[This Reader’s Guide may be duplicated and
distributed for educational purposes only.]
Anaya, Rudolfo. The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories. Volume 5. Chicana and Chicano
Visions of the Américas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
By Diego Emilio Gómez
A short bio on the author and the author’s place in Chicano and American literature.
Rudolfo Anaya (1937) is an American writer born in Pastura, a town in Eastern New Mexico. In a Larry Bridges film about his work, Anaya, the poet, playwright, and novelist, says that he “grew up in the oral tradition of family and friends telling stories, and their stories were so visual that when [he] started writing [he] always considered that the image is very important.”
In 1972, Anaya achieved early success with this groundbreaking novel Bless Me, Ultima, which has become a classic of Mexican American Literature. The author says that he first learned how to read in Spanish with a Catholic Church Doctrine Book, or Catequismo, and it was not until he entered elementary school that he learned to speak and write in English.
The body of the author’s work is a book of poetry, Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas (1985), 5 plays, a dozen non-fiction anthologies, 10 books for children, essays on literature and various other subjects, and more than a dozen novels with titles such as Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Heart of Aztlan (1976), Tortuga (1979), The Legend of La Llorona: A Short Novel (1984), to name just a few.
The extensive list of awards and prizes that Rudolfo Anaya has received in his long career range from the National Medal of Arts (2001), Notable New Mexican (2007), Albuquerque Wall of Fame (2014), to the recent National Humanities Medal (2016). Among many readers and in academic circles, Anaya is known as one of the founders of Chicano literature and one of the instigators, the “godfather,” of the Chicano Renaissance in literature and the arts in the 1970s.
A discussion of where this book fits into the larger picture of Chicano and American literature.
Although this collection appeared as Volume 5 in the Chicana & Chicano Visions of the Américas book series, the stories were written over a long period. In effect, this volume is the collected short stories of Rudolfo Anaya, many of them written in the late 1970s and at the turn of the century. Like the novel Bless me Ultima (1972), many of these stories reference the rural communities of New Mexico and the Southwest.
This author is considered the “godfather” of Chicano Literature for a reason, some critics and scholars even labeling Anaya the “Father” of Chicano Literature. That is, his work came during the height of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, which raised awareness about minority cultures and those communities without a voice in mainstream America before the 1970s. Anaya was one of the first to give expression to this social movement and the culture that was rising from it.
Many writers recognized as part of the “canon” of Chicano Literature came after Rudolfo Anaya and have learned from him or have drawn inspiration from his work. They have contributed from their different regions to fill out the horizon of Mexican American culture that Anaya’s work drew attention to.
Many, but not all, of Anaya’s short stories draw on New Mexico local color and a narrative voice peppered with colloquial Spanish words and pre-Columbian references to myths and indigenous peoples. There is also the presence of mainstream European culture in a few of his stories, stories in which the interaction with Mexican American culture is formulaic and stereotypical. An example of this is the story entitled A Story. Here labels are used--Others, for people not relevant to the plot, and one character is referred to as a foreigner. The short story “The Place of the Swallows” hints at a stereotypical treatment of boy scouts and teen agers in a non-Hispanic world. There are several Old Spanish elements that hark back to times when the Llano was an outpost of New Spain, and some characters come from the Iberian Peninsula. The most salient example of this is the story “Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams,” the main character of which is not only “very white” but also “very Catholic.” The short story about the Incas, “Message from the Inca,” makes a Pan American indigenous connection. This story has nothing to do with Aztlán, but it strives to reveal a continental indigenous community based on a common Hispanic heritage.
Discussion of helpful and relevant cultural, literary, and intellectual background of the book (with titles for further reading).
To understand the background of Rudolfo Anaya’s short story collection students must, in the first place, read the preface to this book that the author himself wrote. There he explains how he devised, shaped, and populated this fictional world.
Two important aspects of the author’s own explanation are “images” and “legends.”
It would help the student to read some of Anaya’s poetic works to understand those “images” and their invocation in the short stories. Poems from the Río Grande (2015) would be a good start, as well as the earlier novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972) and The Legend of La Llorona: A Short Novel (1984).
To understand the time periods when these rural stories of cowboys and plains people happened, the student would benefit from reading chapters from any of the so-called “canonical history textbooks.” New Mexico: A History (J. P. Sánchez et al. University of Oklahoma Press, 2013) is an excellent choice.
In order to gain a wider understanding of the region, there are several short story collections to choose from. A non-Hispanic author, Kevin McIlvoy, has written a short story collection in the manner of a history, “The Complete History of New Mexico: Stories” (Macmillan, 2012). The student would benefit from Hayden White’s seminal work Metahistory (John Hopkins University, 1973) to understand how legends, myths, and oral history contribute to shape cultural heritage and comprise “history.”
To establish a study of comparative cultures and nationalities within these short stories, the student may read Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands: La Frontera (aunt lute press, 1987). This author deals extensively with the subject of Latina gender roles.
It would also be a good idea to learn about the New Mexico Hispano heritage and lore as they are portrayed in Fabiola Cabeza de Baca’s We Fed them Cactus (1954). Compare this portrayal of New Mexico to that of Anzaldúa. How do their stories of peninsulares, mexicanos, and chicanos compare and differ?
A chapter-by-chapter synopsis, discussion of style, style deviations, and cultural issues that come up in individual stories.
The collection has 18 short stories, as follows:
◊ “The Road to Platero.” The story takes place on the Plains, the Llano. The story draws from ancient rural legends, and it has mythical overtones. Ghosts roam in the countryside, and at the story’s end, as in any Greek tragedy, the protagonists kill each other. The story takes place in a long-vanished, undetermined past. As you read this story, look for instances when the living “interact” with the dead. In this story, memories are ever-present and refuse to disconnect from the distant past.
◊ “Children of the Desert. A Border Story.” This story takes place in Juárez, Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and the desert between them. The time is not determined but seems to be roughly the present. There is mention of plastic containers, tires, and oil rigs. The story has to do with one of the oil booms in Southern Texas, possibly in the 1970s or 1980s. The love story of the unnamed couple—never given names--is sordid and has an
un-happy ending. The threatening and unyielding desert becomes an important dimension of this story. The woman in the story has “red lips and blue eyes. Her skin was white,” and she speaks Spanish. All we know about the man is that he is a loner who understands Spanish and “grew up living and breathing the desert.”
As you read this story, think about how industrialization and modernization encroach upon the rural landscape and its ways of life. Think about the characters’ attempt to live in their trailer outside of culture and their ability, or inability, to function in community—either with each other or with those that they have left behind. Why are they not more successful in social relationships?
◊ “The Village that the Gods Painted Yellow.”This story takes place in the land of the Maya. Place names mentioned are Yucatán, Uxmal, Mérida, Tula, Tulum, Chichén Itzá,Tikal, Palenque, Quiriguá, and Teotihuacán to the north of Mexico City. The action of the story happens between Yucatán and Guatemala. The narrator calls himself “a stranger in their midst” who visits Mayan ruins in late December, the day of the winter solstice. The story explores the attraction European and American tourists feel towards Mayan culture and their sense of its exoticism. The narrator is fascinated by ghost stories, indigenous legends, hoaxes, and rituals introduced by natives Gonzalo and a man named Rosario. The supernatural, ritualistic, and exotic elements of this world are ever-present. Be sure to note how the native American community in this story relates to its environment and to astronomy. Look particularly at the way the story intermingles supernatural occurrences, legends, myths, and astrology.
◊ “A Story.” This story lays out a cast of characters in the format of a play performed on a stage, but then it switches to the short story format. The setting is the narrator’s writing room, the venue is the Southwest, and is set in a medium-sized urban center in Texas. It is late on the morning of New Year’s Day, and the cast of characters is mostly Hispanic, except for a German man who hardly speaks and mostly smiles. He is married to Sabrina, the hostess. Eight characters are identified by name. The German husband is simply labeled a foreigner, and the rest are identified as Others. This short story is self-conscious about the literary creation process and storytelling. The guests’ chatter—the foreigner mostly smiling—and want to contribute a story to the writer, the narrator. At story’s end, it seems that Grandpa’s Old Llano stories are the ones chosen by the author. Most notable about this story is how the author chooses and discriminates among the different sources used to create a stylized, artistic fiction based on popular lore.
◊ “The Silence of the Llano.” This story takes place in the Llano (the plains in New Mexico). The time period is the early 20th century, and the focus switches between the rural landscape and villages of the Llano. There is a sour-sweet love story tinged with incest innuendos and rape. The incest is hinted at and is intermingled with a ghost story. The protagonist is named Rafael, a tight-lipped inhabitant of the Llano. The landscape and the weather are harsh and unyielding characters in this story. Rafael loses his young wife and must raise his daughter with occasional help from a healer, a curandera. Anglo intruders and prowlers rape the daughter. The dismal atmosphere of isolation is felt on every page of the story with only a glimmer of hope at story’s end: “The spring is the time for the garden. I will turn the earth for you. The seeds will grow.” These comments could be taken as incestuous but also could be a way of looking forward to spring and possibly a better future. It would be helpful to focus on and try to resolve this question.
◊ “The Place of the Swallows.” This story takes place next to a river and sandbanks. There are references to lush vegetation. It is not directly said, but it can be inferred that the narrator is a boy scout. In this story, the reader does not hear the colloquial Spanish words and phrases ever-present in most of the stories. The first-person narrator is a young boy, probably a teen. The landscape is more inviting than in the previous stories. There are canyons, rivers, lakes, “springs of clear, sweet water,” and it also rains. The narrator calls the venue “a quiet paradise.” In the evening, the boys are supposed to gather to tell stories of bravery and adventure, but the narrator tells a story of destruction and shame.
◊ “The Apple Orchard” Here again a child, a seventh-grader, is the narrator. From the story’s beginning, familiar Spanish colloquialisms pepper the dialogue and names of the characters—Pico, Chueco, Concha Panocha, and so on, Such references convey a sense of belonging and community as opposed to the sterile Anglo world of beautiful Miss Brighton, the blond and blue-eyed school teacher.
The story raises issues regarding what is possible and plausible. Is it possible is that a seventh-grader could “fall in love” with his teacher? But is it plausible that she performs a strip tease in the classroom to satisfy his adolescence curiosity? The coming-of-age story dwells on stereotypical male sexual fantasies and their humorous possibilities.
◊ “B. Traven is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca.” This story was originally published in 1979, but we may think that it was written even earlier. No actual dates are established, but the narrator says at some point that in Mexico “The past seems to infuse the present...time and space are one.” The first-person narrator is a writer who travels to Mexico in search of inspiration and the legend of a famous writer. B. Traven is the enigmatic and elusive German writer who lived under his pen name, married a Mexican woman, and died in Mexico City in 1969. Nowadays few people in Mexico would know who he was, but that was not the case forty or fifty years before. An indigenous gardener that goes by different names appears in the story surrounded by pretty women. He is mostly in good spirits, tells the narrator about ancient Aztec legends, curses, mysteries, and the like. Later, he invites the narrator to explore such topics, including an enchanted well. The author does not accept the invitation. At story’ end, a German author talks to the narrator while attending an event in Cuernavaca and reveals that he also knows about the indigenous gardener. Supposedly, this author is the ghost of B. Traven, although that fact is never verified. The ghostly atmosphere and the Pre-Columbian theme permeate the story along with the presence of non-Anglo foreigners. Think about this story’s allure and the exoticism that pre-Columbian myths exert on the American and European imagination with the Seven Cities of Cibola, the Eldorado Myth, etc.
◊ “Jerónimo’s Journey.” This story also takes place in Cuernavaca with a gardener named Jerónimo who receives a wooden leg as a present from his employer, a European woman. The leg is supposed to be for Jerónimo’s father. The entire story deals with the Day of the Dead, rituals, and ceremonies performed in their honor in the cities and towns of Mexico. Be sure to focus on how Mexicans view and celebrate death and the memory of their dead. While this story is about a man in Mexico, it also speaks to those Mexicans living in the United States. Additional reading may be Octavio Paz’ essay “The Day of the Dead.”
◊ “Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams.” This story takes place on the Llano and has a pervasive ring of Old Spanish times and traditions. The tone is idealistic, poetic, and mellow, almost to the point of becoming light and sentimental. Iliana is a beautiful young woman who speaks Spanish. It seems as if Onofre, a plain-looking farmer, dreams always about this woman of unusual beauty. Against common sense, she chooses him as her husband. The couple is conspicuous in their contrast, and everybody envies Onofre. Even though the name of the town is mentioned, Manzano, the story appears to be set in an ideal place in the New Mexico Hispano past and traditions. The Catholic religion, miracles, and legends permeate the narration. The community is tightly knit around the village church, and there are no incursions of Anglos or others in their sheltered venue. Direct your focus toward the religious elements in the colonization of the Southwest, its missions and crusades, and their legacy.
◊ “Devil Deer.” This story calls into question the existence of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory in New Mexico. A man named Cruz goes to hunt deer and finds one behind the fence of the nuclear laboratory where no one may enter. The animal is bizarre, and progressively it is revealed that it is also blind, deformed, and oozes a green gooey liquid from its mouth. There are also religious, ritualistic implications in this story. After Cruz brings the contaminated deer to the village, the elders ask to cleanse the hunter.
◊ “The Man Who Found a Pistol”. The story switches between an urban and a rural setting somewhere in the Llano. The narrator is a scholar and a professor who finds an axe in a river and fears taking it home. He leaves it in the water. Later, while in the village’s cantina, he listens to a story of a man from Texas, also a scholar, who had found a pistol and became obsessed with it. There was a curse on the pistol, and the curse brings about his death. One night, a ghost, his Doppelgänger (double), comes and knocks at the door of a house he shares with a young man with a harelip. The ghost shoots the older man, and the younger one takes the gun and throws it away.
◊ “Message from the Inca.” The story conveys the same aura of mystery and exoticism that was evident in the story “The Village that the Gods Painted Yellow,” which takes place in Yucatán. This story is set around the city of Cuzco, the Urubamba River, and Macchu Pichu. There is mention of old Pre-Hispanic legends and myths of lost cities, deities, and enigmatic indigenous peoples who live as if stranded between the present and the past. In the earlier story, there were Mayan speaking locals, but in this one they are Quechua speakers who hold and protect the secrets of their ancestors. The narrator is an educated outsider who searches for a story and a Pan-indigenous cultural bond.
◊ “Absalom.” The reader may ask why this story is in this collection. It takes place in the Negev, south of Be’er Sheya, in the country of Israel. Apparently, a wealthy New York Jewish woman moves there after a divorce and finds a dark North African lover she names Absalom because she met him when she visited the tomb of that ancient king. The love story has a tragic end over a cliff and down a ravine somewhere in the desert of that country.
◊ “The Captain.” This story has little to do with the other stories. The location is Hitler’s The Eagle Nest in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, in Germany. The action takes place sometime between 1941 and 1942 when the Nazis’ Eastern Campaign began to fail. The first-person narrator is a Captain of the Wehrmacht who visits the Führer’s vacation retreat along with a large group of officers and women bussed there to work as prostitutes.
◊ “In Search of Epifanio” [sic: Epifano]. This is a border story in that it takes place between Southern California, Calexico, and Mexicali. The story mentions Tarahumara Indians in the region. An almost 80-year old artsy woman crosses the border to Mexicali in search of her father, a blue-eyed Mexican man who owned a hacienda there. The woman divorced her husband who had given her a son and a daughter but whom she had separated from and had lost track of. The blue-eyed father appears at the story’s end, but upon closer inspection he turns out to be a Tarahumara Indian.
◊ “Dead End.” This story has a melancholy tone harking back to the 1960s and 1970s.
There are references to words from that period such as vatos, homeboys, and Cholo style
youngsters. This story reads like a period high school short story. For this story, think about the way that cinema and literature present the teen-age experience not only of Mexican Americans but also of the mainstream American young people.
◊ “The Man Who Could Fly.” This is a gothic story that takes place somewhere on the Llano. This is one of those oral tradition tales existing in several versions depending on which town or community tells it. In this case, the narrator mentions that there is a war overseas, and “the airplanes were on their way to join the fighting” (190). We don’t know which war this is, but it makes no difference, since this is a supernatural story about don Necio who argues with don Volo, the narrator at the story’s end. Don Necio is a man who lost everything on a wager with “the man who could fly.” The small rural community of Agua Bendita is the locus, and here we find again the familiar Mexican American community atmosphere typical of most of the short stories in this collection--with Spanish colloquialisms, rural jokes, and bantering among the characters. This story focuses on the uniqueness of the binational, bicultural communities of the Southwest and the richness that this culture creates in all aspects, not only linguistic, but also in terms of popular legends.
Suggested short-paper topics for assignments dealing with this book.
Several stories in the collection have to do with the supernatural and paranormal. Explore how oral tradition, legends, and ghost stories are represented in one or two stories of this collection. Research the origin of those traditions and what their treatment in these short stories is.
Which of these stories deal with foreign, non-Anglo, and non-indigenous characters living on both sides of the border in Mexico or anywhere else? What is their significance in this collection? Where do these characters come from, and who are they in cultural terms?
Some of these short stories deal with children or women narrators. What do we learn from their childhood, rites of passage, coming of age, or gender roles? How do these stories tell about their time period?
Some of these stories deal with the Pre-Columbian past. What cultures from those times are represented in these stories? What do these stories tell about their myths, legends, rites, and belief systems? What is Anaya’s point in drawing upon such material?
Suggested longer research paper topics for assignments dealing with this book.
Compare the work of other established Mexican American writers (e.g., Tomás Rivera, Alberto Ríos, Sandra Cisneros, or Demetria Martínez) with the themes, style, time periods, and loci (where their fictions take place) in one or two stories of Rudolfo Anaya’s The Man Who Could Fly. Helpful comparisons would be Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Ana Castillo’s So Far From God.
Film and Fiction. Choose one of the films listed below and draw a comparison with one of the several short stories from The Man Who Could Fly that explores similar themes. How are the stories and the film/s related?
Films: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) directed by R. M. Young.
I am Joaquin (1969) directed by Luis Valdez.
PBS Documentary. With Each Turn of the Wheel: The Santa Fe Trail. 1821 -1996.
Define the concept of identity in several stories from The Man Who Could Fly. Choose at least three stories to illustrate your thesis. What are the traits that establish an identity in these characters and in these short stories? Who are these character?
Using Rodolfo F. Acuña’s book Occupied America (2011) and short stories from
Rudolfo Anaya’s The Man Who Could Fly, research the figure of the Mexican American Cowboy, or vaquero. An alternative source to research this topic is Joseph P. Sánchez’ NewMexico: A History (2014). How do Anaya’s fictional vaqueros and ranchers compare with those in R. Acuña and J. P. Sánchez’s history books?