Last reviewed: June 2017
Mexican American novelist
October 30, 1937
Pastura, New Mexico
Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya was born in the small village of Pastura, New Mexico, in 1937 to Martin and Rafaelita (Mares) Anaya. His father was a laborer. Anaya’s inspiration to become a writer came at an early age when he listened to his family telling stories.
After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1963, Anaya taught in the public schools for seven years. He earned an M.A. in English in 1968 and an M.A. in counseling in 1972. He became director of counseling at the University of Albuquerque from 1971 to 1973, leaving that position to teach in the Department of English at the University of New Mexico, where he remained until he resigned that position to devote all of his time to writing in 1993.
Anaya’s first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, published in 1972, is an autobiographical work, a Bildungsroman that depicts a formative period in the life of the main character, Antonio. The mysterious healer Ultima is at the heart of this novel, in which the seven-year-old boy Antonio is searching for a spiritual foundation and values that will enable him to better cope with a world racked by conflict, violence, and death. Disenchanted with a Catholicism that seems dogmatic and harsh, he learns from the aged Ultima, a curandera (healer), an alternative outlook on life that includes a love of nature, a belief in the supernatural, and the need to choose good over evil.
Anaya has revealed that the disenchantment with Catholicism that Antonio experiences was exactly what he experienced as a youth, and that he, too, was attracted to polytheistic religion as an alternative to the dogmatic Catholic religion in which he was raised. Through his protagonist Antonio, Anaya is pondering fundamental existential issues: the meaning of good and evil, one’s purpose in life, whether God exists, and the nature of the sacred. Anaya’s reputation is largely the result of the critical and popular acclaim for this first autobiographical novel.
After growing up in Pastura and later in Santa Rosa, Anaya and his family moved to Albuquerque in 1952, where they lived in the barrio Barelas, the setting for his second novel. Heart of Aztlán might be viewed as primarily a social protest novel. The novel focuses on the problems of a Chicano family that moves to the barrio of Barelas in Albuquerque.
Anaya’s subsequent novels continue his fascination with his personal New Mexican background and the mythic nature of his rich oral tradition. His own near-fatal accident and treatment for a spinal injury at Tingley Hospital in New Mexico provide the background for Tortuga. This book recounts the story of the adolescent protagonist’s recovery from a serious accident that results in his being encased in a body cast, somewhat like a turtle’s shell (tortuga is the Spanish word for turtle). Alburquerque revolves around the search of Abrán González, a mixed-blood hero of the barrio, for his biological father. In the course of the complicated plot, Abrán comes into contact with different social classes, and Alburquerque becomes symbolic of American society. In Zia Summer, Anaya chose the popular genre of the murder mystery to express his moral vision. In this novel, his hero is Sonny Baca, a private detective who is investigating the murder of his cousin. As in all of Anaya’s previous novels, Zia Summer presents the archetypal battle between good and evil. Anaya later brought the character of Sonny Baca back for three additional mysteries: Rio Grande Fall, Shaman Winter, and Jemez Spring.
As in his earlier novels, Anaya's allegory Randy Lopez Goes Home fuses the spiritual quest so prevalent in the epic and classical literature with specifically New Mexican imagery. The Sorrows of Young Alfonso echoes some of the plot elements of Tortuga, focusing as it does on a life-changing accident and subsequent disability; however, it goes on to describe how the protagonist not only comes to terms with his situation but makes a mark in his community.The Old Man's Love Story is an expression of Anaya's grief at the loss of his beloved wife, Patricia. The novel explores love, loss, remembrance, and religion through more than two dozen stories.
In his later years, Anaya has written a number of books for children, including picture books of Mexican legends and myths and a pair of young-adult novels about the mythical Chupacabra. He has also returned to the short-story form, poetry, and drama.
Anaya is not only a widely read author within the Mexican American community but also one of the few Chicano writers to enter the mainstream and be read by a large public. Bless Me, Ultima is considered a contemporary classic and is frequently taught in secondary schools and universities. Anaya is considered one of the founders of Chicano literature. His literary contributions have been recognized through the 1980 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, a 2001 National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a 2015 National Humanities Medal.