Rudolfo Anaya: I was writing. I used to write at night. I was teaching school, and I was married, and had to do all the things that one does when one is working and has a family. But I used to write at night. And I was writing the novel about Antonio. So it was just going to be a childhood novel about this boy growing up in this small town in New Mexico. And one night I felt something behind me. And I turned and there was this woman, older woman, dressed in dark. And she asked me what I was doing. And I said I'm writing a story about Antonio, about my childhood. And she said, "Well, you're never going to get it right unless you put me in it." And I was surprised, I said, "What?" And she said, "Yes." And so then I asked her, "Well, what's your name?" She said, "Ultima." And that was the inspiration that changed the novel completely. It was no longer going to be a kind of Huckleberry Finn on the Pecos River. Her spirit was now in it, and I had to go deeper into that world of the Shaman, of spirituality, of conflicts of the soul that Antonio has to solve.
That was NEA literature fellow and National Medal of Arts recipient Rudolfo Anaya talking about his classic novel, Bless Me Ultima, a trail-blazing book of Chicano literature and one of the titles selected by the NEA's Big Read program.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Published in 1972, Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of six-year-old Antonio who lives in Northern New Mexico during the Second World War. When the book opens, Ultima a traditional healer or curandera has come to live with the family, and she serves as a teacher to Antonio as he tries to resolve competing tensions in his life, between his mother and his father, between his home and his school, and between the Catholic religion and the curandera's spirituality. In many ways, the book echoes Anaya's own background, so when I had the chance to speak with him, I began our conversation by asking Rudolfo how much the book reflected his own experiences growing up.
Rudolfo Anaya: Bless Me, Ultima is quite autobiographical in the sense that I was writing a story about my childhood, my hometown where I grew up, Santa Rosa, New Mexico, on Old Highway 66 and the Pecos River. So a great deal of that environment, landscape, people, got thrown in the novel.
Jo Reed: You grew up in a town like Antonio's. Did your family have the same kind of cultural conflicts that Antonio's parents did? His mother's family is so rooted to the earth, they're farmers. Where his father's family, they're more like the wind.
Rudolfo Anaya: Well, in a sense, yes. My father was what you would call a cowboy, a vaquero, he worked out in the ranches with cattle. And my mother came from farmers down in the valley. They, people had settled there centuries ago. And farmed, they had beautiful orchards and farms. So I pick up that part of essential conflict as you say, and work it into the novel. One thing of course is when one uses autobiographical material you fictionalize it. So in the process of writing a great deal of that material becomes, becomes fiction.
Jo Reed: Of course. But let me just ask you this? Were you drawn when you were a child more to one parent's way than another?
Rudolfo Anaya: No, not really. Again, that's part of the conflict that I set up for the main character for the little boy, Antonio. I started out to write rites of passage novel to take Antonio through the experiences of school, church. And seeing the violence, some of the violence that occurs; the death that occurs, and very quickly it became more than just a rites of passage "à la" Huckleberry Finn. What I discovered was that it was far more interesting for me to go into Antonio's dream world and talk about, write about his dreams. To talk about symbolism that came out of those dreams. And to talk about mythology and legends. And that involved going deeper into my own subconscious and digging out the symbols that occur in the novel. People talk a lot about numbers that occur, and symbols, and all of that I had to put into Antonio so that he could struggle with his learning. What is he going to learn eventually about the people, and the time, and the place? More important, about human nature.
Jo Reed: Well, he's a child who is struggling with spirituality and different aspects of it. There's the spirituality of his mother and the Catholic church. And then there's a different kind of spirituality I think that his father has as a man of the plains, the cowboy. And then Ultima, has another spirituality that she introduces Antonio to as well.
Rudolfo Anaya: Again, this is part of this tremendous conflict that I want to put into Antonio. His father is a cowboy and used to freedom of, of the horse. These are cowboys and they're used to that kind of freedom working out in the land, and calling nobody boss. You know, they're independent. Ultima comes along and illustrates, shows to Antonio the love of the land. The very deep love of nature, that nature has a soul. That nature is animated. That all plants, that everything is to be respected. That you can use the plants to heal people, but she talks to them. She says, "Come and help." And then the mother is a Catholic, very traditional Catholic, grew up in the church. And she wants Antonio to be a priest, to follow in the ways of her ancestors. And this is a conflicts that I present Antonio. And then there's the fourth one you might say and that is the golden carp.
Jo Reed: I just wrote that down as you were talking. Yes, indeed.
Rudolfo Anaya: Yes. And that becomes really paramount in a very crucial to his upbringing. One of the boys of the town. Of course, all the boys go fishing. But Kiko introduces him to this beautiful golden carp that swims in the, in the river. And no one can see the golden carp except a few chosen people, and that would be Ultima. She knows about him. And that would be some of the boys. And so the theme of innocence is drawn into the novel. Do you have to be innocent to see such beauty? The beauty in nature that is raised to higher level. And again creates a conflict in Antonio. Where is the truth? Where is the ideal? What am I to believe in? This beautiful golden carp that I have seen or the God of the church that my mother teaches me? So again it's a lot of conflict for this small boy.
Jo Reed: It sure is because so much of this novel is about him learning how to see and observe, and to see what's there.
Rudolfo Anaya: And the very beginning of the novel, Ultima comes to stay with a family. Ultima is the curandera, means she's a healer. She's helped people in the small towns and the ranches all her life. And she takes Antonio's hand, and he describes it as a whirlwind. He describes it as, "For the first time I could see the beauty of the llano, the open plain. The beauty of the river and the trees. The hum of the earth itself." And so that whole idea of human touch and how important it is becomes crucial to the novel. Antonio will witness very violent deaths and he'll be right at the … kneeling beside the person that is dying. And each person will ask him for a blessing. And so the whole question revolves around can a child who is innocent provide this blessing at the end of life? And this is what Antonio is learning from all these different people.
Jo Reed: You know we've talked about the mixture, the spiritual mixture that's happening. And it's so much I think a part of the country. Because you have Hispanic culture, and Anglo culture, and a lot of give and take there. But what's interesting is how the indigenous culture and those ways still persist and inform both?
Rudolfo Anaya: In many respects, I think Bless Me, Ultima is a novel about the indigenous. That is what was in place before the Spaniards came into New Mexico? What was in place before the Anglo-Americans came? And it is that kind of spirituality that does interest me. And I think forms a really important part of the novel. And again that goes back to Ultima and all the healing ways, traditional ways she has of helping people. And to the golden carp; that is that beauty in nature that we must all respect. And that to me is the indigenous sensibility that so often we have forgotten, or trampled upon really.
Jo Reed: It's interesting because you see that in many other cultures as well. And I'm thinking of Cuban culture, or Brazilian culture. It's Catholicism but it really is overlaid on top of deep indigenous beliefs, folktales, traditions.
Rudolfo Anaya: Yes, that's absolutely true that one of the things about the migrations and the colonization of the Americas is that those that have come from the old world, from Europe, have overlaid their culture on what was there, the existing culture. But those indigenous cultures are so strong and have such deep beliefs in their sense of spirituality that they can't be wiped out. They persist. And in a sense give the new culture a strength that they have. We see it here in New Mexico, the Indian pueblos have their ceremonies all year long at different times. And we go and we attend, and we attend the dances. And we hear the singing and it's uplifting. It's not us, it's not our world. But we recognize it as something that has been here for so long and is so close to the earth that it has a lot to teach us. And we go away better people when we, when we share that sense of spirituality with others instead of being so… It's just me. I have the correct way. <laughs> That sense of understanding other people I think is very important. And I hope that's what the novel teaches. I know I get letters from students all over, from all over the United States. And they all say that they got a sense of sharing from it, that they got a sense of understanding another culture.
Jo Reed: We talked about Ultima as a curandera and a healer, a traditional healer. And often, and indeed in the book people would confuse that with someone who was a witch.
Rudolfo Anaya: One way to understand Ultima and the traditional healers of the new world is to look at them as a Shaman. And the Shaman is a person who helps the village. That if somebody is sick, either physically or spiritually the Shaman can help. In the case of Ultima, the New Mexico healers, the curanderas at work here all work on the level mostly of physical healing, that is if you have a bad back; or, it used to be in the old days they would -- if you had a broken arm they would set the arm. In the case of Ultima I take her to a different plain. And that is the plain of the Shaman. The woman who can go in search of the soul to reintegrate, to bring that lost soul back to the person so that the person is made complete again. And so I go a little deeper into the traditional "curanderismo" than most people do. And I think that has to be made clear to readers that this is not just the traditional healer that we have here in New Mexico, and throughout the Latin culture. But that I take her into that area of witchcraft.
Jo Reed: Were there curanderas in your life when you were growing up?
Rudolfo Anaya: Yes. The curandera is very familiar in our, in our Latino culture in the Southwest. And, as I say in Mexico and all of Latin America. And they were there always to help people.
Jo Reed: It's also a world informed by folktales, which is something else that's very important to all your work, not just Bless Me, Ultima. And it's a culture of storytelling.
Rudolfo Anaya: Yes, I grew up before there was television. And there was a few radio stations. But the main ingredient in terms of creativity was listening to stories. The oral tradition in our family and all the extended family that I knew. Everybody told stories, and the stories come out of the "cuentos." The cuentos are the folklore that came from Spain through Mexico into New Mexico, and there's hundreds and hundreds of fabulous, fantastic, beautiful folktales. And so I think that hearing those stories; I attribute a lot of my wanting to be a writer to that oral tradition. I heard stories. I didn't read until I went to school. In fact I didn't know how to speak English until I went to school. I grew up in a Spanish speaking community. But I took with me that whole folklore, all those stories that I had heard.
Jo Reed: Was it difficult when you first went to school to begin the process of learning English then? Were your teachers sympathetic? Were they bilingual?
Rudolfo Anaya: I often ask myself how did I make that transition from Spanish to English? And I think that I can't remember that far back when I was six or seven when I first went to school. Oh, I was lost. I was really lost. It was a brand new world. And going into a world where you don't understand the language was confusing. But we had excellent teachers. I think the key was people like, teachers like Mrs. Maestas, I remember her. And Mrs. Rosel that they knew the families. They knew where we came from, and they took us aside and made, helped us make that transition into English. So the key is the teacher. And that goes back to Ultima, she's also a teacher.
Jo Reed: She certainly is.
Rudolfo Anaya: Well, it's interesting that when I went to the university, I wasn't prepared at all. I had good grades in high school but I wasn't prepared for university studies. And again, I remember it was a confusing world. Very few of us New Mexicans, Chicanos were at the university. And again it was the teachers. I found the right teachers that, wow, they lead me into the book. And there was the magic. The magic was in the book, and the stories; and that's when I started writing. You know, I thought, if somebody else can do this, I can do it too. <laughs> So I started writing stories, and poetry, and that's how I got into it.
Jo Reed: How did you make the transition from the oral culture to reading? Did that happen at University or did that happen earlier? Where reading really became a joy for you?
Rudolfo Anaya: That happened in the first grade when I, when I showed up at school that I had, that I had to obviously learn English. If you're going to read the stories and participate in the education-- that's when I learned how to read. And at that point also reading really turned me on. I think that I was fascinated always by that magic that could come out of the printed page. That the characters could come alive, and the conflicts, and I could read about the cowboys. That was fascinating. And so that I was hooked, I think, from a very early age.
Jo Reed: Bless Me, Ultima is one of the first books of Hispanic literature, Chicano literature, which means you're one of the creators of a genre; which, of course, is both exhilarating, but had to have been both a struggle and a challenge at the same time?
Rudolfo Anaya: Oh yes. Writing in the '60s, I was again, I was teaching high school, and writing at night. And then when I had, I had written other manuscripts. But the first one that I thought was good enough to show was Bless Me, Ultima. And I began to send it out to publishers and at those days we only had New York publishers and they'd all send it back. And then I discovered this small press in Berkeley. And that was a time of the Chicano movement. And people were forming small presses, professors and students, and community members. It was a very exciting time. And I sent my novel out. And it got accepted, not only got accepted but it won a prize. And that was the beginning of my career, and the career of a lot of other writers of that era, the '60s and the '70s. We were the Mexican-American population that up to that time had not produced a lot of written literature. And so finding the outlets, finding the publishers, that was tough. That was difficult. And I really admire the people that formed those small presses in the beginning, and published us. I still love the small press, and also the university presses that sometimes publish the writers that the big publishers don't look at.
Jo Reed: Well now, of course, Bless Me, Ultima is taught in many high school classes, college classes. It's a Big Read selection. Are you surprised by the journey your book is taking?
Rudolfo Anaya: It's always a surprise. Every time that people invite me somewhere or I get an award; I've been writing for 50 years. And the Big Read called me and said we want to place Bless Me, Ultima in the reading category of the Big Read. It was still a surprise. And I am grateful, and thrilled, and my wife and I will sit down when something like this comes along. And we'll say, "Wow, it's fantastic." Because one never expects it. You write -- I write because I have to write. That's what I have, that's what I became. And I have to do it every day. It's just like work. And when something good happens out of that work it's just glorious.
Jo Reed: Aside from the work itself, Bless Me, Ultima, as I mentioned earlier, you really helped create a genre. And there's an explosion of Chicano literature now from the Southwest. And that must be very gratifying and exciting?
Rudolfo Anaya: Oh, it's exciting. We were the early writers of the Chicano, in the Chicano movement. And there were many of us. I know that sometimes I'm given a lot of credit for being the one of the founders, but there were many of us that broke ground. It was a literary movement in this country that should be studied, should be known. And yes, and it's grown. That's one of the most satisfying parts is that now we have hundreds of writers, and good novels, and plays, and poetry coming out. We were at the beginning. So it is, it is a gratifying.
Jo Reed: You know it's interesting because with a book like Bless Me, Ultima, I mean, you created a novel that is so specific to place, to culture, to time. And at this same time it clearly has universal strains, and tells a universal story. And I'm always interested by how paradoxically in its specificity novels can speak universally.
Rudolfo Anaya: That's part of that what we call the magic of literature that we can read any writer, whether it's contemporary or hundreds of years ago. And get into that world that they create. And I believe that, that power of a story, of a poem, or of a drama shines through and we can participate in it. I think that's why the Big Read program is so important that it wants to take these stories to the country, to people. To have them participate in that wonderful magic that stories can have in them. And to me that's the soul that the writer has been able to put into the story.
Jo Reed: And you most certainly did in this one. Rudolfo Anaya, thank you so much for giving me your time today for writing this wonderful, wonderful book. And for all of your contributions to literature, thank you.
Rudolfo Anaya: Thank you very much.
Jo Reed: That was National Medal of Arts recipient Rudolfo Anaya talking about his novel, Bless Me Ultima…Bless Me Ultima is a classic of Chicano fiction and one of thirty books selected for the Big Read, and a film based on the book is slated to begin production in October.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Original Guitar Music composed, performed, and used courtesy of Jorge F. Hernandez.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, a conversation about the elusive art of translation with Natasha Wimmer, who's probably best-known for her brilliant translation of Roberto Bolano's monumental work, 2666.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.