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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Rudolfo A. Anaya (b. 1937)

[6133] Anonymous, Young Hispanic Woman (c. 1969), courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.

Rudolfo Anaya was born in Pastura, New Mexico. His family moved to Albuquerque when he was fifteen. While working as a public school teacher, he earned degrees from the University of New Mexico. Anaya’s first novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), is the story of a boy growing up in a small New Mexico village during World War II. His second novel, Heart of Aztlan (1976), mixes mystical elements with an examination of social concerns for the twentieth-century Chicano worker. Tortuga (1979), his third novel, is another story about growing up as a Hispanic in America, this time from the perspective of a boy wearing a full body cast. Anaya has published many other books, including epic poems, short story collections, and nonfiction works. Two of his more recent works are Albuquerque (1992) and Zia Summer (1995).

Bless Me, Ultima focuses on the impact of World War II on a small community in New Mexico. The protagonist’s participation in the war lessens his feeling of isolation from American society. As it did for other minority groups, World War II accelerated the process of assimilation and acculturation for Mexican Americans. The war prompted the movement of Mexican Americans into cities where industries were badly in need of labor. Many Mexican Americans joined the various branches of the armed forces. Bless Me, Ultima was one of the first novels to document this process.

Many of Anaya’s works blend elements from Chicano and Anglo culture and explore how personal and public mythologies answer questions about an individual’s place in the universe. Anaya is particularly influenced by the geography and culture of the area he grew up in, the Mexico-New Mexico border.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students research Bless Me, Ultima (1972), the most frequently taught Latino juvenile book and one of the first Chicano books to enter the American literary canon. Ask them to explore why this novel is so popular with junior high and high school readers.
  • The antics in Anaya’s “The Christmas Play” are reminiscent of the slapstick comedy of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. If possible, show the class a Three Stooges episode and ask them to analyze it beyond the physical comedy. Many of the Three Stooges episodes have a background of the Stooges looking for work or food during the depression, which leads to their getting into trouble. Have the students discuss the film clip in that context. Another comparison to the comedy in this story is the traditional actosfrom the early days of the Teatro Campesino. Some of the actos of Luis Valdez contained comic figures that satirized the roles Chicanos were relegated to as irrelevant and stereotypical. Examining Anaya’s story in this light might offer interesting insights into its meaning and purpose.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is the overall tone of “The Christmas Play”? Why did the author choose this tone?
  2. Comprehension: Why don’t the boys care that they are messing up Miss Violet’s play? What is surprising about how Miss Violet treats the boys?
  3. Comprehension: “The Christmas Play” begins and ends with images of a quiet tomb. Why is this important to the story?
  4. Context: How do the tone and setting of “The Christmas Play” compare to the tones and settings of works by Helena Maria Viramontes and Tomas Rivera?
  5. Exploration: Late-capitalist societies often value immediate access to goods, information, and institutional resources as basic features of everyday life. How does such an environment affect people’s expectations of a “proper” education, and how does it compare with other environments’ notions of education? While also considering how the process of becoming educated influences one’s aesthetic preferences for art and literature, explore this question in relation to Anaya’s story as well as the works of Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain.

Selected Archive Items

[6125] Anonymous, Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions [for Migrant Farm Workers] (1969),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. 
Photograph of a migrant worker protest at the Capitol Building in Denver, Colorado. Hispanic and white men and women join together to urge improved living conditions for migrant workers. A priest holds a flag that says, “Huelga U.F.W.O.C. AFL-CIO Delano.” Another man holds a sign that reads, “Denver Witnesses for Human Dignity.”

[6133] Anonymous, Young Hispanic Woman (c. 1969),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. 
In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Chicana women protested definitions of womanhood and American identity that did not include Chicana heritage and life. Author Rudolfo Anaya’s writing is in part an exploration of how Chicano and Anglo cultures can combine to enrich people’s understanding.

[7613] Russell Lee, Spanish-American Family. Chamisal, New Mexico (1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-037007-D].
Author Rudolfo Anaya, who grew up in New Mexico, sets many of his stories in the villages of the Southwest. His novels include Bless Me, Ultima and Heart of Aztlan.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6