Rudolfo Anaya’s words stuck to readers like piñon sap, bonding them to a New Mexico that many experienced but precious few could describe.
Considered a pioneer of Chicano literature, a deft purveyor of magical realism and revered throughout the country for works like his seminal 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya died Sunday in Albuquerque.
He was 82. KOB-TV, citing a family member Tuesday, reported Anaya had been in declining health.
His death was noted and mourned in writers’ modest cubbyholes and sleek, expansive offices: In a statement issued less than two hours after Anaya’s death became known, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham described the author as a hero to many in the state who’d grown up with his books.
“Through his indelible stories, Rudolfo Anaya, perhaps better than any other author, truly captured what it means to be a New Mexican, what it means to be born here, grow up here and live here,” Lujan Grisham said. “His life’s work amounts to an incredible contribution to the great culture and fabric of our state — not only through his prodigious literary contributions but through his decades as an educator at the University of New Mexico.”
Anaya’s death — and life — also reverberated through the state’s arts community, where he was considered a sage, a friend and a mentor. Many called his work the inspiration, the jumping-off point, for their own careers.
“Bless Me, Ultima was one of the milestones I encountered when I was starting my literary career,” poet Jimmy Santiago Baca of Albuquerque said Tuesday. “It opened my eyes to the possibilities of magical realism in Southwest literature and was the first time I saw my New Mexican culture reflected in a beautiful way.
“His influence is inestimable,” Baca added. “He set an example for all of us.”
“It’s an incredible loss for the whole world,” said Denise Chavez, author of Last of the Menu Girls and Loving Pedro Infante. “He was the grandfather of Chicano and American literature. He’s left an incredible legacy. He was my mentor and a mentor to many. Without him, we couldn’t have gone forward.”
Anaya, born Oct. 30, 1937, in the Guadalupe County village of Pastura, near Santa Rosa, was among the state’s most honored and revered authors. He received a National Humanities Medal in 2016 from President Barack Obama and also was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.
But even as he got older and his fame grew, he continued to write, describing a New Mexico both basic and complex.
“The artist has to continue to challenge himself, to always go deeper and deeper and ask, ‘What is human nature like?’ “ he told Carmella Padilla of New Mexico Magazine in a 2017 interview.
Anaya first began assessing what made people tick while a boy in Santa Rosa, the son of Martin and Rafaelita Anaya. Like many Hispanics of his generation, he moved with his family from rural New Mexico to Albuquerque in 1952.
When he was 16, he fractured two neck vertebrae in a diving accident, an experience he drew from as he wrote the 1979 novel Tortuga.
“Rudy didn’t take to the streets. He took to the pages,” said U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. “He was so honest and beautiful in his storytelling. I think it came from spending long hours as a child in the hospital. He learned patience. He’s a very generous storyteller and a generous person.”
Anaya’s ties to New Mexico — its landscape, people, history and intricacies — were ever present in his work, but perhaps most telling in Bless Me, Ultima, which he began writing in 1963.
The book, published in 1972, was a revelation to many and is considered by some as the first Chicano novel to spark the imagination of a larger audience. It has sold nearly 2 million copies.
“One reason that I wrote Bless Me, Ultima was because, to me, the people I grew up with were so beautiful, I didn’t want them to disappear,” Anaya told Padilla. “I knew a book could be timeless. I knew the characters could be preserved.”
Written about a young boy and his mentor, the curandera Ultima, the book spoke of an oft-forgotten land, the llano, and seemed to validate the experiences of many who had grown up in New Mexico — at once connecting people to their roots but also inviting enough to capture the imaginations of those who didn’t grow up in the Southwest.
“Before Bless Me, Ultima, I’d never seen a book by a Chicano writer that touched as many people with his characters,” Chavez said.
The book was made into a movie in 2013.
Anaya, who also wrote children’s books and played a role in children’s reading programs, cared deeply about education at every level.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico and obtained two master’s degrees there as well. But he also taught in Albuquerque’s public schools. One was named in his honor.
Dr. Melina Vizcaíno Alemán, an associate professor in UNM’s English Department, said Anaya founded the creative writing program at the university and established a biannual literary journal that supports student writing.
“It is no understatement to say that Mr. Anaya will always hold a place in Southwestern and Chicana/o literature and culture,” she wrote in an email. “And his legacy endures here at home, across the nation, and overseas in the body of writings, manuscripts and programs he leaves behind.”
But it was the writers Anaya left behind who spent Tuesday calculating the loss, often finding it too large to adequately gauge.
“I’m so sad about this, and I can’t wrap my head around it,” said Anaya contemporary John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War. “I loved him. They call him the grandfather of Chicano literature, but he was the grandfather of us all.”