Bless Us, Ultima: Remembering Rudolfo Anaya
“What I’ve wanted to do is compose the Chicano worldview—the synthesis that shows our true mestizo identity—and clarify it for my community and myself.” ―Rudolfo Anaya
Yes, Rudolfo Anaya’s complete work as a writer, especially Bless Me, Ultima, is his essential legacy. Our inheritance. Thank you, Rudy, thank you.
Yet, we at Cinco Puntos Press also want to celebrate Rudy for his friendship and his support of Cinco Puntos, but most importantly for his steadfast contribution to the writers―poets, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and others―who created the historic flowering of the “New Mexican” literature of the last half of the 20th Century. I italicize and enclose in quotes the term “New Mexican” because I am not referring to the state of New Mexico. I am instead referring to a wide-ranging literature that, while it encompasses a geographic region and its writers, extends far beyond artificial federally-imposed borders. I use “New Mexican” in the same way Donald Allen used the term “New American” in his seminal anthology The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. It’s a state of mind, a state of writing, a state of diversity and heritage. It includes writers—Chicanos, the indigenous peoples, Mexicans, fronterizos, some Anglos—that insisted on their place in the literature of the Americas and the world. This New Mexican writing celebrated the land and all of its diverse cultures, languages and ethnicities. A geography of literature, it was political and angry; it studied the old and mysterious ways, eschewing the materialism and imperialism of the über Kultur; and it was exciting, dangerous even at times, serious and always fun. Rudy was its cornerstone in so many ways. Ultima—that old lady mestiza, Rudy’s mythic creation, the curandera from el Rio de Pecos, knower of the ancient ways, the Indian ways—was, and is, our saint.
Sometime around 1987, Rudy was at our house for dinner. Keith and Heloise Wilson were there too. We had just done Keith’s wonderful book of Selected Poems, Lion’s Gate. Rudy was in town for a reading at UTEP. Cinco Puntos Press was a baby, two years old, an imaginary wishing, a whiff of smoke that might blow away. Lee was working at Ft. Bliss as a tech writer, I was running the press from the refurbished stone garage out back. Everything was done at our house. Boxes of books were warehoused on one side of the front porch. The other side was for talking and staring—a good place to meditate on Juarez, which we can see from where we live. Rudy, like so many of our visitors from elsewhere, liked that. It’s a good place to daydream, drink a beer and talk books and tell stories. Rudy was saying he was putting together an anthology of short stories by New Mexico writers. He was talking to UNM Press about publishing it. That touched a fuse. I went into overdrive.
“Why publish a book with a university press? You should be supporting independent publishers, don’t you think? A southwestern press? Blah. Blah. Blah.” It was quite a good-spirited harangue. Rudy―being the man that he was, his insistence on the New Mexican geography of literature ―listened. And agreed.
Soon after Lee and I were putting together Tierra, a wonderful anthology of New Mexico writers. It became a labor of love. It was fun working with Rudy and getting to know so many of the writers in the anthology. It was the first time, I think, that Lee really was able to express herself as a great editor. And the book was a special milestone for Cinco Puntos. We had published a book edited by Rudolfo Anaya! He had entrusted us with the publication of Tierra. Writers, readers and bookstores began to pay much more attention to our books and the work we were doing.
After the publication, we kept in touch. Rudy was represented by our friend, Susan Bergholz, and his novels were being published by big New York houses. Still, Rudy was always about community, the community of writers of New Mexico and beyond, and the issues facing Chicanos. He was ever mindful of the striking of farmworkers, the marches and union organizing led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. After the death of Cesar Chavez, he wrote the poem “Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez,” a moving tribute to Chavez and to the strikers who risked their lives for their families. Rudy thought it would make a fine illustrated book for teaching young people about Chavez and the struggles of the farm workers. The big New York houses did not agree. It was too regional, too Mexican, too Chicano. They didn’t understand what Rudy and we understood. Mexican-Americans are hungry for their stories. Especially the stories about their own heroes. They want their children and grandchildren to hear their stories told by one of their own.
Rudy sent us the manuscript. We understood immediately the importance the book and we were delighted to have the opportunity to publish it. Our daughter Susie Byrd, who was the Cinco Puntos Press publicist at the time, had a brainstorm. El Paso’s Gaspar Enriquez should be the illustrator, she said! We agreed. His air-brush realism coupled with his political Chicano activism aligned perfectly with Rudy’s vision. Gaspar, who in a few years would begin to enjoy the national reputation he deserves, was delighted to have the opportunity to work with Rudy and Cinco Puntos.
As soon as it was published, An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez—written by Rudolfo Anaya and illustrated by Gaspar Enriquez―became an important book within the Chicano communities and went into multiple printings, both in the cloth and paperback editions. But the launch of the book! Ohhh, that was one of the great events in our 35-year history. Susie worked with the Carlos Marentes, the director of El Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos, to have a book reading and book signing at the center. The Center sits at the foot of the El Paso Street Bridge. Facing south, it welcomes and hosts farmworkers coming north to work in the onion and chili fields. During harvest season, the center is bulging with workers needing each day’s pay to support their families. The early mornings long before dawn, buses begin arriving to collect the workers, and in the evenings they return with tired men. The farmworkers have a place to eat and sleep. El Centro and its director are legendary. Carlos has given his life to supporting these men, working tirelessly to bring them better pay, better working conditions and to provide, simply, a place for them to feel welcomed and honored.
The celebration of Elegy did just that. El Centro was standing room only—farmworkers, old-school Chicanx activists, politicians, lawyers, social workers, public school teachers, university professors, poets, novelists, journalists, high school kids, moms and pops, abuelitos and abuelitas. There must have been 400 people! Carlos gave a speech first to honor the farmworkers, then to welcome everybody, especially Rudy and Cinco Puntos. Rudy said a few words, then read the poem, a measured and powerful performance. Historian and activist David
Romo, who had translated the poem, likewise gave a wonderful reading in Spanish. The audience was enthralled by the whole experience. And they bought books! Rudy and Gaspar signed books for several hours. Boxes of books. What a joy. It was an occasion when Lee and I felt like we were truly home in El Paso on the US/Mexico Border. And we felt we were publishing books that mattered.
On a more personal level, Rudy recognized and honored Lee’s fiction and my poetry. He was instrumental in me receiving the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship in 1994, two months in an old-timey cabin, just north of Taos, a few hundred yards from Lawrence’s house and shrine. The cabin was perched up above the little town of San Cristobal on the side of Lobo Mountain. One day we came home to a pile of books on our doorstep. John Nichols had dropped a huge selection of his work. He told me later that Rudy had told him to come visit and welcome us to Taos. It was a magical summer for me, filling my imagination with the great spirit of the geography of the Rio Grande and those mountains that stretch forever. Also, Rudy was delighted to blurb Lee’s collection of short stories My Sister Disappears.
Then, a number of years after the publication of Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez, he and Pat gave us what they called “The Anaya Fellowship,” a one- week stay at a mountain casita they owned on the Jemez River. Pat and Rudy came to visit one Saturday night. We talked and talked, ate, drank wine and concluded our evening dipping ginger snaps into glasses of milk. Rudy kept saying, “I haven’t had ginger snaps since I was a kid.” All the time the river was running by, the mountains slumbering.
If you read the abundant remembrances written for Rudy, you will find that he graced many writers and artists with such friendship and support. Especially Chicanxs and Native Americans. It began with his insistence on the Chicano worldview, its true mestizo identify. It grew from this into his faith in the literature of New Mexico, expanding further through our geography into all the geographies of the planet. It’s inclusive of all peoples, their stories, their languages, their ways of being on this great earth. Stories about the earth where, if you listen closely, you can hear the distant beat of drums, the heartbeat of humanity. I think that’s what Ultima was teaching that little boy Antonio.
Mil gracias, Rudy, thank you, thank you.
And bless us, Ultima, bless us all.
—Bobby Byrd, Publisher Emeritus
POSTSCRIPT: A FEW OF GASPAR’S ILLUSTRATIONS AND A FEW WORDS
The El Paso Museum of Art purchased Gaspar’s complete collection of paintings for Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez. At least once a year the museum has the opportunity to show one, several or all of them in one exhibit or another. The paintings include portraits of people Gaspar knows—many of them were students at Bowie High School, la Bowie, in Segundo Barrio, where Gaspar taught for many years. The paintings are a great gift to the people of El Paso, especially to the farm workers y los bordeñxs who call this place home. (For a nice discussion of Rudy’s writing and Gaspar’s painting, watch this video produced by the Smithsonian after Gaspar finished the commission to do the portrait.) Our gift, for which we can thank Rudy, was getting to know Gaspar and his now-deceased wife Ann, a wonderful couple, childhood sweethearts from their growing up a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande. Ann was very ill during the time we knew her, but the sickness did not interfere with her wonderful smile and soulful presence.We visited them at the adobe house Ann had inherited from her family in San Elizario, a historic community 30 miles or so downriver from El Paso. Gaspar continues to live there. They introduced us to the ambiente of old-school Chicano life along the river.
[A bit of full disclosure. In the painting above, the one with the kids and the helicopter spraying pesticides, the little boy on the right is Johnny Hollandbyrd, our grandson, the son of daughter Susie Byrd and her husband Ed Holland. Johnny’s 21 now. A good young man. Also, I must say that my favorite in the book is the one on the bottom, los cholos sin sonrisa, who at first glance might look fierce, but Gaspar has this gift of compassion for these young people. He lets them speak to us honestly and with dignity. We want to know their story. Thank you, Gaspar.]