In these troubled times many of us have little interest in literature and the arts. Too many problems, we say. On top of the very real catastrophe of global climate change, we are a country bitterly divided politically, wracked by shame and guilt about police brutality, torn by protests and monument destruction over the long overdue reckoning with white supremacy, haunted with an economy in recession, and 140,000 US deaths, 558,000 worldwide, and counting, from Covid-19.
It’s too much to bear, and in the middle of it all, Rudolfo Anaya, the premier Chicano novelist, departs this world. Rudy Anaya died on June 28, leaving a void that will never be filled. With his passing it’s time to reflect on the healing power of literature, even in the worst of external circumstances. We must do this, or we fall off the edge of the cliff.
Rudy was a Chicano writer, not a “Latino” writer. “Latino” is such a huge category, encompassing so many diverse groups that it is almost meaningless. “Chicano,” deriving from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, describes Mexican Americans with a conscience, people who know and love their culture, seek to preserve it and teach it, and above all, who care deeply about the problems and challenges facing this largest US minority group. Literature is one way that Chicanos fight the battle for the survival of our unique and embattled identity in the face of the American pop culture steamroller which seeks to make everyone and everything the same.
The other important thing about Chicano writers is that we are completely American writers. We may blend Mexican and American, but we are solidly grounded in US culture. Anaya’s New Mexican novel, Bless Me, Ultima, is a prime example. Ultima is complex, appealing to readers on many levels. A salient characteristic is the union of the protagonist, the boy Antonio, with nature, something that this work by a Chicano writer shares with 19th century romanticism and American transcendentalism. This is not so unusual. Anaya wrote an American novel, even if that is not often appreciated. Chicano literature, if properly understood, is plainly a type of American literature, and there many kinds of American literature. The desire for communion with nature is an integral part of classic American literature.
This kind of romantic mysticism is one of the main attractions of the novel. The beauty of the land and the love that the sensitive Antonio has for the New Mexican “llano,” or plains, creates the reverence for the numinous that sets the tone for the events in this Chicano “bildungsroman,” or coming of age novel. For Antonio, coming of age above all means learning “curanderismo’” or the art of healing, and the traditions of his people. Antonio must find his roots, not withdraw from them, as his older brothers do. Ultima is his teacher in this path to true self-awareness.
In his quest to discover the secrets of nature Antonio is guided by his spirit helper, the “curandera” Ultima. In this regard, the novel evokes a Mexican Indian reality. “Ultima” in Spanish means “the ultimate or last one,” and that is appropriate because when she vanishes there will not be another like her. The term “curandera” means “healer,” and that is what the old woman is, a powerful healer with the ability to heal not only ordinary illnesses, but even the strongest spells and curses laid by the witches and shapeshifters who populate the mythical landscape in which Antonio grows up. Like in any good mythic story, a Western European tradition, Antonio is an epic hero, journeying into the dark realms of monsters and evil spirits and doing battle with them. He is aided by his spirit helper, and returns with a boon for his people, a gift that he wins by his courage and faith in Ultima. This boon is his status as a messenger, conveying the message of cultural authenticity to a people thrown into the maw of technological Anglo American culture, personified by the explosion of the first atomic bomb in 1945, the time of the novel, at the White Sands Test Range. The Chicanos are in danger of losing their hearts and minds to the soulless machine, a perpetual danger for a powerless minority. To counter this, Antonio returns as a healer in his own right, ensuring the continuation of the traditions and knowledge essential to the survival of his people.
Because it is a “mestizo” novel, Bless Me, Ultima is also about the perennial struggle between the blood of the Spaniard and the blood of the Indian. “Spaniard” and “Indian” are never mentioned in the novel. But the conflict is plain, even if implicit, in the character of Antonio. This dual nature is seen in the contrast between the Mares (seas) blood of his father, and Luna (moon) blood of his mother. The Mares are horseman, passionate and restless, and like the Spaniards, they have traversed the ocean. The Luna side are farmers, patient and stoical like the Pueblo Indians, obedient to the cycles of the moon and bound to the earth which has nurtured them for a thousand-years. As is typical in the kind of Latin American mestizo literature, this conflict plays out in the person of a protagonist, usually a male character, often baffled, who has to find his way in life simultaneously pulled in opposite directions. The hero, Antonio, successfully balances the polarities, no mean feat, and one that makes Bless Me, Ultima a valuable tool in the education of young Mexican Americans seeking to understand themselves.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.