This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Rudolfo Anaya’s masterwork, Bless Me, Ultima. Over the decades, many scholars and book critics have written of the novel’s landmark approach to subject matter, language, religion and culture, so I will not attempt to do what has been done by those who are more capable than I. I will, however, direct you to this article on Anaya which will lead you to many fine analyses and commentaries regarding Bless Me, Ultima.
What I did want to do in this week as La Bloga celebrates the fortieth anniversary is to share what we, as writers, have gained from reading and absorbing Bless Me, Ultima.
I came to the novel late in life, reading it for the first time in 1998, the year I started writing fiction. Though I had taken various Chicano-themed classes at Stanford University as an undergraduate back in the 1970s, those classes were in the areas of anthropology, sociology and health care. And you must remember that Bless Me, Ultima was not featured on college reading lists the way it is now. Indeed, my son read it in high school (he loved it). We’ve come a long way since then, though the recent attacks on literature by misguided politicians and their angry followers have not gone unchallenged. But that is a topic we've covered, and will continue to address on La Bloga. This week, we celebrate Bless Me, Ultima.
In any event, in 1998, at a ripe thirty-nine years of age, I decided to write fiction so I delved into as many books by Chicanos/as as possible with the goal of reading as a writer. I do believe that Bless Me, Ultima was at or near the top of my list. I read it over the course of two days, unable to put it down. The language, the characters, the conflict all rang true. Readng Anaya's words transformed me in ways too powerful and subtle to express accurately. But I do know that the novel shaped me not only as a writer, but as a Chicano writer. Through Anaya's example, I now felt free to imbue my writing with the reality of the Chicano experience with pride and honesty. Bless Me, Ultima set me free artistically and even intellectually. I was transformed. Period.
Other writers have shared with me how they were affected by Bless Me, Ultima. Here are their words:
“Bless Me, Ultima, which I read long before I began to write, showed me that simple language could encompass a complex world, carrying the reader to a land both strange and familiar – the land where our own stories originated, a place with no artificial borders between magic, history, and memoir. It was a good lesson, one I have tried to follow all of my writing career.” –Kathleen Alcalá, author of Spirits of the Ordinary, The Flower in the Skull, and The Desert Remembers My Name
"Rudy, with Bless Me, Ultima, you set the literary standard high. In doing so, you provided what is needed to establish, encourage and insure a dynamic and ongoing Chicano literary tradition. Your writing goes far beyond any ethnic parameters and has been an inspiration for writers of all backgrounds. Your Última is an enduring spirit greater than its creator, but isn’t that what writers want?” –Alejandro Dennis Morales, author of The Brick People
“Bless Me, Ultima proved to be a missing link for me. I was introduced to Rudolfo Anaya's work after I had finished high school, college, and graduate school. Thanks to mentors, such as Denise Chávez and Daniel Olivas, I read Bless Me, Ultima seven years ago and found an aha moment in which I saw myself and my writing experience as being part of a rich tradition infused with the seminal spirit of Ultima.” –Melinda Palacio, author of Ocotillo Dreams
“It was the year 1991. I remember perfectly the day when I read Bless Me, Ultima for the first time. I started reading Bless Me, Ultima very early in the morning with the intention of reading for just a couple of hours. I couldn’t stop! For the first time and in public, I confess that that day I didn’t go to the university. I simply wasn’t able to leave the novel. Since then, Bless Me, Ultima has trapped me forever. I felt an immediate validation for my mother’s culture, where she grew up, a Huastec community in the northern part of the state of Veracruz. As a result, in my short stories I have found myself incorporating colors, flavors, aromas inspired by my mother’s Huastec culture. Rudolfo A. Anaya’s example helped me do this. Thus, his intense manner of engaging me as a reader, the cultural validation I have felt and his images in Bless Me, Ultima have impacted me wonderfully as a writer.” –Xánath Caraza author of the chapbook, Corazón Pintado: Ekphrastic Poems, and a forthcoming full-length book of poetry, Conjuro
“I first read Bless Me, Ultima along with my son for his 9th grade AP English class. It sent tingles up my arms because it was my New Mexico experience, something my L.A. boys only got to experience twice a year. My spirit blossomed and my writing did, too, especially while writing my novel set in 19th century Santa Fe.” –Sandra Ramos O’Briant, author of the forthcoming The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood.
To keep track of what we’ll post on La Bloga each day this week regarding the fortieth anniversary of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, please visit here.
[Photo credit: Michael Sedano.]