Rudolfo Anaya was born in the small village of Pastura, near Santa Rosa, New Mexico, to a farmgirl mother and a cowboy father. The curandera who presided at his birth set out tools of both family trades near the newborn-only to see him reach for a paper and pencil instead.
To judge from his early years, one might have expected him to crawl toward a sporting-goods store. As a boy Anaya hunted and fished and swam the Pecos River. Later, after the family left the countryside for Albuquerque, he gravitated toward baseball and football. At sixteen, while roughhousing around an irrigation channel with friends, Anaya dove in and hit the bottom. Years of arduous rehabilitation and bedridden reading would pass before he regained a full movement in his neck.
Anaya discovered a different kind of movement during his years at the University of New Mexico. El Movimiento, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, encouraged Anaya's dream of writing books that would explore his cultural heritage.
After graduating with his BA and MA, he taught at middle schools, high schools, and universities while writing at night. In 1966, he married Patricia Lawless, who shared his passion for books and storytelling.
After more than seven years of writing and rewriting his novel, Anaya submitted his first manuscript, Bless Me, Ultima, to the small Berkeley press, Quinto Sol. A $1,000 prize accompanied the novel's printing, and the mainstream New York publisher Warner Books later acquired its rights. Since its publication in 1972, the novel has become part of high school English and university Chicano literature classes. Writer Tony Hillerman has praised Anaya as the "godfather and guru of Chicano literature."
On January 4, 2007, Dan Stone of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Rudolfo Anaya at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An excerpt from their conversation follows.
Dan Stone: Did you grow up in a bilingual household like Antonio Márez in Bless Me, Ultima?
Rudolfo Anaya: My parents spoke only Spanish. My dad worked for big ranchers and he could buy and sell cattle, which meant he could get along in English. But at home it was a complete Spanish-speaking household. By the time I went to school when I was six or seven, I didn't know English, I only knew Spanish. When I look back, I think that we must have had wonderful teachers who, instead of alienating us, allowed us to make a transition into that English-speaking world.
DS: Would you describe some of the autobiographical aspects in your novel?
RA: Bless Me, Ultima is autobiographical in the sense that I use my hometown, the Pecos River, Highway 66, the church, the school, the little villages and ranches around the town. My parents were very much like Antonio's parents. My mother grew up in a farming family in Porta de Luna. My father grew up on the llano as a vaquero, as a cowboy, so as a child, I saw the tensions that a conflicting way of life created.
DS: It's a potent internal conflict.
RA: Antonio's ambivalence also has to deal with the conflict that the parents seem to impose on him. The mother says, "Our way of life is changing. You've got to have an education." And one way to get that education would be to become a priest. And the father says, "I'm not too religious, I want him to be like me, a cowboy, a vaquero." And that way of life also was dying in the 1940s and '50s, so Antonio has that big internal conflict that has to do with family roots.
DS: When did you become interested in reading and writing, and how did that develop as you moved on to the university?
RA: Becoming a writer is an evolutionary process. I had had a very serious spinal cord injury accident when I was in high school, and that also figures a great deal into my life. Somehow that time of being in the hospital and dealing with recovery and seeing other kids my age really suffering a lot, seeing death, and then coming out of that experience, was very important and informative. That's one of the experiences that told me that I have to write, to record not only what happened to me, but what happened to people around me.
DS: Was it difficult to develop your own voice and break away from what you had been taught at the University of New Mexico?
RA: Yes. I started at the university in 1958 and at that time there were very few Chicano students on campus, and very few in the English department studying English literature. So, I was very much alone for a long period of time. It was a struggle. My companion was a dictionary, and I spent hours and hours in the library reading and doing research. And I had some very good professors. There were not any Chicano professors, but there were very good teachers. They were guides, and they helped me along.
DS: Did you know a curandera when you were young?
RA: When I was growing up, the curanderas were people who helped when there was a baby to be delivered, or maybe somebody broke an arm and fell off a horse, or couldn't get to a doctor. In Bless Me, Ultima, I took that very real world of women who are healers, or curanderas, but I moved it a little bit into witchcraft to set up the conflict between good and evil.
DS: For whom do you write, and why?
RA: I think the answer is, I write because I must. Then the whole idea of community comes into mind. Yes, I write for my New Mexican community, the Spanish-speaking world, but also for the entire world. Sometimes I'll be writing and I'll think of a person, a family member, or sometimes of a critic, and I'll say, "This is for them."
"There are so many dreams to be fulfilled, but Ultima says a man's destiny must unfold itself like a flower, with only the sun and the earth and water making it blossom."
—Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima