Words to Live By
Silver City's month-long Big Read celebrates Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.
Silver City's Friends of the Library (FOL) would like you to read a good book this month. Not just any good book, mind you, but a particular book that the FOL is inviting everyone in the community to read in what's appropriately called "The Big Read": Bless Me, Ultima by New Mexico author Rudolfo Anaya.
But this special Big Read month promises to be a little more exciting than just a collective turning of pages. With the help of a $7,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Friends of the Library is planning a month-long celebration of reading, Anaya and Hispanic culture. The festivities actually kicked off last month, with the visit of author Luis Alberto Urrea (see Tumbleweeds, March 2009). Now it's time to focus on Bless Me, Ultima, one of 27 books featured nationwide in 208 communities participating in the Big Read program this school year.
The grant to the Silver City Friends group was part of more than $2.8 million doled out by the NEA for this round of The Big Read. Grantees represented 46 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands. The only other New Mexico grant recipient for 2008-2009 was the Santa Fe Opera, which selected The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as its Big Read book.
"Everything the NEA does we do in partnership," says NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "Some of this year's partners are new to the program, some are returning, but all of them have answered the call to action to get our country reading again."
Las Cruces partnered with the NEA in October 2007 for its own Big Read program, also focused on Bless Me, Ultima.
To date, The Big Read has supported more than 500 public library partnerships, according to Anne-Imelda M. Radice, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the NEA's lead federal partner for The Big Read. She adds, "Through this program, public libraries continue to demonstrate their value in communities as centers of engagement, literacy and lifelong learning."
Participating communities also receive high-quality, free-of-charge educational materials to supplement their selected book. Reader's Guides include features such as author biographies, historical context for the book and discussion questions. Teacher's Guides adhere to National Council of Teachers of English standards and include lesson plans, essay topics and reproducible handouts. Big Read Audio Guides feature readings from the novel along with commentary from renowned artists, educators, and public figures such as Robert Redford, Colin Powell and Mary-Louise Parker, and Big Read authors such as Amy Tan and Ray Bradbury.
For the FOL, a volunteer group that supports Silver City's Public Library, the Big Read is the culmination of nearly two years of effort that began with trying to get Anaya as the keynote speaker for the organization's spring Literacy Alive Day. After FOL President Karen Dunn and event organizer Sharleen Daugherty visited Anaya in his home in Albuquerque in 2007, they learned the 70-year-old author's health would not allow him to travel.
"In lieu of having Anaya visit Silver City, we determined to do a children's video based on Anaya's book The First Tortilla," Daugherty recalls. "This took us to Anaya's home a second time, in January 2008. It was also on this visit that Anaya directed us to Washington, DC, the NEA and ultimately The Big Read. I left Albuquerque, flew to Washington, DC, on a trip to see my son, and talked with the folks at the NEA about The Big Read program."
With barely a month to go before applications for grants for the 2008-2009 program year, the FOL scrambled into high gear. A project team was formed, led by Carol Kane, with Daugherty and Dorothy Eagan from the Public Library. Their grant application beat the deadline, and the news of the award was released in April 2008.
A New Mexico native, born in 1937 in the small village of Pastura, near Santa Rosa, Rudolfo Anaya was the son of a farmgirl mother and a cowboy father. It's said that the curandera who presided at his birth set out tools of both family trades near the newborn — only to see the baby reach for a paper and pencil instead.
To judge from his early years, one might have expected him to crawl toward a sporting-goods store. As a boy, Anaya hunted and fished and swam the Pecos River. Later, after the family left the countryside for Albuquerque, he gravitated toward baseball and football. At 16, while roughhousing around an irrigation channel with friends, Anaya dove in and hit the bottom. Years of arduous rehabilitation and bedridden reading would pass before he regained full movement in his neck.
Anaya discovered a different kind of movement during his years at the University of New Mexico. El Movimiento, the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s, encouraged Anaya's dream of writing books that would explore his cultural heritage. After graduating with his BA and MA, he taught at middle schools, high schools and universities while writing at night. In 1966, he married Patricia Lawless, who shared his passion for books and storytelling.
After more than seven years of writing and rewriting, Anaya successfully submitted his first manuscript, Bless Me, Ultima, to the small Berkeley press, Quinto Sol. A $1,000 prize accompanied the novel's printing, and the mainstream New York publisher, Warner Books, later acquired its rights. Since its publication in 1972, the novel has become part of high school English and university Chicano literature classes. Writer Tony Hillerman has praised Anaya as the "godfather and guru of Chicano literature."
Bless Me, Ultima is about pride and assimilation, faith and doubt. The summer before Antonio Juan Luna Marez turns seven, an old woman with healing powers comes to live with his family — launching a magical and mystical coming-of-age story in post-World War II New Mexico. The novel presents a world where everyday life is still full of dreams, legends, prayers and folkways.
The FOL representatives who met with Anaya soon found themselves invited into the author's world. Although he could not travel to Silver City, Anaya asked Dunn and Daughtery to join him at the dedication of the "Rudolfo Anaya Landscape Park" in Santa Rosa, NM, on March 1. Footage of that event is included in the children's video, produced by Leslie Doran of Durango, Colo., which will be shown as part of The Big Read children's program.
Says Daugherty, "As you might guess from this history, Rudolfo Anaya is a very special person and holds a special place for our Big Read programming in Silver City."
The Big Read Schedule
Saturday, April 4
10 a.m. — Children's Program, Public Library. A special children's program, led by Marilyn Markel, featuring stories, viewing of "The Day It Snowed Tortillas!," a movie about Rudolfo Anaya, a tortilla-making demonstration, and a "yummy art project." Come dressed as your favorite book character. Most appropriate for school-age children.
1 p.m. — Big Read Kick-Off, Silco Theatre. Activities will include a proclamation by the mayor, introductory remarks by Anaya's long-time friend and WNMU Scholar in Residence Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, a blessing ceremony, a banned-books panel, an overview of the month-long activities, book sales and a reception.
Wednesday, April 8
2 p.m. — Book Discussion, Public Library. Led by librarian Dorothy Eagan. Open to anyone who's read the book and wants to share ideas and insights.
2:30 p.m. — Personal Stories from Southern New Mexico, WNMU Global Resource Center. Facilitated panel discussion with local residents sharing their own coming-of-age experiences, with emphasis on Hispanic cultural traditions.
Wednesday, April 15
2:30 p.m. — Book Discussion, WNMU Global Resource Center. Led by local poet and storyteller/author Bonnie Buckley Maldonado. Also April 22.
Thursday, April 16
6:30 p.m. — "The Secret of the Golden Carp & Other Adventures from Bless Me, Ultima," Public Library. Bonnie Maldonado, local poet and storyteller, shares her insights into the novel.
Monday, April 20
6 p.m. — Book Discussion, Public Library. Led by librarian Dorothy Eagan. Open to anyone who's read the book and wants to share ideas and insights.
Wednesday, April 22
2:30 p.m. — Book Discussion, WNMU Global Resource Center. Led by Bonnie Buckley Maldonado.
Saturday, May 5
2 p.m. — Big Read Programming Wrap-up, Silco Theatre. Student competition awards, presentations on book club participation, more.