Mis Ángeles: Bless Me, Rudolfo Anaya
I think I was 18 years old when I first read Bless Me, Ultima, and about 10 pages in when it clicked that the coming-of-age novel was about a Mexican American protagonist. It changed the way I saw myself.
I was dumbfounded. In six years of honors and AP English, history and literature classes, I couldn't recall a single book about someone like me. Few books in my required reading were about anybody but white people.
Most were written by dead white men. It was a point I often brought up to reprimands, like when my Honors European Literature teacher told the class "Erick's just being macabre" and made me sit in the hallway for the rest of the period.
I just sat there feeling foolish and had to bust out my pocket dictionary to look up what "macabre" was: disturbing and horrifying. I read the whole dictionary that period.
Three years later, I picked up Bless Me, Ultima because I was doing a homework assignment for a girl I liked. She was in a regular English class taught by a Latina and too smart to do her own homework. I didn't care. I liked reading and writing and I liked her. So I picked up this paperback with a black and red cover and began to read.
The novel's title character is Ultima, a curandera, who becomes the spiritual mentor of a young boy named Antonio, or Tony, when the healer moves in with his family in New Mexico.
The book begins by explaining a duality that exists in Tony's essence: should he roam free or stay tethered? From the first page, it's peppered with Spanish, but I had read Spanish books from Latin America and Spain at that point. My whole life was peppered with Spanish anyway. It was this duality that clicked in me like, Oh. That's me.
I had to go back to the cover to read the author's name to confirm what I was experiencing. RUDOLFO ANAYA -- written in all caps across the top. A quick Google search confirmed that Anaya was indeed Mexican American and was, in fact, considered a pioneer in Chicano literature.
Anaya's death on June 28 made me recall the revelation his book was for me during a point in my life when I needed one. I needed to see myself as something more than a thug or a side character in someone else's story. I didn't have to be the kid in the hallway looking in on all the white people reading Hamlet in a big semi-circle.
I truly believe Bless Me, Ultima is a big reason why I am a writer today. I think about it often when I write. Anaya painted the world with enough magical realism that I could begin to believe in big dreams and better worlds.
School boards and administrators have tried to ban this gift of a book at times for being "satanic, vulgar and offensive." They say it's too macabre, basically. Thankfully, the bans have only made it more popular. And I imagine there are hundreds of writers like me who were inspired by it.
I thought about this idea of inspiration and the feeling of being seen recently, when I wrote a very personal essay for LAist's Race In LA series. The piece, On Life As A Freckle-Faced, Redheaded, Mexican American From Southeast Los Angeles, was about my own experiences coming to age as a Mexican American in L.A.
It's nothing compared to Bless Me, Ultima. But I feel blessed that I am a writer and a storyteller.
I felt overwhelmed with gratitude after loads of emails, tweets, DM's, Facebook comments and LinkedIn messages poured in from people of all different backgrounds to tell me they felt seen when they read my story. Some people even wanted to write their own stories for the series.
It was a lesson I had learned from Rudolfo Anaya that I was learning again: We are never as alone as we think, even in our uniqueness.
In honor of Antonio, Ultima and Anaya, I want to share some of those messages. I hope that their stories inspire you as much as they've inspired me.
Thank you @ErickGEEE for this 🙇🏽♀️ Your story is so many of our stories. I’m not a freckle-faced, redheaded Mexican American but I am a brown skinned Japanese Mexican American who has navigated many of those rooms and many of those thoughts as well. #raceinLA #hapa #mixed #identity https://t.co/1EoV9muvM5— morena strategies (@remy_morena) June 26, 2020
I feel so seen. I’m a fellow freckle-faced, redheaded Mexican American who grew up in a family of morenos. Did you grow up hearing you’re the “hijo del lechero?”— Patricia Perez (@2Latina) June 26, 2020
I get the “what are you” all the time. Sometimes it’s annoying and other times it’s a great convo starter and chance to educate. Never judge a book by its cover applies for us multi-racial peoples. At the end of the day I’m from LA and wear it like a badge of honor. Big ups.— Don Fuego (@Megamaniak16) June 26, 2020
thank you sharing. As a Latina growing up in Boyle Heights, I can relate to Erick’s journey. going to follow Erick Galindo.— susie mercado (@susiemercado) June 26, 2020
This makes me think of my nephews son! The most beautiful and talented child! He’s 50% Latino, a quarter black and a quarter white. Red headed with beautiful freckles. He’s going to be somebody too. Just like you writing this great article.— Emily Stogsdill (@StogsdillEmily) June 27, 2020
1% Asian? *fist-bump* lol My green-eyed, natural brown-haired Filipina wife (okay so her grandmother is from Spain) could pass as a distant relative of yours!— Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (@RustedMecha) June 26, 2020
Totally relate. I had light brown hair growing up and super pale. I still don’t look like my parents who are very tan. 🤷🏻♀️ I get confused for half white/ half Chinese quite a bit. Quien sabe!— M²J (@oenophile79) June 27, 2020
I share this experience. Red headed, freckled, adopted into a Mexican family when I was a young boy. I often feel Mexican when no one else sees me that way.— Michael Glenn (@MichaelRojo) June 27, 2020
Sounds like me and my family with red headed Latinos. Too white to be Chicano. Darker relatives treat me like white. White people say racist things about Latinos in front of me thinking I'm one of "them." Stuck in the middle somewhere in LA.— Mary C 💎 (@MaryCummins1) June 26, 2020
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.
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