Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya (b.1937) is a Mexican-American novelist, whose most popular works include Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Heart of Aztlan (1976) and Tortuga (1979).
Anaya's works have several features that critics recognize as his literary hallmarks. These include a focus on tradition, myth and spirituality, as well as the presence of characters like shamanic figures and seers. Anaya's books also most often depict dream sequences, make use of archetypal patterns and mystical motifs. The story usually evolves somewhere in New Mexico and the American Southwest, in tune with the author's own background.
Anaya was born in Pastura, New Mexico, but his family moved to Santa Rosa soon after he was born. The story-telling community of Santa Rosa is deemed to have provided Anaya with inspiration for his fiction works. In 1952, Anaya's family moved to Albuquerque, where he encountered not only a big ethnic and cultural variety but also the painful reality of prejudice aimed at Latinos. He then experienced the difficulties of the language barrier, with which he had to cope for many years afterwards.
In 1956, Anaya enrolled at the Browning Business School but left in 1958 and entered a liberal arts program at the University of New Mexico. He earned a bachelor's degree in literature from that university in 1963 and a master's degree in guidance and counseling in 1972. It was after his college graduation that Anaya started counseling and teaching at public schools, while trying to improve his writing skills.
Anaya said he started working on his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, after a mystical experience involving a vision of a woman. That woman became the prototype of Ultima, one of the characters in the novel. Ultima is a spiritual healer, who teaches six-year old Antonio Juan Marez y Luna, the main character of the book, the secrets of medicine. Ultima's conflict with a family of witches, along with the Antonio's growing up, form the two main sources of drama in the novel.
Anaya finished his work on the novel in 1970 but had trouble finding a publisher, as his style of mixing English and Spanish words was not acceptable. Finally, in 1972, he managed to get a positive reply from Quinto Sol Publications, a company in California, and the book got published the same year. The novel was widely acclaimed and won the Premio Quinto Sol Award for the best Chicano novel of 1972. After receiving recognition for his work, Anaya easily secured a faculty position at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.
In 1976, the novelist published Heart of Aztlan, which drew on many politically-charged concepts popular amid the supporters of the Chicano movement. The latter developed between 1966 and 1977 within the Mexican-American community and was marked by political activism similar to that of other civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Anaya's novel put the stress on personal connotations of the concept of Aztlan. It told the story of the personal search for Aztlan by Clemente Chavez, the main character. At the end of the book, Clemente finds Aztlan in his own heart. This spiritual interpretation has been criticized by writers who believe that Chicano literature should be social in its essence.
In 1979, the author published Tortuga, for which he drew on his own experience. When Anaya was 16 years old, he had an accident while diving and suffered a serious spinal injury. Reflecting on these events, the novel tells the story of a young boy who lies in the hospital for terminally ill teenagers. He is nicknamed Tortuga - which means Turtle in Spanish - because he is in a full body cast, unable to move. Another boy in the same room helps Tortuga to appreciate life.
The three books form the so-called New Mexico Trilogy, although this is not a traditional trilogy of books that share characters and plots. Rather, it is the suggestions and the allusions that offer some loose connection among the works. Apart from the celebrated trilogy, Anaya has published other novels, including award-winning Albuquerque (1995). He has also explored other genres, such as short stories, poems and children's stories. Anaya's short stories were collected as The Silence of Llano (1982). Anaya became an English professor at the University of New Mexico in 1988, and Professor emeritus in 1993. After his retirement, he enjoyed both traveling and writing.