RUDOLFO ANAYA Biography - Writers


Biography » writers » rudolfo anaya


Birth: October 30, 1937 in Pastura, New Mexico                                                     
Occupation: Writer, college teacher, teacher                                                       
An acclaimed Chicano writer, Rudolfo Anaya has become best known for his award-                   
winning novels, such as Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Tortuga (1979), and                               
Alburquerque (1992). Anaya, who taught at the University of New Mexico in                         
Albuquerque for nineteen years before retiring in 1993, has also published epic                   
poems, short stories, nonfiction, plays, and children's books. He has been                         
credited as a leader in the Latino literary community for his ground-breaking                     
style and his success in writing stories that capture the essence of the Chicano                   
Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya was born on October 30, 1937, in the small town of Pastura,                 
New Mexico, to Martín and Rafaelita (Mares) Anaya. Anaya's father, who came from                 
a family of cattle workers and sheepherders, was a vaquero, a horseman who                         
worked on the ranches surrounding Pastura, and his mother came from a family of                   
poor farmers, who were devote Catholics. Anaya, who was the fifth of seven                         
children, saw his parents as the two halves of his life — the wildness and                       
uncertainty of the windswept plains of east central New Mexico and the stable                     
domesticity of farm life. Soon after he was born Anaya's family moved to Santa                     
Rosa, New Mexico, where Anaya spent the next fourteen years. Later, his writings                   
would be filled with images and memories of the people who affected his                           
childhood. His fiction draws heavily on the superstitions and myths of the                         
Mexican-American culture that commingled with the traditions of the Roman                         
Catholic faith. In the community's rich storytelling tradition, legend and                         
history were blended together to create stories filled with mystery and                           
Anaya spent his childhood on the llano, the plains, roaming the countryside with                   
his friends, hunting, and fishing and swimming in the Pecos River. He was taught                   
the catechism in Spanish, often asking the priest and his older sisters                           
difficult questions about their faith. Spanish was spoken in the home, and Anaya                   
was not introduced to English until he went to school. Despite the shock of                       
changing languages, Anaya was motivated by his mother, who held education in                       
high regard, to excel at his studies. For Anaya, life was filled with unanswered                   
questions, but he knew that he had a place within the very mystery that belied                     
his understanding.                                                                                 
Life in the small, close-knit community of Santa Rosa gave Anaya a sense of                       
security and belonging that was torn from him when his family moved to                             
Albuquerque in 1952. In Albuquerque Anaya was introduced to a cultural and                         
ethnic diversity he had not previously experienced, as well as the painful                         
reality of racism and prejudice aimed at Latinos. Nonetheless, Anaya's teenage                     
years were in many ways typical. He played football and baseball, and spent a                     
significant amount of time with his friends discussing cars, girls, and music.                     
In school he maintained good grades and avoided the troubles and dangers of gang                   
When he was sixteen, while swimming in an irrigation ditch with friends, Anaya                     
suffered a diving accident that changed the course of his adolescence. Diving                     
into the ditch, Anaya broke two vertebrae in his neck and nearly died. His                         
convalescence was long and painful, but after spending the summer in the                           
hospital, Anaya, fiercely determined to return to his active lifestyle,                           
eventually recovered from his injuries. The experience produced in the teenage                     
boy a passion for life and an appreciation for the ability of adversity to                         
either destroy or reshape one's existence.                                                         
After graduating from Albuquerque High School in 1956, Anaya attended a business                   
school, intending to become an accountant. When his studies proved unfulfilling,                   
he enrolled in the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. If the move to                         
Albuquerque as a young teenager had rocked Anaya's world, university life sent                     
him into a full-fledged identity crisis. He was a Mexican American in a social                     
and academic setting dominated by a culture that was not his own. He found his                     
classes devoid of relevance to his history or culture. Also, English was still                     
his second language, and he often used speech patterns that were considered                       
wrong by his English-speaking classmates and professors. He felt different,                       
isolated, and alienated, with no mentors to guide or support him.                                 
Anaya's own questions of his place in the world as a Latino, coupled with the                     
traditional angst of moving into adulthood and the emotional pain caused by a                     
recently failed relationship with a girl, pushed him to write as a cathartic                       
exercise. Much of these early writings he later destroyed. Also a freshman                         
English class sparked his interest in literature, and he began to read poetry                     
and novels. Despite his growing love for reading, Anaya continued to lament the                   
absence of any authors who could serve as mentors for his unique Mexican-American                 
experience. In 1963 Anaya graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts                   
degree in English. He took a teaching position in a small New Mexico town and                     
continued to practice his writing everyday. In 1966 he married Patricia Lawless,                   
who supported her husband's desire to write and served as his editor.                             
During the 1960s, Anaya taught junior high and high school during the day and                     
worked on his writing after school and in the evenings, struggling to find his                     
literary voice. Although he conjured up images of his past, he found that he was                   
writing in a style foreign to that past. The words and the characters would not                   
mix. Then Anaya had something of a mystical experience that pushed him toward                     
the development of his own unique Mexican-American style. As he labored over his                   
writing one night, he turned to see an elderly woman dressed in black standing                     
in his room. This vision spurred the writer into action and a story began to                       
flow from his pen, inspiring his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima. The old woman in                   
black he had seen that night became Ultima, a healer who helps the story's main                   
character find his way in a coming-of-age story.                                                   
Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of Antonio Juan Marez y Luna, a six-year- old                     
boy growing up in rural New Mexico during World War II. Antonio is befriended by                   
Ultima, a kindly curandera, healer, who has come to stay with Antonio's family.                   
Through Ultima, Antonio discovers the mysteries of the plains surrounding him                     
and learns how to use its plants for medicinal purposes. But when Ultima heals                     
Antonio's uncle from curses placed on him by a family of witches, Tenorio                         
Trementina, the witches' father, declares war against Ultima. Much of the drama                   
of the novel grows from the conflict between Ultima and Trementina, which plays                   
out as a struggle between good and evil.                                                           
Another theme of the book is Antonio's struggle to understand his place in the                     
world. Like Anaya's own history, the boy is pulled between his father's                           
wandering life of a vaquero and his mother's harmonic, grounded existence with                     
the earth itself. He also contemplates his future — as a priest, as his mother                   
desires, or as a scholar, as Ultima predicts. And, he questions the validity of                   
his Catholic faith that seems helpless against pain and suffering while Ultima's                   
magic heals. His struggles are exemplified in his discovery of a golden carp in                   
the river, which as told in local folklore is a god. To simply suppose the carp                   
may share divinity with God becomes a question of meaning that feels to Antonio                   
like a betrayal of his mother's faith, yet it is a question he cannot help but                     
Although Bless Me, Ultima would receive wide acclaim upon its publication, Anaya                   
faced serious struggles in finding a publisher who would accept his manuscript,                   
which incorporated both English and Spanish words. Sending inquiries out to                       
numerous publishers, he received back a rejection from all of them, most often                     
because his writing was too Latino in style and language. "It was extremely hard,"                 
Anaya told Publisher's Weekly, "I sent the book to dozens of trade publishers                     
over a couple of years and found no interest at all. The mainstream publishers                     
weren't taking anything Chicano and we had nowhere to go. For us, living in a                     
bilingual world, it was very normal to allow Spanish into a story written in                       
English — it's a process that reflects our spoken language — but [in approaching               
mainstream publishers] I was always called on it. Without the small academic,                     
ethnic, and university presses, we'd never have gotten our work published."                       
Finally, Anaya happened on an advertisement from Quinto Sol Publications, a                       
small press in California, inviting authors to submit manuscripts. He sent in                     
Bless Me, Ultima and Quinto Sol quickly agreed to publish it. Bless Me, Ultima                     
became a reality in 1972, seven years after Anaya had first begun writing the                     
novel. Critics responded enthusiastically to the book, noting that it provided a                   
new, refreshing offering to Chicano literature, and it was awarded the Premio                     
Quinto Sol Award for the best Chicano novel of 1972. The new author would find                     
fame among Chicano readers and scholars.                                                           
With his new-found acclaim, Anaya secured a faculty position at the University                     
of New Mexico at Albuquerque, where he remained as teacher and adviser until he                   
retired in 1993. He published his second novel, Heart of Aztlan, in 1976. The                     
novel tells the story of the Chavez family, who is forced to moved from their                     
family farm to the barrios of Albuquerque. Heart of Aztlán is a political novel                   
that focuses on the struggles of a displaced family. While the father attempts                     
to fight the oppressive forces that surround him, his children succumb to the                     
temptations of sex, drugs, and alcohol, and the family is torn apart. Although                     
it won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book award, Heart of Aztlan was                     
not as well received as Bless Me, Ultima. Tortuga, Anaya's third novel,                           
published in 1979, completed a loosely tied trilogy that focused on the Chicano                   
experience over several generations. Tortuga is set in a sanitarium for                           
terminally ill teenagers. The main character is a teenage boy who lies in the                     
hospital in a full body cast, partially paralyzed and unable to move. He is                       
nicknamed Tortuga, which means Turtle in Spanish, because of his cast. In                         
despair, he tries to kill himself, but through the wisdom of another boy who is                   
terminally ill, Tortuga learns to accept and appreciate his life. The book was                     
well received and was considered by some critics to be Anaya's most complete and                   
accomplished work.                                                                                 
Following the completion of Tortuga, Anaya branched out, experimenting with                       
writing plays, short stories, poems, documentaries and travel journals, and                       
children's stories. His short stories were collected as The Silence of Llano,                     
1982. A Chicano in China, 1986 was a nonfiction account of Anaya's travels to                     
China. The Legend of La Llorona 1984 and Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of                           
Quetzalcoatl, 1987 were both retellings of traditional Mexican folk stories, and                   
The Farolitos of Christmas: A New Mexican Christmas Story, 1985, was Anaya's                       
first children's story. In 1985 he published an epic poem, The Adventures of                       
Juan Chicaspatas. Anaya also served as an editor for numerous publications, as                     
well as a translator and contributor to other Chicano works.                                       
In 1992 Anaya published Alburquerque (the original spelling of the city's name),                   
the first in a new series of linked novels. The second novel, the highly praised                   
murder mystery Zia Summer, followed in 1995. Rio Grande Fall was released in                       
1996, and the final installment of the loosely linked quartet was Shaman Winter,                   
published in 1999. Jalamanta: A Message from the Desert, published in 1996 was                     
yet another departure in style for Anaya. The story, which employed allegory to                   
tell a mythical story, was panned by critics, one of Anaya's few missteps during                   
his thirty years of writing. In 2000 Anaya wrote another epic poem, this time                     
aimed at middle and high school students. Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez                       
celebrated the life and struggles of the famed Chicano labor leader. The dust                     
jacket and author notes provided factual details, and the poem moved the reader                   
between grief and hope of a rallying cry for action.                                               
Following his retirement from teaching in 1993, Anaya has devoted his time to                     
his writing and traveling. Like his mother before him, Anaya has remained tied                     
to the land and in 2002 lived with his wife in Albuquerque, and like his father,                   
he has satisfied his desire to wander by traveling extensively throughout South                   
and Central America. Anaya, who spends several hours a day writing, told                           
Publisher's Weekly, "What I've wanted to do is compose the Chicano worldview —                   
the synthesis that shows our true mestizo identity — and clarify it for my                       
community and myself. Writing for me is a way of knowledge, and what I find                       
illuminates my life."