WASHINGTON – In bestowing the National Humanities Medal to New Mexico’s Rudolfo Anaya, President Obama lauded the famed author for his “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. “And as an educator, he has spread a love of literature to new generations.”
Anaya, a native of New Mexico whose Southwestern-themed fiction and poetry dazzled the literary world, received the heavy bronze medal from Obama at an upbeat ceremony Thursday in the White House.
Widely considered the dean of contemporary Chicano literature, Anaya joined 16 other American arts and humanities luminaries, including humorist Mel Brooks and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, for the event in the ornate East Room.
Anaya, 78, is probably best-known for his 1972 coming-of-age work of fiction, “Bless Me, Ultima,” which is set in rural New Mexico. The book is required reading in many high school and college literature courses, although it has also stirred controversy for its language and sexual references. Anaya also has written four cultural mysteries, called “The Albuquerque Quartet,” as well as children’s books, essays and plays.
Using a wheelchair but in obvious high spirits, a beaming Anaya raised his arm and shouted “Â¡Viva, Obama!” as a military escort wheeled him off of the dais after his medal presentation. The well-dressed crowd, which included Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, erupted in cheers and laughter.
Asked afterward by a Journal reporter about his shout-out to Obama, Anaya grinned, gave a “thumbs up” sign and said, “He’s my hero, man.”
Anaya, born in 1937, was raised by a cattleman near Santa Rosa before moving to Albuquerque in middle school. He later earned his bachelor’s and two master’s degrees at the University of New Mexico. Anaya now lives in Albuquerque. He told the Journal 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.”
Anaya said he enjoyed the ceremony, which Obama claimed was “more rowdy” than usual – a fact the president attributed to the presence of Brooks, a comic and filmmaker perhaps best-known for his classic “Blazing Saddles.”
“There was a lot of emotion and joy and passion for people who are in the arts and humanities,” Anaya said. “One feels very grateful and thankful when that happens.”
The celebrated author also had a special message for those back in his beloved home state.
“Tell them I’m going to bring my new medal home,” he said. “Tell Santa Rosa this is for them.”