SINCE ITS PUBLICATION in 1972, Bless Me, Ultima has inspired countless people across this country and around the globe, both young and old, to read, write, and listen with a sincere appreciation for the cuentistas, those storytellers who grace us with a special presence in our lives. I use the term “storytellers” over “authors” and “writers” because Rudolfo Anaya (1937–2020) comes from the storytelling tradition.
Rudolfo was a llanero at heart. He was raised in Pastura, a little village in the Río Pecos Valley. He grew up with his ear set to the wind, listening for the next story coming down the whispering plains.
Fifty years on, Bless Me, Ultima pays homage to a passing way of life. In the bestselling Chicano novel of all time, which set a standard for the literature and generations of writers that followed it, Anaya sought to capture the essence of what it is to be a person stepping between the thresholds of multiple worlds.
These are the worlds of Antonio, the young boy whose life is being pulled apart by people around him who think they know what is best for him and his future. It is a story of human mediation with the natural environment, the reconciliation between Catholic and Indigenous spiritual traditions, and the exploration of morality. It is a tale of the struggle between good and evil. Through these conflicts comes healing: through faith—a blind faith in oneself and others—and the magical connections we make with everything around us.
“As with Ultima and her powers to heal,” Rudolfo once told me, “it is our arte, the art of creating, writing-painting-music-carving-carpinteando-trabajando la tierra, which helps us sustain our very being as we navigate between el mundo nuestro y el mundo nuevo.”
From the context of his upbringing and cultural experiences, Rudolfo wrote to honor the working man and woman. He recognized and celebrated the knowledge held by folks living on the margins of society, in rural villages and in the barrios of urban centers. He celebrated their wisdom in his writing. Rudolfo and his Chicana/o counterparts engaged in the Movimiento of the 1960s and ’70s. They were committed to the preservation of nuevoméxicana/o culture, language, and traditions. Their work had purpose and served as a form of activism.
His presence as a professor in the English department at the University of New Mexico made me, and other students like me, feel as if we, too, had a place at UNM. Like his, my work was rooted in the culture, language, and oral traditions of the manito people of northern New Mexico. The voices of the everyday nuevoméxicanos in our writing carried our stories and poetry forward.
Like the writings of Rudolfo Anaya, photographer Miguel Gandert's images reflect the Chicano working-class men and women of New Mexico. Gandert, an Española native, is a distinguished professor in the Department of Communication & Journalism at the University of New Mexico.
TO AUTHOR ABELARDO BAEZA, who produced a highly praised teaching guide for Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo wrote: “You have done education a great service, Abelardo, and you have done contemporary Chicano and Chicana literature the same service by believing in our work. You knew our voice should be heard, so you took the stories, poems, songs, cuentos, and novels into the classroom and created the move toward a new curriculum. All of us thank you for that. Because of you, and teachers like you, Mexican Americans know their literature, history, and culture better. And you have helped those who are not Chicanos look into our literature and become not only aficionados of literature, but better neighbors.”
But the real thanks ultimately go to Rudolfo Anaya. He was at the forefront of authors whose work initiated the move toward a new, more inclusive curriculum in the classroom. For many of us growing up in New Mexico, Bless Me, Ultima was the first literature we were required to read in school that went beyond the traditional Steinbeck, Frost, Whitman, and Dr. Seuss. For native Spanish speakers, it was a hallmark of linguistic affirmation, written in our own language, the language of the nuevoméxicano. Beyond academic institutions and educational settings, Anaya’s work inspired others to take their stories and put them on the page.
In this novel, we found our North Star, a guide back to our villages, back to our gente, back to our own language, culture, and traditions, back to our querencias. It took us back, even as we went forward in a literary celebration of who we had been, who we were, and what we could become. It honored the concept of community and family, los ancianos, los jóvenes, las cosas nuestras santas y sagradas, los remedios de la tierra, y lo espiritual. It was a cleansing and a healing from all that had stained us with a sense of inferiority and rejection.
And it gave us a template for how each of us could tell our own story, in our own language, and from our own locura, our own worldview, or the inbetween space that has been referred to, in Nahuatl, as nepantla. The magical realism in Bless Me, Ultima was not imagined. It was real.
We recognized the settings, contexts, characters, and landscapes as coming from the place of our birth and upbringing. We saw our querencias, relatives, paisanos, linguistic nuances, and colloquial mannerisms. Rudolfo’s stories, for us, were not postcard images of the cultural landscape, but hardened realities, softened through the crafting of language and symbolism, and made as poetic as the cemetery and its descansos, bearing the names of our antepasados. Rudolfo empowered us not only as writers and poets, but as everyday people, cooks, waiters, doctors, lawyers, architects, mechanics, receptionists, and anyone with a story to tell.
RUDOLFO CARVED OUT and legitimized a place in American literature for the kind of bilingualism that I and so many others carry on. He was one of the first bilingual writers to gain prominence, and his was not a language of italics and translation.
He once wrote to me about his thoughts on the use of these mechanics. “We don’t need to translate like that, do we? … As Chican@ literature evolved we didn’t provide a translation, especially not as part of the text. In my children’s stories I use a glossary. Se vale (It’s fair). Or use footnotes. Honor the text and its rhythm. You as a poet know rhythm. When you write or give a reading, if you stopped to translate words you use in Spanish, it would spoil the rhythm. ¿Qué no? (Don’t you think so?).” Of course, the use of translation in his message sarcastically emphasized the point he was making.
As children, my siblings and I would tag along with our father on his frequent evening visits with parientes and vecinos throughout the village. Absorbed by our relatives’ and neighbors’ stories, often told in the warmth of a woodstove fire and by lantern light, my mind and soul would travel across other worlds, worlds of sheepherding ranches, railroad camps, la borrega, el ferrocarril, faraway worlds of battlefields and foreign lands.
I learned about men and women who had passed on, but who were alive as ever, by mention of their names and through the stories that were shared—brujas y pistoleros, local heroes and villains, and real-life comical figures. I learned about the traditions of gardening and acequias, on which side of the row to thumb the seeds, why February has 28 days and March has 31, and why a clothesline should be oriented north to south.
I DEVELOPED A LOVE for the art of storytelling. In it, I found a role as listener and observer.
It fit my introverted nature quite well. My father, an educator, must have understood that his children’s education did not begin or end in the classroom, and that knowledge and wisdom could also be found among those whom local society had dismissed as outcasts—los pícaros, los locos, borrachos, tontolones, y malcriada/os—the same types of characters Rudolfo honored and revered in his novels. These formative childhood experiences and the impact of the oral tradition fed my inquisitive hunger for the solace I found in the world of stories and books. Listening to the cuentistas’ stories led me to reading, and reading led me to writing.
It has been said, “The creative adult is the child who has survived.” It is quite conceivable that had my father not valued the wisdom of the plebe y los ancianos, the common folk and elderly storytellers of our village, I would not be writing this article.
Rudolfo himself once remarked, “The storyteller tells stories for the community as well as for himself. The story goes to the people to heal and reestablish balance and harmony, but the process of the story is also working the same magic on the storyteller … Remember the shaman, the curandero, the mediators do their work for the people, but they live alone.”
DURING A CONVERSATION I once had with Rudolfo, I told him that in my latest reading of Bless Me, Ultima I had appreciated the book twice as much, this time from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective. He smiled and said that when he got ready to go into his studio to write, he would ask his wife, Patricia, if she had packed a can of Spam in his lunch pail. “Do you know why I do that?” he asked me. He didn’t wait for a response. “Of course you do,” he said. “I’m just like those men from the villages. When they go to the monte for a truckload of wood, they always take their lonche, ’cause they know it’s going to be a long day.”
Like the storytellers of my childhood, in their darkened casitas, and the shamans who live alone in their world of healing and creativity, Rudolfo sat before the page, blessing us, not one last time, not una última vez, but one more time. That is the power of story—to endure and to transcend, to bring people together as strangers and neighbors and hold in beauty that which flees from us in shyness of the light. “Everything is connected,” Ultima reminds us. “Take all that is good and beautiful into your heart. You will see how it is all one marvelous mystery.”
Dive into a novel of mystery, magic, and New Mexico
Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of six-year-old Antonio Márez y Luna, who was born with the help of Ultima, a curandera with the wisdom of the spirit world and nature. As young Antonio navigates the gulf between his Hispano and Indigenous roots and complex family dynamics, Ultima gently lifts him up to tackle questions of good and evil, life and death, and the beautiful gift of his heritage.
A 50th-anniversary hardcover edition of Bless Me, Ultima, with a new foreword by Erika L. Sánchez, is available from Penguin Vitae and at local booksellers.