Always Blessed – Albuquerque Journal
Rudolfo Anaya spent late nights typing on his Smith Corona typewriter in his New Mexico home from 1965 to 1971.
It was during these writing sessions that Anaya – the godfather of Chicano literature – weaved the classic novel “Bless Me, Ultima”.
It takes place in the small town of Guadalupe, New Mexico during World War II. The novel follows the story of Antonio Márez, who has a curandera or healer named Ultima who comes to live with his family when he is 6 years old. The main plot involves Ultima’s struggle to stop the sorcery of the three daughters of Tenorio Trementina, the main villain. Antonio, witness to several deaths, is forced to face religious and moral problems.
Anaya has often said that Antonio’s coming-of-age story resonated with him as he thought of himself as the boy.
Growing up in northern New Mexico, I too saw myself as Antonio – a boy caught between two worlds.
One world was religion and family, telling him which path to follow. The other world is that of Ultima, who uses the natural world to navigate her journey through the world.
Anaya’s debut novel became a way for readers to travel to a small town in New Mexico and experience the culture.
In the 50 years that have passed, “Bless Me, Ultima” still resonates with an audience. On March 15, Penguin Random House will release the 50th Anniversary Edition.
coming of age story
While Anaya, who passed away in 2020, is not around to attend the anniversary, the impact of the novel is felt everywhere.
Belinda Henry, Anaya’s niece, has carried the torch of her uncle’s work since his death.
“The anniversary is important to me because it ensures the continuity of my uncle’s legacy,” says Henry. “I often think of him hitting those keys. He was fresh out of college and he wanted to succeed. I don’t think he ever imagined the impact ‘Bless Me, Ultima’ would have in the world.”
Henry first read the novel when it was released in 1972. She was a sophomore in high school.
“I loved it and enjoyed it,” she continues. “I didn’t see the depth of the story or the culture or the lore until I read it as an adult. I’ve read it many times since and each time I do, I sit down and think about the significance of its words.
The impact has been tremendous for Las Cruces author Denise Chávez, as she counts Anaya and Tony Hillerman as her mentors during the University of New Mexico MFA program.
Chávez remembers reading “Bless Me, Ultima” when she was in her twenties. The impact was immediate and personal.
“I had never seen a Chicano writer and a New Mexico native have this success,” Chávez says. “As a young writer, I wanted to know this person. We see characters that represent our lifestyle and I was very impressed. (I was like, ‘Wow! He’s handsome. I have to meet him.’) The spirit of the book, it was so moving for me. Chávez agrees that many readers identify with the book because it is the quintessential story of a young man’s coming of age.
It is also the confrontation of good and evil while being a universal story of empowerment.
“We identify with Ultima because our mothers and grandmothers used the remedios,” Chávez explains. “It’s rather surprising to me that people find darkness where there is light. Ultima is a symbol of light.
“Loaded with Images”
Augustine Romero, who is the curator of the South Broadway Cultural Center, was able to explore New Mexico identity with a show themed “Bless Me, Ultima” in 2006. It was his first official show.
“I contacted Mr. Anaya to share my exhibition proposal,” Romero recalls in his essay, “The Ghetto Curator and the Curandera.” He responded immediately and said a movie was being considered so I couldn’t use the title ‘Bless Me, Ultima’. I settled on ‘La Ultima Grande.’ ”
Romero says the idea was for each artist to create a piece around their thoughts on the novel.
Twelve years later, in 2018, Tey Marianna Nunn, director of visual arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, reached out to Romero.
Marianna Nunn wanted to know if Romero would serve as a guest curator at the NHCC’s “Bless Me, Ultima” exhibit.
Romero knew the space would allow him to showcase more artists and develop his first show.
“As an artist, the book is loaded with images and metaphors,” says Romero. “I have to deconstruct the book. By doing this, I felt it allowed me to better understand who my grandparents were. Where they came from and that Spanish was their first language.
Romero is also drawn to Antonio and his background.
“There are talks about setting off the atomic bomb,” Romero says. “Right there, at the beginning and end of the old, meanwhile, a new world was being born. »
It took years for “Bless Me, Ultima” to reach mainstream audiences.
Twenty-two years after Quinto Sol first aired, the novel had limited availability. In 1994, Grand Central Publishing released a consumer edition, which saw numbers soar.
Of course, with success comes challenges and censorship.
In 2008 and 2013, the novel was one of the “Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books” by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The book has been banned in communities in California, Colorado, and even New Mexico. In 1981, the Bloomfield School Board burned copies of “Bless Me, Ultima”. Today, the novel is one of 54 titles monitored by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.
“(My uncle) used to smile and laugh and say, ‘There’s more publicity,'” Henry said of the banned list book. “The idea of banning books is so disturbing because we want people to have an open mind and assimilate knowledge and culture. sales and people would learn more.
In 2009, the novel was chosen for a film adaptation. Filming began in New Mexico on October 3, 2010.
Locations included Ruby Ranch in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Pecos River Ranch in Rowe, Abiquiú, Garson Studios, and the old Manderfield School in Santa Fe. It toured for three months and employed 150 New Mexicans. In 2012, the film was to premiere at the Historic Plaza Theater in El Paso. Of course, this made New Mexicans’ blood boil.
At the time, Santiago Pozo, founder and CEO of Arenas Entertainment, said El Paso had the right demographics, energy, and passion for film.
“We wanted to premiere the film in an unbiased area,” Pozo said. “For New Mexicans, the story is close to them. We knew there would be a screening in New Mexico, we just wanted to premiere it in El Paso because it’s rich in history, culture and chicano art.
A few weeks later, the film would have its New Mexico premiere at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, where it played to sold-out audiences.
Jacques Paisner, artistic director of the SFiFF, says it was important to present a history of New Mexico.
“Growing up in Santa Fe, they would read ‘Bless Me, Ultima’ to us at school,” Paisner says. “The way Rudolfo Anaya’s books have shaped the culture here is vast, so in 2012 SFIFF had the chance to present Mr. Anaya with the American Author Award ahead of the film’s second US screening. We made sure it would be just the thing, and at Lensic, and Mr. Anaya’s family would be there with him. It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago now, but I’m glad it’s still part of this story.
This September will mark the 10th anniversary of the film’s release.
The novel endures
In 2017 an opera was being written and in February 2018 Opera Southwest premiered it at the NHCC.
The two entities, as well as New Mexico Mutual, commissioned the work from Californian composer Héctor Armienta.
Armienta worked with Anaya on the libretto.
“Hector had contacted me and the NHCC in 2012 and 2013,” Tony Zancanella, executive director of Opera Southwest, said in a previous interview. “We put it on the back burner for a while, and we just pulled the trigger recently.”
Half a century after its release, “Bless Me, Ultima” is still reaching new heights.
Chávez credits Anaya and the novel with “opening the floodgates” to Chicano writers.
“We owe Rudolfo an incredible debt,” she said. “As a deep writer and supporter of so many people.”
As I sit in front of my laptop, writing about a man who read my work and supported my own journey, I’m grateful not just for him, but for the novel.
As Anaya wrote in the opening of the novel, “Ultima has come to stay with us…”
Fifty years later, she is still there and stronger than ever.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Contact editor Adrian Gomez at 505-823-3921, [email protected]