Literary Criticism of Rudolfo A. Anaya

Rudolfo A. Anaya’s  (1937-) works project a Magical Realism that blends contemporary life with the hidden manifestations of humanity and cultural identity. In his books, the principal characters struggle with the sometimes contradictory notions of Chicano identity tied both to an Aztec and Spanish past and to the English-speaking world of the present. Most of Anaya’s developed characters are influenced by that duality. The struggle caused by these contesting notions elevates the Chicano human condition to that of every person. Anaya’s first three novels, Bless Me, Ultima, Heart of Aztlán, and Tortuga, best exemplify these themes and characterizations.

Bless Me, Ultima 

Bless Me, Ultima is Anaya’s first novel of a trilogy, which also includes Heart of Aztlán and Tortuga. Bless Me, Ultima is a psychological and magical portrait of a child’s quest for identity. In this classic work, Antonio, the protagonist, is subjected to competing realities that he must master in order to grow up. These realities are interwoven with symbolic characters and places, the most powerful of which are Ultima, a curandera (healer) who evokes the timeless past of a pre-Columbian world, and a golden carp that swims the river waters of the supernatural and offers a redeeming future.

Antonio is born in Pastura, a very small village on the eastern New Mexican plain. Later his family moves to a village across the river from the small town of Guadalupe, where Antonio spends his childhood. His father is a cattleman, and his mother is from a farming family. They represent the initial manifestation of the divided world into which Antonio is born and a challenge he must resolve in order to find himself. Antonio’s father wants him to become a horseman of the plain, like his ancestors before him. His mother wants Antonio to become a priest to a farming community, which is the honored tradition. The parents’ wishes are symptoms of a deeper spiritual challenge facing Antonio, involving his Roman Catholic beliefs and those associated with the magical world of the pre-Columbian past. Ultima, the curandera and a creature of both worlds, is a magical character who guides Antonio through the ordeal of understanding and dealing with these challenges. She is there to supervise his birth; she comes to stay with the family in Guadalupe when Antonio is seven. On several occasions, Antonio is a witness to her power in life-and-death battles.

Antonio’s adventure takes him beyond the divided world of the farmer and the horseman and beyond the Catholic ritual and its depictions of good and evil. With Ultima’s help, he is able to bridge these opposites and channel them into a new cosmic vision of nature, represented by the river, which stands in the middle of his two worlds, and the golden carp, which points to a new spiritual covenant. The novel ends with the killing of Ultima’s owl by one of her enemies. Because the owl carries her spiritual presence, Ultima dies as well. However, her work is completed before her death: Antonio can now choose his own destiny.

Heart of Aztlán

Heart of Aztlán, Anaya’s second novel of the trilogy, is, like Bless Me, Ultima, a psychological and magical portrait of a quest for Chicano identity and empowerment. It is the story of the Chávez family, who leave the country to search for a better life in the city, only to discover that their destiny lies in a past believed abandoned and lost. The story focuses on two characters, Clemente Chávez, the father, and Jason, one of the sons. Jason best depicts the adjustments the family has to make to everyday life in the city. However, it is Clemente who undergoes a magical rebirth, which brings to the community a new awareness of its destiny and a new will to fight for its birthright.

The novel begins with the Chávez family selling the last of their land and leaving the small town of Guadalupe for a new life in Albuquerque. They go to live in Barelas, a barrio on the west side of the city where many other immigrants reside. The Chávezes soon learn, as the other people of the barrio have discovered, that their lives do not belong to them. They are controlled by industrial interests, represented by the railroad and a union that has compromised the workers. They are manipulated by politicians through Mannie García, “el super,” who delivers the community vote.

In Barelas, Clemente also begins to lose the battle for control of his household, especially his daughters, who have no regard for his insistence on the tradition of respect and obedience to the head of the family. The situation worsens when Clemente loses his job in the railroad yard during a futile strike. He becomes an alcoholic, and in his despair he attempts suicide. Crispín, a magical character who represents eternal wisdom, comes to his aid and shows him the way to a new life. With Crispín’s help, Clemente solves the riddle of a magical stone in the possession of “la India,” a sorceress who symbolically guards the entryway to the heart of Aztlán, the source of empowerment for the Chicano.

Clemente’s rebirth takes the form of a journey to the magical mountain lake that is at the center of Aztlán and of Chicano being. Reborn, Clemente returns to his community to lead the movement for social and economic justice in a redeeming and unifying struggle for life and for the destiny of a people. The novel ends with Clemente taking a hammer to the Santa Fe water tower in the railroad yard, a symbol of industrial might, before coming home to lead a powerful march on his former employers.


Tortuga, the third novel of the trilogy, is a tale of a journey to self-realization and supernatural awareness. In the story, Benjie Chávez, the protagonist, undergoes a symbolic rebirth in order to take the place of Crispín, the keeper of Chicano wisdom, who upon his death will pass his position to Benjie. At the end of Heart of Aztlán, Benjie was wounded by his brother Jason’s rival, fell from the railyard water tower, and was paralyzed. He was transported to the Crippled Children and Orphans Hospital in the south for rehabilitation. His entry into the hospital was also a symbolic entry into a world of supernatural transformation.

The hospital sits at the foot of a mountain called Tortuga (which means turtle), from which flow mineral springs with healing waters. Benjie is also given the name Tortuga after he is fitted with a body cast that makes him look like a turtle. What follows is a painful ordeal, both physically and psychologically, as the protagonist is exposed to every kind of human suffering and deformity that can possibly afflict children. Not even this, however, prepares him for the visit to the ward of the “vegetables,” the immobile children who cannot breathe without the help of an iron lung. There Tortuga meets Salomón, also a vegetable, but one with supernatural insight into the human condition. Salomón enters Tortuga’s psyche and guides him on the path to spiritual renewal.

Salomón compares Tortuga’s challenge with the terrible ordeal newly born turtles undergo as they dash to the sea. Most of them do not survive, because other creatures lie in wait to devour them. Tortuga must endure the turtle’s dash in order to arrive at his true destiny, which is called “the path of the sun.” Tortuga experiences a near-death ordeal, which includes a climactic moment when Danny, an important character, pushes him into a swimming pool, where he would have drowned if others had not rushed to his aid. Tortuga survives his symbolic turtle dash to the sea. The vegetables are not so lucky; one night Danny succeeds in turning off the power to their ward. With the iron lungs turned off, they all die. The end of novel and Tortuga’s rehabilitation also bring the news that Crispín, the magical helper of Tortuga’s neighborhood, has died. The news of Crispín’s death arrives along with his blue guitar, a symbol of universal knowledge, which is now Benjie’s.

The trilogy that ends with this novel, along with Anaya’s literary production as a whole, reflects a search for the meaning of existence as expressed in Chicano life. This search is often a journey that takes the protagonists into the past and the present and into the physical and mythical landscapes of the urban and rural worlds of the Southwest, revealing the relationship of these worlds to the social and political power structure of mainstream America.

Principal long fiction • Bless Me, Ultima, 1972; Heart of Aztlán, 1976; Tortuga, 1979; The Legend of La Llorona, 1984; Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcóatl, 1987; Alburquerque, 1992; Zia Summer, 1995; Jalamanta: A Message from the Desert, 1996; Rio
Grande Fall, 1996; Shaman Winter, 1999; Jemez Spring, 2005.

Other literary forms • In addition to his novels, Rudolfo Anaya has written short stories, children’s literature, essays, plays, and poetry. His early short stories are collected in The Silence of the Llano (1982). The Farolitos of Christmas, first published in 1987, is a children’s short story; it was published again as an illustrated edition in 1995. Anaya’s essay output is largely a result of his many lectures offered around the United States. An important exception, however, is A Chicano in China (1986), which is a daily account of a visit to China in 1984. The Anaya Reader (1995) is a collection of short stories, essays, a poem, and plays, including Who Killed Don José? (pr. 1987).

Achievements • Anaya became one of the foremost Chicano novelists of the twentieth century. He came to the forefront of the literary field as the Chicano movement of the late 1960’s began to strengthen its vision during the early 1970’s. His first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, won the Premio Quinto Sol literary award in 1972. The recognition of his work brought him into the center of an important discussion on the issues of the history, culture, and identity of the Chicano. Anaya answered the challenge of his new role as a force in the evolution of Chicano letters by publishing Heart of Aztlán, a novel that represents a search for the Chicano soul in the barrios of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aztlán, the legendary homeland of the Aztecs and the term used as a symbol of unity during the Chicano movement, is a key term in Chicano history. With Heart of Aztlán the term also becomes important in literature. Alburquerque won the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) Center West Award for fiction. Anaya’s work in children’s literature has also been recognized nationally. The 1995 illustrated edition  f The Farolitos of Christmas, a warm tale of family love and a traditional Christmas, received the Southwest Texas State University Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award.

Other Major Works
Short fiction: The Silence of the Llano, 1982; Serafina’s Stories, 2004; The Man Who Could Fly, and Other Stories, 2006.
Plays: The Season of La Llorona, pr. 1979; Who Killed Don José?, pr. 1987; Billy the Kid, pb. 1995.

Screenplay: Bilingualism: Promise for Tomorrow, 1976.
Poetry: The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas, 1985 (epic poem); Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chávez, 2000 (juvenile).

Nonfiction: A Chicano in China, 1986; Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya, 1998. Children’s literature: The Farolitos of Christmas: A New Mexico Christmas Story, 1987 (1995; illustrated edition); Maya’s Children: The Story of La Llorona, 1997; Farolitos for Abuelo, 1998; My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande, 1999; Roadrunner’s Dance, 2000; The Santero’s Miracle: A Bilingual Story, 2004 (illustrated by Amy Cordova, Spanish translation by Enrique Lamadrid).

Edited texts: Voices from the Rio Grande, 1976; Cuentos Chicanos: A Short Story Anthology, 1980 (with Antonio Márquez); A Ceremony of Brotherhood, 1680-1980, 1981 (with Simon Ortiz); Voces: An Anthology of Nuevo Mexicano Writers, 1987; Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, 1989; Tierra: Contemporary Short Fiction of New Mexico, 1989.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press,Inc 2008.

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