Born to Rafaelita and Martin Anaya on October 30, 1937, Rudolfo Anaya is one of the youngest in a family of ten siblings; a large family not much different from the other families in the small village of Pastura, New Mexico. Anaya perceives himself and his work as inseparable not only from his extended community, but from the specific landscapes that surrounded his childhood. Pastura, as he describes, is “a small village on the llano [plains], El Llano Estacado, which begins in those hills and settles into the plains of West Texas and Kansas, the eastern plains as we know them. It’s a harsh environment. I remember most the sense of landscape which is bleak, empty, desolate, across which the wind blows and makes its music” (Dick and Sirias, 12). These rugged eastern planes, along with other distinct locations in New Mexico naturally provide the unique setting to Anaya’s novels, stories, plays, and poetry. But furthermore, they infuse the plots and characters with the views, the sounds, the scents and the flavors of a place that is more than a backdrop; a place that is a living, breathing character in and of itself.
“Soon after I was born, tells Anaya, “we moved to Santa Rosa, which was on Highway 66. For me that road was the link between the East and the west. There was much life there. Santa Rosa is a geographical setting, in a sense, that I use to set the stage for Bless me, Ultima. The river flows through the valley, and the highway and the railroad tracks dissect the town in another direction. And always there is the interplay of people on the stage of life with the elements of nature—and the llano itself working through the people, changing the people, finally making the people who they are” (Dick and Sirias, 13). The Pecos River Valley of Santa Rosa, the town and its people, and the formative experiences that marked his childhood feature in great detail in Anaya’s 1972 novel, Bless Me, Ultima, a groundbreaking work in Chicano Literature.
It was in Santa Rosa, a rural agro-pastoral town, that Anaya developed his love for nature, spending much of his time out of doors, playing and exploring with friends. It was there, too, that he heard many stories that would late inspire his writing; “cuentos” told in Spanish by family members and community elders recounting tales filled with the characteristically Hispanic mix of indigenous, earth-based spirituality and a deeply-entrenched Catholic tradition. The cuentos of his childhood, as Anaya explains, infused him with a sense of pride, a strong sense of belonging to the land and to a rich history that includes centuries of colonization in the region: first by the Spaniards, and later by the Anglo-Americans. Throughout the physical hardships, economic trials, and cultural clashes of prolonged colonial turmoil, the rural Hispanic communities of New Mexico survived, endured, and retained the profound ties to the land, the customs, and the beliefs that became the thematic driving forces in Bless me, Ultima.
In 1952, when Anaya was a teenager, his family, like many other families, was forced by changing economic conditions to move to the big city of Albuquerque in search of wage-labor work that was quickly replacing the traditional lifeways of small-scale subsistence farming. The move to the city facilitated a time of accelerated personal growth and intellectual expansion for the young Anaya; adventures, experiences, observations, and insights that are reflected in detail in his prose and poetry. For example his novel, Alburquerque, according to Anaya, “looks at my city, Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the traditional cultures of the Rio Grande, at the Chicano, Native American, and what’s happening all around us in the city. Change, new people coming here, new industry, money, politics, what all these have to do with my life and my community” (Dick and Sirias, 150).
After graduating from high school in 1956, he first enrolled in business school, and then at the University of New Mexico, where he discovered his interest in literature. After receiving his B.A. in English he began his teaching career at the elementary and then secondary levels. Before long, however, his own passion for learning led him back to the University of New Mexico for an M.A. in English, followed by another M.A., this time in guidance counseling. In 1974, after the unprecedented success of Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya was invited to teach at his alma mater. Despite never obtaining a PhD, Anaya’s talent and commitment to teaching earned him a full professorship at the University of New Mexico, where he taught creative writing until his retirement in 1993.
“At the university level,” says Anaya, I got a B.A. and an M.A. degree in literature in the English Department, and never once read a novel by a Chicano.” When Anaya began to work on Bless Me, Ultima in the 1960s, the term “Chicano literature” did not even exist, and there were no models, no examples to draw on or compare to. But with the rise of the Chicano movement there was a sudden “explosion of creative work, literary work, people with the same yearnings that I had, the same desires to write about their own life from the inside point of view, from a real knowledge point of view” (Dick and Sirias, 96). The timing, then, was just right for a young, aspiring author to experiment with a novel that was rooted in a bilingual culture, a rural landscape, and the integrated Mexican-American traditions that weaved ancient indigenous wisdom with the Catholic faith. In 1972, when, after many rejection, Bless me, Ultima was finally published, it shone brightly on the stage set by the Chicano movement. “We were asking ourselves who we were and where we wanted to go” (Dick and Sirias, 96), Anaya recalls, and the novel gave clear and resonant voice to those long-silenced questions.
In 1966, Anaya married Patricia Lawless, a fellow graduate student in the guidance counseling program at the University of New Mexico. The two shared many interests such as literature, teaching, and of course counseling. Over the course of Anaya’s writing career, Patricia was not only an encouraging fan, but a talented editor and important critic of his work. She herself was a writer, a teacher, and had a long career as a counselor at Cibola high School in Albuquerque. Rudolfo and Patricia were married for 34 years and had two daughters, Elynn and Melissa, several grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren at the time of Patricia’s passing, at the age of 85, in 2010.
As Anaya stresses in an interview with Juan Bruce-Novoa, a prominent scholar of Chicana/o literature, the voices, forms, and styles that have come to characterize Chicano prose cannot be considered as separate from the rise and the political concerns of the Chicano movement of the 1960s. like other cultural productions on the U.S.-Mexico border, written novels, stories, plays, or poetry existed in the far and obscured margins until social and political organizing and activism gathered momentum across the Southwest, advocating for equal rights, representation, and recognition for Mexican-Americans. When Bless Me, Ultima was published in 1972, the time was ripe for such a unique novel to pave the way for bilingualism, magical realism, and a bi-cultural poetic sensibility—all distinct marks of the emerging creative force of Chicano literature.
“It is a regional literature,” Anaya reflects. And as such, he asks, how does it fit with the mainstream Anglo-American literature? What does it have to offer? “It’s a culture that has a 400-year history here in the Southwest," he emphasizes, "a culture that shares from the Spanish and Mexican and Native American traditions and religions and world views. So you have a very unique mixture when you talk about Chicano literature” (Dick and Sirias, 99). Yet Anaya is less concerned with the label “regional” and more interested in the human experience depicted in his work that might transcend rigid categories. Experimenting with a range of genres, Anaya’s novels, plays, stories, essays, and poetry, despite being deeply rooted in the Southwest and in Chicano life, reach far beyond regional and cultural boundaries to touch readers of all walks of life all over the world.
The unexpected recognition of the 1972 pioneering Bless Me, Ultima embarked Anaya on a long and prolific writing career. His early novels, including Heart of Aztlán, Tortuga, and Alburquerque, continue to draw on autobiographical experiences and articulate the struggles of the Chicano community in its search for identity and a sense of belonging within the larger social context of contemporary life in the U.S. While the Sonny Baca mysteries, a series of four detective novels, mark a distinct shift in style, themes established in his early works continue to suffuse Anaya’s writing with universal truths. The search for a spiritual connection with the land, the community, and ancestral wisdom continue to infuse the works with meaning that is both local and global.
The same themes that repeat in his literary fiction, mystery novels, and short stories appear in Anaya’s children books as well. Through relatable characters, imaginative plots, and colorful illustrations by artists such as Amy Cordova and Maria Baca, these books make an important contribution not only to Chicano literature but to national and even international multicultural education.
A Living Legacy
Anaya’s accomplishments exceed those of a successful author. He is an educator, an active community member, and a generous supporter of young scholars and writers. The many awards and honors he has received over the years include:
Premio Quinto Sol literary award, for Bless Me, Ultima, 1970
New Mexico Governor's Public Service Award, 1978, 1980
National Chicano Council on Higher Education fellowship, 1978–79
National Endowment of the Arts fellowships, 1979, 1980
American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, for Tortuga, 1980
D.H.L., Univ. of Albuquerque, 1981
Corporation for Public Broadcasting script development award, for "Rosa Linda," 1982
Award for Achievement in Chicano Literature, Hispanic Caucus of Teachers of English, 1983
Kellogg Foundation fellowship, 1983–85
D.H.L., Marycrest College, 1984
Mexican Medal of Friendship, Mexican Consulate of Albuquerque, 1986, 1992, for Alburquerque.
National Endowment for the Arts National Medal of Arts Lifetime Honor, 2001
Outstanding Latino/a Cultural Award in Literary Arts or Publications, American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, 2003
Robert Kirsch Award 2011
National Endowment for the Humanities National Humanities Medal, 2015
In a statement given at the White House by President Obama at the 2015 National Endowment for the humanities award ceremony, Anaya was recognized “for his pioneering stories of the American Southwest. His works of fiction and poetry celebrate the Chicano experience and reveal universal truths about the human condition–and as an educator, he has spread a love of literature to new generations” (“President Obama to Award”).
When asked to comment on the award, Anaya reflected, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what this recognition means, and I’ve decided it’s not just about me… this award is about the people of New Mexico” (“Awards and Honors”). Beyond humility, the comment demonstrates Anaya’s perception of his individuality as inseparable from the community to which he belongs and which he feels committed to serve. Together with his late wife, Patricia, Anaya established scholarships for students, and founded a writer’s residency in Jemez Springs, NM. The couple was deeply invested in promoting literacy for disadvantaged children and supporting Chicano youth making their way through high school and in higher education. In 2010, Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya made a generous contribution to the English Department at the University of New Mexico, establishing a yearly lecture series that celebrates Southwest literature. The lectures host renowned authors and scholars, and are offered to students and the public free of charge.
Anaya continues to live and write in his North Valley home in Albuquerque. “I have traveled to many places,” he says, “but have no desire to leave New Mexico. Here I can look around and have a feeling that these hills, these mountains, this river, this earth, this sky is mine” (Dick and Sirias, 13).
“Awards and Honors: 2015 National Humanities Medalist: Rudolfo Anaya.” National Endowment for the Humanities, https://www.neh.gov/about/awards/national- humanities-medals/rudolfo-anaya. Accessed 12 September 2017.
Dick, Bruce, and Silvio Sirias, editors. Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998.
Fernandez Olmos, Margarite. Rudolfo Anaya: A Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.
“President Obama to Award 2015 National Humanities Medals.” National Endowment for the Humanities, 14 September 2016, https://www.neh.gov/news/press-release/2016-09-14.
“The Anaya Lecture on the Literature of the Southwest.” Department of English Language and Literature, University of New Mexico, https://english.unm.edu/dept-life/events/anaya-lecture/index.html. Accessed 12 September 2017.
”N.M. Author's Wife Was a Born Counselor, Teacher.” Albuquerque Journal, 2 February 2010, https://www.abqjournal.com/obits/profiles/022138165492obitsprofiles02-02-10.htm.
“Rudolfo Anaya: Biography.” FamPeople, http://www.fampeople.com/cat-rudolfo-anaya. Accessed 12 September 2017.