renowned, resourceful and productive of Mexican American writers. His work holds an important place in Chicano literary curricula, with his novels appearing as staples on high school and college reading lists.
Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya was born in Pastura, New Mexico, on October 30, 1937. His mother, Rafaelita (Mares), was from a deeply settled, Catholic farming community called Puerto de Luna, while his father, Martin Anaya, was raised by nomadic herders on the New Mexican llano or eastern plains country. This dichotomy informed Anaya's sense of self and the rhythm of his writing. One of seven siblings, Anaya was the only male in his family to attend primary school, as his three older brothers served in the military during World War II. Not long after Anaya was born, his family moved from Pastura to Santa Rosa, where he grew up playing Chicano games like las escondidas (hide and seek), la rona (tag), adivinanzas (riddles), and listening to the cuentistas, who were Spanish-speaking oral storytellers. It was as part of a rapt audience listening to the stories of his ancestors that Anaya first experienced the power and vibrance of a well-told tale.
In 1952 jobs started disappearing in and around their small, rural town, and Anaya's family moved to Albuquerque to find work. Anaya found the city both stimulating and intimidating. They lived in the Barelas barrio, and he came into contact with street gangs as well as with the music and culture of his tight-knit community.
Anaya graduated from Albuquerque High School in 1956 and quickly enrolled himself in Albuquerque's Browning Business School from 1956 through 1958, with the intention of becoming a CPA. Unsurprisingly, he found the mechanisms of finance creatively stifling, and left the business school to enter a liberal arts program at the University of New Mexico. Anaya earned a bachelor's degree in literature from that university in 1963, and was working on a master's degree in literature when he met and married Patricia Lawless, a guidance counselor, on July 21, 1966. He finished his literary degree in 1968, but returned for a master's degree in guidance and counseling, which was awarded in 1972.
In an interview with Contemporary Authors, Anaya explained how frustrating it was for him to write "without models or mentors … I was still imitating a style and mode not indigenous to the people and setting I knew best. I was desperately seeking my natural voice, but the process by which I formed it was long and arduous … [because] the thought was still prevalent in academia that [Chicanos] were better suited as janitors than scholars."
From Student to Teacher
Anaya's desire to sow and cultivate a sense of value in Chicano youth led him to teach in Albuquerque public schools for seven years and serve the local youth as a guidance counselor for three more. He followed his efforts in the public schools by working as an associate professor at his alma mater, the University of New Mexico, for 14 years. He took a position as an English professor there in 1988, then became Professor emeritus in 1993. He remains an integral member of the university staff to this day. In his spare time Anaya lectures, teaches creative writing workshops, and edits.
Anaya is most widely known and praised by readers and critics alike for his first three novels. His groundbreaking first book, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), explores the relationship between a young Chicano boy and Ultima, a curandera or folk healer and spiritual guide. His second book, Heart of Aztlán (1976), immerses the reader in the sacrifices and choices a young Chicano boy and his family must make after moving from a small, rural New Mexico town to the hustle and bustle of Albuquerque. The third book, Tortuga (1979), follows a paralyzed 16-year-old Chicano boy imprisoned in a full-body cast, as he journeys from ignorance to illumination. Anaya has acknowledged that there is a heavy autobiographical current in these three novels, but insists that they are far from factual. He has simply stated that he wrote what he knew at that time in his life, as any writer would. In Contemporary Novelists Anaya explained that the three books do not comprise a traditional trilogy that shares characters and joined plots, but rather that they "offer separate worlds with different characters, [with] suggestions and allusions … that loosely connect the three works."
Regardless of what genre, style or form Anaya writes in, the essential elements in his works have remained remarkably firm. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English explained that his "narrative technique weaves together the historical with the mythical, the imaginative or fantastic, and the ritual aspects of Chicano life to explore the conflict between ethnic and Anglo-American cultures." The Encyclopedia Latina identified several features "that are now recognized as Anaya literary hallmarks: an emphasis on tradition, myth and spirituality; the repetition of certain types of characters (shamanic figures and seers both from the real world and from legend); an affinity for dream sequences, archetypal patterns, and mystical motifs; the geographic setting of New Mexico and the U.S. Southwest; symbols related to the natural world and the stress on the need for balance and harmony with the environment."
Critics have often examined Anaya's work with a focus on its incorporated myths and dreams. His writing also has succeeded in bringing the past to light in a vibrant and meaningful way. In an article in MELUS on Anaya's multi-culturalism, Theresa Kanozaticle pointed out how "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…. Rather than condemning or shunning innovation … he advocates a measured application of modernization, [insisting that] 'Technology may serve people, but it need not be the new god.' Anaya urges that just as the present can safeguard the past, historical awareness can 'shed light on our contemporary problems.'"
This argument would appear valid when one considers how current Anaya's works remain. Educator Raymond J. Rodrigues, in an English Journal review of Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, listed the timeless lessons to be learned from reading the novel: "studying why one picks some peers as friends and rejects others, considering ways in which another culture has influenced one's own, investigating different religious beliefs … [and exploring] people of generations older and younger than one's own to determine how their values may differ and why."
Anaya has, through his talent and hard work, made himself a significant figure in the landscape of Chicano literature. A versatile writer, he has moved from one genre to another, earning acclaim as a novelist, a poet, a dramatist, an essayist, an anthologist, a playwright, a children's author, a travel writer and an editor. He has also written a series of crime novels as well as many children's stories.
Anaya lives in New Mexico, the same state where he was born, and has said he has no desire to leave. When asked why writers write, he told Contemporary Authors, "We write for ourselves and for others. Messages. A sharing. We write to say we exist. The reader reads and also shouts I too exist! We are all together in the structure, which we call creativity. The structure is a house. We all live there. Some write, some do carpentry, plumbing or doctoring. We all live and share what we do. If it wasn't for those guys, I wouldn't have a house to live in. If it weren't for me, they wouldn't have a book of revelation to read. It all works out in the end." While Anaya has been able to make his existence known and his unique voice heard throughout the world, he has said that he still looks forward to a day when Chicano youth will find their own path to such recognition considerably less arduous.
Chicano Writers: First Series, edited by Francisco A. Lomeli and Carl R. Shirley, Gale Research, Inc., 1989.
Contemporary Authors: Volume 124, Thomson Gale, 2004.
Contemporary Novelists: Seventh Edition, edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, St. James Press, 2001.
Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya, edited by Bruce Dick and Silvio Sirias, University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature, edited by Mary Ellen Brown and Bruce A. Rosenberg, ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States, edited by Ilan Stavans, Grolier Academic Reference, 2005.
Hispanic-American Almanac, edited by Nicolas Kanellos, Gale Research, 1993.
Oxford Companion to American Literature: Sixth Edition, edited by James D. Hart, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English, edited by Jenny Stringer, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Twentieth-Century American Western Writers: First Series, edited by Richard H. Cracroft, Gale Group, 1999.
English Journal, January 1976.
MELUS, Summer 1999.