Beloved author Rudolfo Anaya, referred to as the “grandfather of Chicano literature” and a “literary giant” died this week.
While his vast body of work includes children’s books to poetry, his 1972 novel, his semi autobiographical voice heard on the pages of Bless Me, Ultima, remains his best known book, still highly revered today.
Written as the root of the Chicano movement took hold, the work has passed the test of time and exemplifies the life experience of straddling opposed cultures.
Bless Me, Ultima was adapted into a film in 2013 and told the story of a young man and an elderly curandera (medicine woman) who battled between the forces of good and evil through their village community during World War II.
Anaya’s work has served both then and now as a foundation to inspire two generations of Chicano writers — many who have opted to form new self-definitions of themselves but wrestle with the same issues of the past, today.
Through the classic work, Anaya captured both the magical indigenous spiritual world and the paradox of Catholicism that many Chicanos continue to wrestle with today. A most recent example has been the community finding themselves on opposite ends in conflict over the removal of the statues of Father Junipero Serra.
A winner of countless literary awards, Anaya received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2015 for “deepening the nation’s understanding of the human experience.”
However, beyond his long list of accomplishments, Anaya has been most praised for his work that inspired other talented Chicano contemporary writers. The coming-of-age book was curiously the target for school districts book bans, which caused Anaya to ask, “What is it about literature that makes people fearful?”
Learning of his passing, San Fernando resident, owner of Tia Chucha’s Cultural Book Store and author Luis Rodriguez wrote,
“My heart is broken. Rudolfo Anaya was one of our great thinkers, writers, indigenous-based beings who told our stories to the world with dignity and grace. I first met him at 18 when I received honorable mention in the Quinto Sol Chicano Literary Award — 48 years ago! I believe Rudolfo was the inaugural winner of the prize the year before. He was gracious and open to a deeply troubled and drug-addicted young man who at the same time was trying to live out a destiny. Over the years, I’ve met with him in his home, had sacred talks with this elder/maestro that has contributed to my own writing life. Que en paz descanse! Love and blessings to Mr. Anaya and his stories as medicine.”
Anaya throughout his life encouraged writers through his visits to schools, colleges and cultural centers. He was invited to speak around the world ,but as his fame grew he opened up a retreat for writers in Jemez Spring, New Mexico and started a creative writing program at the University of New Mexico.
Tomas Benitez, Development Director of L.A.’s Plaza de la Raza reflected on the famous author:
“Many years ago, the student theatre program at Plaza de la Raza adapted Bless Me, Ultima for the stage for their final production that year. Rudy Anaya was kind enough to come out to Los Angeles to attend the show and I got to meet him and talk to him about writing. He was gracious and spoke with the students as well. What a great writer, role model. Rudolf Anaya, PRESENTE!”
Since the publication of “Bless Me, Ultima,” Anaya’s work has continued to be a “must-read,” and a rite of literary passage for those who seek to master the art of writing, and the goal to write as eloquently as Anaya about their personal life experiences and community.