by Rudy Ch. Garcia
For the last post of 5 de Mayo week celebrating the publication of Rudolfo Anaya's classic, I chose to focus on revisiting the story itself, using Anaya's prose for those readers who read it too long ago, read it in class because they "had to" or have never read it.
Reading the novel's opening, one is tempted to think that Anaya's description only means to set the mood of a pastoral plot. I'm more tempted to see this paragraph as his synopsis of the entire novel, no small achievement when a writer writes about his own work. Here's the passage, with my comments below that:
"Última came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came, the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood. She took my hand, and the silent, magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl that was the white sun's home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement. Time stood still, and it shared with me all that had been, all that was to come. . ."
"Última--a seven-year-old boy--the llano, the river--the earth--three times--magical time--mystery--she took my hand--magical powers--made beauty--the raw, sun-baked llano--the valley--sky (blue bowl) and sun--feeling and trembling--time stilled--all that had been, was to come." After reading the novel, return to this opening that will surprise you with the brevity of its capture of the novel's world.
Calling this book pastoral could imply simplicity, but capturing complexity seems always to have been Anaya's intent. Consider some of the Chicano themes that compose the book.
Chicanada / Agabachado – the protagonist Antonio Marez who is nicknamed Tony. Just as happened to many of us--I myself, born Rodolfo, anglicized into Rudy--Anaya's hero bears the brand of two cultures.
Western religion / indigenous belief – one of the most complex dichotomies that encompass the Hispanic, the Chicano, the mexicano cultures. Some authors have portrayed it as purely adversarial, others have dealt with it as assimilation of one by the other. In Última, Anaya took the approach of duality, coexistence, parallel worlds, it seems to me.
The treasured agrarian life / loss of land & dispersal of the family – on the surface, one of the most frequent themes in Última, made even more complex by Antonio's being pulled both by the llano and the valley, his paternal and maternal roots, the farm and the wide open plains. And the duality doesn't end there.
This extends into the female world, where contrasted to Última and his mother, Antonio's daily passes the village bordello with its carnal temptations, but also its womanly models who foretell what will develop in tourist border towns, another facet of the mexicano-Chicano world.
Anaya's narration and dialogue, too, contain the literary dichotomy he helped create with el español woven into the dominant English, but often with no literary apologies to the monolingual English-speaker for what might be its meaning. Whether he meant to or not, Anaya told us here: not to sit in the backseats of the bus where we could chat in our native language, the back row of the classroom where we could whisper Spanish epithets, nor that we had to stand separately from the English-speakers when we went to a dance. In his subtle way, Anaya wrote the language of the proud who should put themselves forward, and not just in using their language.
About Antonio's dreaded first day in the English-dominant school:
"Somehow I got to the school grounds, but I was lost. The school was larger than I had expected. Its huge, yawning doors were menacing. I looked for Deborah and Theresa, but every face I saw was strange. I looked again at the doors of the sacred halls but I was too afraid to enter. My mother had said to go to Miss Maestas, but I did not know where to begin to find her. I had come to the town, and I had come to school, and I was very lost and afraid in the nervous, excited swarm of kids."
This is more than a child's first day of school; it is the universal story of every colonized, conquered, oppressed student's entrance into the educational system of the dominant culture. Africa, Brazil, the 19th, the 20th century, doesn't matter. It happens every year, in every state of this union and many other countries. It will happen again this Sept. In that sense, it is universal. Note too, here Anaya mentions not one word to set the context in its Chicano/Anglo or Spanish/English setting. He didn't need to, because the fright he describes is inherently much more vast.
Lastly, here is the passage of Antonio first witnessing a local legend:
"Then the golden carp came. Cico pointed and I turned to where the stream came out of the dark grotto of overhanging tree branches. At first I thought I must be dreaming. I had expected to see a carp the size of a river carp, perhaps a little bigger and slightly orange instead of brown. I rubbed my eyes and watched in astonishment. . . The huge, beautiful form glided through the blue waters. I could not believe its size. It was bigger than me! And bright orange! The sunlight glistened off his golden scales. He glided down the creek with a couple of small carp following, but they were like minnows compared to him. "The golden carp," I whispered in awe.
I sometimes fall into a bit of vergüenza when among non-Chicanos, that our people's beliefs include La Llorona and El Cucúi. Then, I'm not Anaya, who often reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his magical realism. The golden carp is but one of Anaya's sharing of our mystical heritage. He apologizes for none of it, and goes on to laud its splendor. That's part of how he broke new ground for all of us. Again, another universal, the celebration of indigenous belief.
The novel is a classic, but not dated. The passage where Antonio's three brothers return from WWII, mentally changed and scarred, for instance. Replace that with Afghanistan or Iraq and its timelessness, unfortunately, continues for Chicano families today under this President and will for some time.
Anaya delightfully portrays Última, an anciana, in so many sensual ways that one often wonders whether she was that old. Sensual, not sensuous. This is a far cry from how we today have been raised to think of our own abuelos.
There are more universal and timeless themes in the book. The river, spoken of as the source--always italicized--in a drought-threatened land is as fitting in today's global warming world as it was forty years ago; more so now.
My intent here was a short revisit of the novel itself to possibly spur readers into picking up the book and opening its pages. I've but scratched the surface and as others have pointed out, there are many in-depth reviews and analyses of the book. There is much more contained within than my few words covered.
Should you decide to open the book, maybe do it at a family reunion. Actually, Última deserves to be memorized, like a Greek would do Homer, or a chileno would treat a Neruda poem. If you do choose to read a passage, do it for the young of your family, the culturally deprived of your cousins, your urbanized anglicized kin. After you read it, step back to let your family's forgotten stories reemerge to be shared. To feel what we sometimes forget is part of being Chicano. Thankfully, we will always have Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Última to help us remember.
Two final messages for Sr. Anaya:
Felicidades to el maestro Anaya on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Bless Me, Ultima. In 1972 I was a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. Bless Me, Ultima was the first Chicano novel I read and it had a tremendous impact on me. – Juan Tejeda
Mis respetos, honor a quien honor merece. Yo conocí al Sr Anaya el año pasado en su casa y fue grandioso conocerlo. Mis hijos estaban facinados. Gracias Sr. por ser una persona sencilla y siempre dispuesto con una franca sonrisa. Gracias también por introducirnos en el mundo de las letras con su grandiosa imaginación y talento. – Margarita Hortelano