Bless Me, Ultima is a semi-autobiographical novel based on the New Mexican community of Rudolfo Anaya’s childhood. Anaya used his memory of his town, the Pecos River, Highway 66, the church, the school, and the surrounding villages and ranches as...
Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya was born on October 30, 1937 in Pastura, New Mexico, the fifth of seven children. His father, Martin Anaya, was a cowboy who worked on ranches in the surrounding areas, while his mother, Rafaelita, was devoutly Catholic and came from a family of poor farmers. Shortly after his birth, Anaya’s family moved to Santa Rosa, a small town in the Pecos River valley, where he spent most of his childhood. Anaya’s time in the Santa Rosa community was extremely influential for his writing: many of his novels contain images, characters, and myths from the New Mexican culture that he experienced as a child. His family moved to Albuquerque when Anaya was fifteen, and he was forced to adapt to an entirely new culture very different from the close-knit community of his youth.
At the age of sixteen, Anaya was forced into a lengthy convalescence after suffering a severe diving accident that broke two of the vertebrae in his neck. He spent an entire summer in the hospital but eventually recovered and was able to regain his active lifestyle. This near-death experience was quite influential for him and appears in a different form in Bless Me, Ultima when the character of Florence dies in a swimming accident.
Anaya graduated from high school in Albuquerque in 1956 and began to attend Browning Business School with the intention of becoming an accountant. After deciding that the life of an accountant was not for him, Anaya enrolled at the University of New Mexico and took a freshman English course that sparked his enthusiasm for literature. He began to experiment with writing poetry and short stories and eventually graduated with a Bachelors degree in English in 1963.
From 1963 to 1970, Anaya worked as a public school teacher in junior high school. After spending each day teaching, Anaya would return home and spend the evening writing and struggling to find a unique literary voice. According to Anaya, during one of these evenings of writing, he turned around to see a vision of an elderly woman dressed in black: a mystical figure that would become the character of Ultima in his first novel. With the encouragement of his wife, who he married in 1966, and the inspiration of his vision, Anaya began to work on Bless Me, Ultima. The book took several years and several drafts to complete, and, even after its completion, it was rejected repeatedly by East Coast publishers for being too “Latino” in style. Finally, the manuscript was accepted and published by Quinto Sol, a small press in Berkeley. The book was awarded the Premio Quinto Sol Literary prize for the best Chicano novel of the year and quickly became a classic work in Chicano literature.
In 1974, Anaya took a teaching position at the University of New Mexico, one that he held until his retirement in 1993. He published his second novel, Heart of Aztlan, in 1976 and his third novel, Tortuga, in 1979, completing a loosely autobiographical trilogy of New Mexican culture that began with Bless Me, Ultima. After the completion of his trilogy, Anaya began to publish poems, short stories, theater pieces, and children’s stories, including The Silence of the Llano (1982), La Legend of La Llorona (1984), and The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas (1985). In 1992, he began to work on another series of novels, including Alburquerque (1995), Zia Summer (1995), Rio Grande Fall (1996), and Shaman Winter (1999).
Over the course of his writing career, Anaya has received several prestigious awards, including the Before Columbus Book Award (1980), the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in Literature (1980), the Award for Achievement in Chicano Literature (1983), the Mexican Medal of Friendship from the Mexican Consulate (1986), the PEN-West Fiction Award (1992), and the National Medal of Arts from President George Bush (2002). He currently lives in Albuquerque with his wife.