Rudolfo Anaya defined the West like no one else
The writer showed us magic, mystery and where Manifest Destiny failed.
Sophomore year, Anaheim High School, fall of 1994. School administrators had just kicked me out of honor’s English for being too lippy to Mrs. Patsel, and kicked me over to Mrs. Lafler. My classmates switched from overachieving nerds to stoners, cholos and other misfits.
Mrs. Lafler was the petite, bespectacled white woman in charge of saving us. She should’ve stood no chance. We frequently talked back, didn’t bother with homework, and basically checked off every box in the underachieving Latino high schooler book.
Then she assigned Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.
The classic coming-of-age novel about a young Hispano boy in 1940s New Mexico immediately resonated with us, and not just because it included curse words in equal parts English and Spanish. Mrs. Lafler told us about the book’s history — how dozens of school boards had banned it in the decades since its 1971 publication for, as she told us, daring to depict Mexicans as humans.
Outlaw literature for kids cast off by administrators as outlaws.
The main protagonist, Antonio “Tony” Juan Marez y Luna, lived and sounded like us: a chamaco (young boy) who got in trouble, whose parents fretted for his future, and who lived in a small town rooted in generational conflicts that made little sense except when they inevitably ended in tragedy.
More importantly, though, there was a pride in Anaya’s words that we had never read before, namely because he was the first Mexican American author any teacher of ours had ever bothered to offer.