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Mis Ángeles: Bless Me, Rudolfo Anaya

(Illustration by Chava Sanchez, LAist/Photo by Jeffrey Beall via Flickr)
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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.

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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.

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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.

About theMis 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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