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Passing of a literary giant: Rudolfo Anaya 1937-2020

New Mexico author Rudolfo Anaya in front of the Petroglyphs on Albuquerque’s West Side. The acclaimed author died on Sunday. He was 82. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Rudolfo Anaya, the acclaimed New Mexico author and a founder of Chicano literature, passed away Sunday morning.

He was 82.

Anaya is best known for his 1972 classic, “Bless Me, Última.”

The novel, required reading at many New Mexico schools for years, was awarded the prestigious Premio Quinto Sol literary prize in 1972 for bringing Chicano literature to the forefront of American cultures. The book also drew its share of controversy from critics and was eventually put on a banned list.

Belinda Henry, Anaya’s niece, said Anaya’s health had been declining in previous years.

“His body was tired, but he fought it,” she said. “My uncle, he’s a man that was like my father. He was my world. I was fortunate enough to tell him that I was so grateful for him because he mentored me and guided me. He made people feel good through his words and actions. He loved New Mexico. His words helped changed the world.”

President Barack Obama shakes hands with author Rudolfo Anaya after presenting him with the 2015 National Humanities Medal in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press)

In 2016, Anaya was presented the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama for “pioneering stories of the American Southwest.”

“His works of fiction and poetry celebrate the Chicano experience and reveal universal truths about the human condition,” Obama said while honoring Anaya at the White House. “And, as an educator, he has spread a love of literature to new generations.”

Anaya told the Journal in 2016 that his entire body of work is formed by his experiences in New Mexico.

“I’m thoroughly New Mexican,” Anaya said. “I grew up there. I know the landscape, the people, the small communities. I’ve said before that in order to understand me, you have to understand me in the context of New Mexico.”

In 2016, he was also awarded the Journal’s “Spirit of New Mexico” award for his work.

That same year, Opera Southwest and the National Hispanic Cultural Center announced that “Bless Me, Última” was becoming an opera, which Anaya consulted on.

New Mexico native Rudolfo Anaya reads “The Cat in the Hat” to a group of children and parents at Bookworks in February 2007. (Erin Hooley/Albuquerque Journal)

Blazing his path

Anaya was born in Pastura on Oct. 30, 1937, and raised in Santa Rosa. He moved to Albuquerque with his family when he was about 16. His mother’s family lived in Puerto de Luna, 11 miles southeast of Santa Rosa.

He graduated from Albuquerque High School, and received his bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from the University of New Mexico. He taught creative writing at UNM until his retirement in 1993.

While studying at UNM, Anaya studied such writing greats as Faulkner, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

With no models or mentors to put him on the road to where he wanted to be as a writer, he forged ahead, writing in the evenings after his days as a teacher at Harrison Middle School and, later, Valley High School.

After his success, he often gave back to the community – often by reading to classrooms.

In 2009, an elementary school was named for him. Then, in 2018, the North Valley Library, 7704 Second NW, was renamed for Anaya.

“I’ve always been connected to libraries,” Anaya said during the renaming ceremony. “It’s fantastic, and it’s an honor. The library is probably one of the most important things in my life. It’s a center for democracy and of a community.”

Dean Smith, director of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Public Library System, said naming the library for Anaya is part of a tradition in which “we honor authors who have made major contributions to the literary canon of New Mexico – hence, we have the Ernie Pyle Library, the Erna Fergusson Library and the Tony Hillerman Library.”

In May 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham permanently designated Oct. 30, the author’s birthday, “Rudolfo Anaya I Love to Read Day.”

Lujan Grisham said Anaya was a seminal figure in the state’s rich literary history.

She said Anaya truly captured what it means to be a New Mexican, what it means to be born here, grow up here and live here.

“I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to sign legislation creating ‘Rudolfo Anaya I Love to Read Day,’ highlighting children’s literary education, and to have been able to celebrate that commemoration with his family,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “While his passing is a great loss for New Mexico, his life and his work was an incredible gift, not just to New Mexico, but to the world. His words and stories will be treasured forever. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones.”

Sen. Tom Udall spoke of Anaya’s accomplishments.

“Anaya gave back to New Mexico through more than just his literary work. As an educator, he shared his talent and love of the written word with New Mexico high school students, the community of Santa Rosa and as a professor at the University of New Mexico. My thoughts are with his family during this time and I join New Mexicans in honoring a great author, a father of the Chicano literary movement, and a great man.”

Rudolfo Anaya in his Albuquerque home in 2017. The beloved author passed away on Sunday. (Marla Brose/Journal)

Page to screen

In 2012, 40 years after the release of “Bless Me, Última,” another milestone happened for Anaya as his novel became a feature-length film.

The film had its world premiere in El Paso in September of that year and its New Mexico premiere in October at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.

Anaya said that when he was writing the novel, he never imagined the impact the book would have on readers.

“I think it speaks to readers because the soul or the spirit of the characters and the community seem real and people are connecting to that,” he told the Journal in 2012. “After all, it’s a spiritual journey for the boy in the novel, and people connect to the spiritual journey and learning from a woman who has helped other people all her life. We all kind of yearn for that – to have a guide or mentor in our lives who opens up the beauty of the world. It’s an amazing thing.”

Anaya was a consultant for the script and was kept in the loop when it came to casting.

“The minute they sent me Miriam Colon, I thought she looked like an Última,” he recalled. “Then they sent photographs of Luke Ganalon and he seemed to fit the part of Antonio. I could almost see myself in him.”

Jacques Paisner, SFIFF artistic director, said it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to present “Bless Me, Última.”

Anaya was also awarded the festival’s American Author Award.

“He was the first recipient of it,” Paisner said.

The festival sold out the premiere in less than 24 hours.

“Being able to present the long-awaited local premiere of the movie based on his monumental novel could never be matched,” Paisner said. “This book was banned, yet here was this film. He had a lot of family members in the audience, and it was a homecoming for his work.”

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