National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima

by Rudolfo Anaya

A novel is not written to explain a culture, it creates its own.


Anaya and His Other Works

Rudolfo Anaya's books since Bless Me, Ultima (1972) fall into roughly three approximate categories: the novels, stories, essays, poetry, and plays he writes for his grandchildren; and the anthologies that he's edited out of a sense of responsibility to his peers and inheritors. After the success of his first novel, Anaya wrote Heart of Aztlan (1976), the personal and political novel of a boy whose family moves from the New Mexico countryside to the barrio. Rounding out his semi-auto­biographical trilogy is the novel Tortuga (1979), which reimagines the months Anaya spent in a hospital recuperating from a near-fatal teenage diving accident. Some critics, including Anaya himself, consider Tortuga his best book.

With the trilogy behind him, Anaya turned his hand to several other genres. A Chicano in China (1986) narrates Anaya's travels in the Far East. The Legend of La Llorona (1984) and Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcóatl (1987) retell the myths of the "weeping woman" of the Southwest and the winged dragon of Mexico. The Farolitos of Christmas: A New Mexico Christmas Story (1987) was Anaya's first children's story, preserving a vignette he invented for his granddaughter.

Just when Anaya might have settled prematurely into the role of Chicano elder statesman, in 1992 he published the novel Alburquerque, which became an important transitional book for him. His first fully realized, adult story of the urban West, Alburquerque reclaimed the original spelling of his adopted hometown for a story that combined many of the forms he had already used and added an important new one: detective fiction.

The book won the prestigious PEN/West Award, and paved the way for Anaya's quartet of Sonny Baca mysteries. Grouped around the seasons that governed Anaya's childhood on his family's farm, these novels of a shamus gradually turning shaman-Zia Summer (1995), Rio Grande Fall (1996), Shaman Winter (1999), and Jemez Spring (2005)-brought Anaya a largely new audience.

In 2000, Anaya undertook another book-length poem, this one destined for young readers. Elegy on the Death of César Chávez (2000) commemorated the travails and triumphs of the great United Farm Workers founder. The Chicano movement in which both men had played an important part was passing into history, and Anaya took pains to ensure that Chávez's accomplishments were not forgotten by the younger generation whose relative freedom he had helped to make possible. The struggle remained far from over, so Anaya's elegy struck a balance between honoring his own aging generation and rousing the next one.

Yet Anaya was hardly finished. In 2006, he published two new books: a collection of short fiction, The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories , and Curse of the ChupaCabra, his first young-adult novel. Pushing seventy, Anaya was happy to be remembered as the groundbreaking author of Bless Me, Ultima, perhaps even happier as the author of a still-growing shelf of books. As an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, he had searched the Zimmerman Library in vain for a literary tradition to call his own. Today, that same library's Center for Southwest Research has become a mecca for Anaya scholars, housing a wealth of his first editions, international translations, and manuscripts.

“A novel is not written to explain a culture, it creates its own.”
- Rudolfo Anaya

If you liked Bless Me, Ultima, you might enjoy:

Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992)
Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Frank Waters's Of Time and Change: A Memoir (1998)

If you want to read other Chicano writers, you might enjoy:
Ana Castillo's So Far From God (1993)
Tony Hillerman's Dance Hall of the Dead (1973)
Tomás Rivera's ... y no se lo tragó la tierra / ... And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1970)
Luis Alberto Urrea's The Hummingbird's Daughter (2005)

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