Rudolfo Anaya, author of the acclaimed novel “Bless Me, Ultima” and the widely acknowledged founder of Chicano literature, died Sunday at age 82. He spent much of his childhood in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and remains the Route 66 town’s most famous person.
Anaya was in declining health in recent years, his niece told the Albuquerque Journal.
The announcement of his death Tuesday prompted acknowledgment of his literary impact from New Mexico’s governor, its two U.S. senators and countless others who hailed from the Land of Enchantment.
“Bless Me, Ultima,” a coming-of-age novel about a boy in New Mexico that was published in 1972, won the Premio Quinto Sol literary prize and became required reading for years in many New Mexico schools. The novel drew controversy, too, and was banned in some places.
The novel proved notable for employing New Mexican mysticism, culture and folklore, plus its liberal use of the Spanish language. It sold at least 2 million copies.
The book eventually was made into an opera and, in 2012, a movie. The entire film is on YouTube:
Anaya wound up publishing more than two dozen books, including for children.
About 10 years ago, Anaya returned to Santa Rosa to read to schoolchildren there. Anaya was born in nearby Pastura, and his mother’s family lived in Puerto de Luna, south of town. UPDATE: Images from that edition are below.
By 2016, President Barack Obama gave Anaya the National Humanities Medal for “pioneering stories of the American Southwest.”
NPR reported how Anaya brought the novel to life when he started it in the early 1960s:
… [O]ne night he felt a presence in the room with him. “And I turned, and I saw this woman, this old woman standing by the door. And she asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m writing a story,’ and she said, ‘You’ll never get it right until you put me in it.’ And I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she said, ‘Ultima.’ And that’s how that vision of the healer, the curandera came to me, and she filled the novel with her soul.”
David Dunaway’s keynote speech, “The Hidden Voices of Route 66,” at the 2015 Miles of Possibility Conference in Edwardsville, Illinois, touched on Anaya’s history in Santa Rosa:
Another clip had “Bless Me, Ultima” author Rudolfo Anaya telling a story about working at a Route 66 gas station in New Mexico and encountering tourists who stopped there. The anecdote proved humorous, but it conveyed the cultural and economic distances between affluent whites and relatively poor native Hispanics — the latter whose families lived in the Land of Enchantment for centuries.
Santa Rosa contains a sculpture of Anaya in a park just off Route 66 in the middle of town. It contains bronze plates with these quotations from “Bless Me, Ultima”:
“Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you.”
“It is because good is always stronger than evil, always remember that, Antonio. The smallest bit of good can stand against all the power of evil in the world and it will emerge triumphant.”
“‘Bless me, Ultima–’ Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were, ‘I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live.’”
(Image of Rudolfo Anaya via Facebook)