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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Rudolfo A. Anaya
(b. 1937)

Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Rudolfo Anaya’s first novel, is the single literary work most responsible not only for introducing American readers to Mexican American experience but for suggesting something of its vast imaginative potential. Bless Me, Ultima compelled its readers to discard the traditional American stereotype of Mexican American culture as a minor regional phenomenon, a curious, even degraded blend of customs and values drawn haphazardly from either side of the United States–Mexico border. Anaya delineated instead a distinctive culture rooted in the rich traditions of pre-Columbian aboriginal America and golden-age Spain. To be sure, Anaya’s fictional terrain was a highly individualized and relatively remote region of east-central New Mexico; nevertheless, Bless Me, Ultima had the effect of validating Mexican American culture from California to Texas and beyond.

Like many first novels, Bless Me, Ultima contains various autobiographical elements. Anaya is himself from east-central New Mexico, having been born in Pastura. He attended school in nearby Santa Rosa and later in Albuquerque where he has lived most of his adult life. He earned several degrees in English and guidance and counseling and taught for seven years in the Albuquerque public schools. Anaya had become director of counseling at the University of Albuquerque when Bless Me, Ultima appeared. Two years later, in 1974, Anaya joined the faculty of the University of New Mexico where he maintains an appointment as professor of English.

Since Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya has published a steady sequence of novels, short stories, plays, and even a travel book entitled A Chicano in China. Despite the subject of this last book, Anaya retains his fascination with New Mexico, its clash and blending of cultures and its unique qualities as a setting for the engagement of fundamental religious and moral questions. His most recent works perfectly illustrate the range of his interest in his native state. The drama “Matachines” explores the cultural meaning of a ritual dance combining Moorish, Spanish, and Indian elements; the novel Alburquerque (spelled as in the original Spanish) concerns a young man’s search for his father against the backdrop of a city losing its cultural moorings and beset by urban problems. None of Anaya’s subsequent writing has matched either the appeal or the power of his first novel.

Bless Me, Ultima focuses on the experiences of Antonio Marez as he begins school at the conclusion of World War II. As the last of four sons in the family, Antonio carries the burden of his parents’ increasingly desperate hopes. His mother, of a sedentary, tradition-bound clan of farmers, wishes Antonio to become a priest to absolve the indiscretions of one of her forebears. The father, equally alert to tradition, wants his son to maintain the vaquero customs of his family, most notably their fierce independence and self-reliance. As the battlelines for the control of Antonio’s destiny are drawn, the revered Ultima appears to nurture the boy in her own extraordinary way. Ultima is a curandera, a folk healer who joins the Marez household ostensibly to merely live out the rest of her days. Under Ultima’s tutelage, Antonio flourishes and begins preparations to fulfill his true destiny: to write, record, and thus preserve the traditions of his father’s and mother’s families alike.

Bless Me, Ultima is a novel rich in folklore. Anaya appropriates legends such as La Llorona (the crying woman), folk medicine, and superstition to convey a feeling of Mexican American culture in rural New Mexico. For Antonio, the folklore transmitted to him by Ultima serves as the very core of his cultural identity.

In the passage from Bless Me, Ultima presented in the book, Antonio recalls events surrounding his first communion. Even as a very young boy, Antonio has doubts about the Catholic church, its morbid emphasis on sinfulness, the unintelligibility of some of its practices, its inability to justify God’s treatment of his friend Florence who, just a boy himself, has already lost his parents and watched helplessly as his older sisters drifted into prostitution. Already, Antonio finds himself attracted to the stories of the Golden Carp, a local, pagan symbol of benevolence. But for all his growing doubts, Antonio is still very much the product of his mother’s religious training and so, for now, he acquiesces and participates in the church’s rituals.

Raymund A. Paredes
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
Bless Me, Ultima
      Dieciocho (1972)

Other Works
Heart of Aztlan (1976)
Tortuga (1979)
The Silence of the Llano: Short Stories (1982)
The Legend of La Llorona (1984)
The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas (1985)
A Chicano in China (1986)
Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcoatl (1987)
The Season of La Llorona (play) (1987)
Alburquerque (1992)
Matachines (play) (1992)

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Rudolfo A. Anaya
A biography, a list of primary and secondary texts, and student comments on Anaya.

Rudolfo Anaya
Biographical sketch.

Stop, You're Killing Me!
Provides a list of Anaya's major books and a link to biographical facts.

World Literature in English: Review
A review of Anaya's Jalamanta originally published in World Literature Today

Secondary Sources