12 of Our Finest


On September 22, 2016, President Obama bestowed the National Humanities Medal on twelve of our finest thinkers and doers, representing an incredible variety of endeavors. A Chicano novelist who brought Southwestern magical realism into the heart of American literature. A chef-innovator who introduced the delights of Spanish cuisine to America. A poet whose verse ranges from the myths of Greece to the most personal kind of suffering. A radio interviewer who has coaxed from artists and performers the stories behind their greatest works. An essayist and cultural historian who has lit the trail of American ideas from the nineteenth century to today. A jazzman who has rekindled Americans' romance with their own singular musical idiom. A scholar who has drawn back the curtain on the early history of Christianity. A degree-supporting educational program for convicts that helps prepare them for life after prison. A writer whose memoirs and novels shed light on the African-American experience while teaching about love that transcends race. A historian whose biographies have illuminated the history of American finance and the character of Alexander Hamilton. A celebrated physician who has returned the patient to the center of the medical enterprise and writes about the human drama in memoir and novels. A journalist and author who told the epic story of the Great Migration through the memories of the people who made the trip.

RUDOLFO ANAYA

By Rigoberto Gonzalex

WHEN RUDOLFO ANAYA WON the Premio Quinto Sol in 1971, the prize was $1,000 and publication of his landmark novel, Bless Me, Ultima. This guaranteed the book would be in readers' hands just as the Chicano Movement was taking root in the national consciousness. This community of Americans of Mexican descent was working hard to claim political agency and to affirm its unique cultural identity through the cultivation of art, theater, music, and literature that expressed the varied experiences of the Chicano people. Bless Me, Ultima, a novel about a young boy struggling with competing expectations and values in postWorld War II New Mexico, resonated with Chicano readers, who gave it a place of prominence in the Chicano literary canon. Anaya was subsequently anointed the godfather of Chicano literature.

Bless Me, Ultima, however, appealed to wider audiences and has since become a best-selling title. Intriguingly, the novel is both a favorite of the educational curricula and, according to the American Library Association, one of the most challenged titles because of its treatment of religion and spirituality. Anaya has made peace with this complicated reception to his book. "I write what I was meant to write," he says with conviction. "If anything, those attempts to censor my book mean that it's going to be read. Ultima is unstoppable." And indeed his beloved faith healer has enjoyed continued attention: In 2010 the book was selected for the NEA's Big Read program, and in 2013 it was adapted for the screen. The character Ultima was portrayed by the legendary actress Miriam Colón.

With more than 40 books to date, Anaya too has had a remarkable journey. Born to a family of cattle ranchers and farmers in 1937 in the rural town of Pastura, New Mexico, he was destined, like Bless Me, Ultima's child protagonist, to pursue an education. He and his late wife, Patricia, became literacy advocates, establishing educational scholarships for disadvantaged youth. Additionally, they founded a writer's residency in their second home in Jemez Springs to support writers who "were not getting invited to those retreats back East. We had to help out any way we could."

The success of Bless Me, Ultima was an auspicious beginning to Anaya's long career. His next two novels, Heart of Aztlán (1976) and Tortuga (1979), complete the trilogy of narratives about young people at the crossroads of childhood innocence and the heartbreaking reality of adulthood. A series of story collections followed, but Anaya's next breakthrough came with the publication in 1992 of Alburquerque, a mystery set in the city Anaya has called home since 1952. …

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