LastFront336-Rudy Anaya

Jim Harris

Rudy Anaya: New Mexico Novelist and Teacher

Correction From Last Week’s Last Frontier: 

Though I have been to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument at least a dozen times, in last week’s column I wrote that it is located in eastern Wyoming.  Of course, it is in eastern Montana near Crow Agency, Montana.

            When I first moved to New Mexico in 1974 to teach literature and writing classes at New Mexico Junior College, I attended a gathering of writers in Albuquerque so that I could get acquainted with some of the men and women who had written books that I might be using in my literature classes, including one class in Southwest Literature I taught for many years.

            The informal group of writers called themselves the Rio Grande Writers Association, and one of the first men in the RGWA I met was Rudolfo Anaya, who was teaching in the English Department at the University of New Mexico.

            In 1972 Rudy had published a novel called “Bless Me, Ultima.”  It was his first novel to be published, but it had become an instant success.  It’s a fascinating read about a young New Mexico kid growing up on the eastern plains of the state.

            The book was very popular in part because it was by a Hispanic-American at a time (the 1960s) when readers in the United States were anxious to read literary and historical works by and about minorities—Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and others.

            Rudy Anaya passed away last week at his home in Albuquerque, but from the early 1970s until his death, he was one of the most popular Hispanic writers in the country, and he was one of the most beloved and honored individuals in his home state.

            A few years after we met, I interviewed him in his home in Albuquerque for a series of video works I used in my classes at NMJC.  In the late seventies and early eighties, I was around him several times, and in 1985 Rudy and his wife Pat met Mary and me in Galveston where we had a fine time at a meeting of the Texas Folklore Society, which was having its annual gathering for the first time on the island along the Texas Coast south of Houston.

            I was the President of the TFS that year, and the president got to choose the city where the society met and the speaker for the annual banquet.  I asked Rudy to be the speaker, and he agreed, giving a fascinating speech about how New Mexico folklife differed from traditional life in Texas.

            Of course, Rudy was incredibly qualified for the subject, having grown up near Pastura outside of Santa Rosa not too far from the Texas state line.  Many literary critics have written about how folklore (Hispanic customs and practices) creates a sense of reality in his books.

            But the novels, in particular, have a bit of the magical to their plots.  He wrote something critics called “magical realism” in which spirits and unseen life forces seem to be directing the lives of his characters.

            For instance, the elderly Ultima of his first novel was a “curandero,” a healer who practiced natural medicine and prayers to aid the rural residents of her community in getting well from a variety of illnesses.

            How popular was Rudy in his home state when he passed away last week?

            In Santa Rosa there is a bronze sculpture of Rudy in the city park at Santa Rosa Lake.  The sculpture is by famed New Mexico sculptor Sonny Rivera, and it shows Rudy sitting with a book, one hand resting on an open page.

            One final note about Rudy in Galveston.  As a result of being around his wife Patricia in Galveston, I invited her to Hobbs and NMJC to give a presentation about women writers.  Pat, who died in 2010, was like her husband, a writer and a teacher.  She was a lovely woman and good speaker, and she and Rudy were very close in the years of their long marriage.

            After teaching literature and writing classes at the University of New Mexico, and after publishing many books, Rudy became known as the “Dean of Chicano Writers.”  He published books in a variety of genres–novels, short story collections, literary essays, folktales, poetry, plays, and even bilingual children’s books.

            His books include Albuquerque, Curse of the ChaupaCabra, Jemez Spring, Zia Summer, Cuentos Chicanos, Heart of Aztlan, Serafina’s Stories, Tortuga, and children’s books, such asThe Santero’s Miracle andThe First Sortilla.

            Rudy received numerous awards, including the Premio Quinto Sol, the national Chicano literary award, the National Medal of Arts for Literature, the PEN Center West Award for Fiction, the American Book Award from The Before Columbus Foundation, the Mexican Medal of Friendship from the Mexican Consulate, and the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award.

            In 2017 President Barack Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal.  President Obama said,

Anaya’s “fiction and poetry celebrate the Chicano experience and reveal universal truths about the human condition.”

            Rudy grew up in the country west of Santa Rosa. His family members were farmers and vaqueros.  When he was 14, his immediate family moved to Albuquerque where they settled into the barrio known as Barelas.

            His novels and short stories are set in rural New Mexico and New Mexico cities,   and many of his fictional narratives are good texts for the study of New Mexico folklore.

            My favorite of his books is a collection of short stories which I used in several of my Southwest Literature classes at NMJC. The title is “Silence of the Llano,” published in 1982.

            To show the range of subject matter in his books, I will end this Last Frontier by referring to a 2008 book he published at the University of New Mexico Press.  The title is “Chupacabra and the Roswell UFO,” and it is a mystery novel, in the same genre as Rudy’s close friend Tony Hillerman, another favorite writer of New Mexicans. 

            The reading level for this book is 14 years of age and up, and it has as its protagonist Rosa Medina, a college professor.  The dust jacket of the book reads as follows:  

            “In this fast-paced mystery, Anaya expands the Chupacabra folklore into a metaphor that deals with new powers inherent in science.”

            For much of their lives, Rudy and Pat advocated for literacy among the young.  They donated much to less fortunate New Mexico children.

            The author of over 40 books, Rudy Anaya is a man who will be missed by fans and friends.