Rudolfo Anaya, the great New Mexican novelist and story teller passed away on Sunday, June 28th. He leaves us with a rich heritage portrayed in the historical, cultural and spiritual elements of a narrative that searches for identity and place relating to the Chicano human condition.
The second stop on my academic career was New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was the Summer of 1973 and my class of graduate students had also come to complete their residency requirement for their Masters Degree.
They were part of a “career ladder” project of a federally-funded program and New Mexico Highlands had designated me as their professor of record that taught their courses before they arrived on campus. So I had several opportunities to meet with with the faculty and administration including Dr. Frank Angel, the first Chicano University President in the country.
When President Angel heard that my doctorate was in literature he began to talk about a young man that, some time back, came to visit him and asked for advise on his desire to write and publish a novel. That young man was Rudolfo Anaya (1937-2020), a founding icon of Chicano literature.
Dr. Angel’s advise was to just write and let the creative act have its way. Anaya did just that and out came Bless Me Ultima (1972) that went on become a movie, a play and most of all, an inspiration to those that seek to look into themselves to discover their own essence.
Bless Me Ultima is part of a trilogy of novels that began Anaya’s career and established him among the pioneers of a literary approach called Magic Realism, an approach that seeks to merge common-day reality with the world of the supernatural. The other two novels are Heart of Aztlan (1976) and Tortuga (1979).
In the Latin Americas, the Magic Realism tradition was first offered by the great Argentine short story writer Jorge Luis Borges in the 1940s and popularized by the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his generational novel 100 Years of Solitude (1967). That breakthrough novel that sees the village of Macondo invented and reinvented captured the imagination of both literary critics and casual readers who may only be interested in a good story.
Rudolfo Anaya joined such literary giants as Isabel Allende of Chile, Juan Rulfo and Elena Garro of Mexico, Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala, Romulo Gallegos and Arturo Uslar Pietri of Venezuela and the Cuban American Mireya Robles in combining the concrete and the fantastic in their work. Anaya however, not only used Magic Realism as a technique but also lived it as part of his life and cultural beliefs.
Over the years, I had the opportunity to listen to Anaya at several conferences and meetings and even presented a paper on his trilogy at a gathering that he attended. I have always been fascinated by his stated need to find magical characters to pull his novels together.
In Bless Me Ultima there is Ultima, in Heart of Aztlan we find Crispin playing that role and in Tortuga there is Salomon who communicates with the main character in dreams. These characters help the protagonists endure the trauma of growing up Chicano and finding cultural relevance.
The Anaya legacy is with us for all time. His New Mexican way of writing, speaking and feeling are all in his books.
In a world with so much everyday trauma, Anaya provides a transformative message. He has important things to say.