Review of ChupaCabra Meets Billy the Kid,
a Rudolfo Anaya Extra-Fiction Novel
By Armando Rendón
In Rudolfo Anaya’s latest book,ChupaCabra Meets Billy the Kid, science as in science-fiction gives way to the true fundamental forces of nature as he weaves a story that flashes back and forth in time.
The title is misleading because it’s not really ChupaCabra, the goatsucker demon of Mexican lore, that meets Billy the Kid, a historical human artifact mythologized by Western writers of the purple prose, but a clash of realities. Obviously, the title suggests some weirdness going on. Is it fantasy, sci-fi, horror, a retro version of the time travel gimmick?
Or is Rudy just pulling our collective leg?
As with really good time-travel yarns, underlying the storyline are critical views of society, its social mores or disregard for humane values. I would say that in all the best science fiction I’ve read over half a century – that’s a lot of reading – writers generally conjure up the bad guys or create a social setting that contrasts with the narrator/author’s own time.
In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist reconfigures a chair with odd bells and whistles, powered by who knows what and travels thousands then tens of thousands of years into the future. It seems he never returned from his last trip, so the Traveler may still be out there.
In a way, Anaya has come, I was going to say, full circle, but only half circle back to his highly acclaimed book, Bless Me, Ultima, which is on many reading lists of schools throughout the U.S. Ultima, the curandera who becomes a spiritual guide for Antonio, the young protagonist in the story, imbues the book with her other-worldly persona and a powerful aura of mysticism.
To Anaya, his homeland is a mystical place, the mountains guardians of secrets and beauties found nowhere else, its rivers arteries of life in an otherwise harsh land, and a challenge to survival which his forebears have continually encountered for generations. I’ve caught a glimpse of these truths—seeing how mountain peaks jut up to cut off the horizon, finding a río at the bottom of a gorge by a glint of sun, leaning back a chair against a sun-warmed adobe wall...
Anaya’s treatment here conveys the hardships of survival in the New Mexico of the latter 1800s into the early 1900s following the takeover by the U.S. government of half the territory of Mexico as a result of America’s invasion of Mexican territory beyond the Rio Bravo (Grande). Those hostilities ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848.
Yet, this book also celebrates the nuevomexicanos who survived for generations from the meager resources the earth grudgingly gave up. Their devotion to a religion which was increasingly remote resulted in the creation of homegrown zealots, los penitentes, a secretive society of men who preserved the religiosity of the communities through extreme exercises of penitence and sacrifice. The hard life of the early residents resulted in a resolute people, determined to survive in spite of the hardships faced every day.
This is how I perceive nuevomexico, from readings (Anaya’s works and others) and conversations and the few times I’ve ventured into the state, traveling far up toward the headwaters of the Rio Grande in the San Juan mountains of Colorado.
Out of this history evolved a few persons whom I got to know personally: Tomás Atencio, who created a literary headwaters in Dixon, co-founder of La Academia de la Nueva Raza and author of Resolana: A Chicano Pathway to Knowledge; Enriqueta Vasquez, who was one of the first Chicanas to publish a book on the Chicano Movement (Viva la Raza, 1974) and was part of founding the newspaper, El Grito del Norte, in 1968, about the same time that Quinto Sol Publications arose in Berkeley, which by the way was first to publish Bless Me, Ultima, and Con Safos out of East Los Angeles; Esteván Arellano, a writer and photographer, who drove me up into the mountains the time I met Atencio, and Reies Tijerina, who was a Tejano, but allied himself with and became the most prominent leader of the land grant movement in New Mexico.
This sampling of people and experiences inform my reading of ChupaCaba Meets Billy the Kid. I say Anaya circled halfway back to Ultima, because the plot in this book depends heavily on tried and true sci-fi gimmicks, though the story is set in the middle of the Lincoln County War of 1878.
A super deep state government unit, operating out of the infamous Area 51, called the C-Force, which also answers directly to the White House; an incredible experiment run by C-Force gone awry which combines the DNA of chupacabra and alien DNA (think Area 51) to produce a devilishly vicious though sometimes clownish hybrid called a Saytir; the good-old wormhole angle worms its way in somehow (well, I know but I’m not telling), and the time-lapping magical laptop (magical because it seems to have a solar powered charger in 1878) that functions for note taking and for checking emails from this now (2018).
The reference to the White House, that is, to an actual living person is rare in science-fiction. But Anaya’s story is happening in real time—his book is fresh off the presses. The president has authority over the C-Force and its members are continually advising him. (Does the C stand for ChupaCabra or Chili? Is C-Force to blame for the direction of current events? Is the current president really a Saytir?)
In other words, Anaya throws every quirky sci-fi accoutrement ever devised into the fray. You’ve got to love it.
Something seemed to be lacking in the story for me as I started to read it, but then I met the aspiring writer protagonist, Rosa, who believes it is her mission to write the true story about Billy the Kid. The true story, “it’s what every writer wants,” she says, still queasy though from some of the not so savory action she’d seen so far. So, lots of background fact-gathering, laying the groundwork for the story, but little of the spiritual or otherworldly that could connect us to his earlier writings, especially Ultima. Yet, Ultima lies in wait in the background throughout the book. For example, look for the flashback to the movie of the Anaya classic.
Rosa, the young person documenting all these events and characters, teams up with Billy the Kid, who mysteriously shows up at her new-found digs in 1878 New Mexico. A sort of platonic relationship ensues—Billy is a very approachable fellow with the young ladies even though rather reproachable otherwise.
So how does Rosa end up in 1878?
Rosa’s chief means of transportation is by horse, of course. She witnesses key events in Billy the Kid’s last few days and shares the lives of kind Mexican American hosts who give her food and shelter, even lend her a proper dress for a señorita to go to el baile, basically because she is friend of Bilito, the Kid.
Armed with her laptop and with a lot of time on her hands, so to speak, as she battles writer’s block or rides shutgun next to the Kid, Anaya, I mean, Rosa, ponders a number of issues: the very notion of time, the role of literature in culture, what is driving her even to consider writing about this outlaw and what happened in a backwater of history 140 years ago, like who cares? Rosa suggests that there is far more to comprehend beyond what we see or seek to comprehend. “Time makes something new of us all,” Rosa tells Billy as the Kid’s own timeline draws to a close. Some of us have more time than others, she fails to add. Rosa, of course, knows Billy’s last day is approaching—but she can’t reveal that fact.
After what seems like months living in this past world, Rosa begins to worry about how she is to return; there’s no ponderous circus balloon she can take to get back home.
Exactly the point, because we want to find out what happened, she has to come back to our real “time” and tell us, but how does she get back? A low-rider spaceship with hydraulics powered by frijoles de la olla?
No, chale! The force that bends space and time, Anaya tells us, is beyond quantum physics, string theory, time warps, marvelous spaceships powered by dilithium crystals to visit San Francisco Bay in the 1950s, let alone a barrio kid’s scooter that magically carries him back to historic moments in Chicano history.
We know that somehow she made it back. All the while she has been recording what she sees and hears. At the end of the book, she has graciously provided a detailed timeline, “Rosa’s Notes and Observations,” downloaded from her laptop no doubt of what she saw, so that’s proof. But the question still remains, how?
When we find out what that inexorable source of energy is, all falls into place. This is what Anaya is getting at. It’s what he has been writing about all his life. How we ourselves can be transported back in time, back to a transcendent period of our own. It’s so obvious when you read the book.
Armando Rendón is editor/founder of Somos en escrito Magazine, author of Chicano Manifesto (1971, 1996), and creator of Young Adult novels, including the four-part series, The Adventures of Noldo and his Magical Scooter, (2013-2016) and the latest Noldo novel, The Wizard of the Blue Hole (2018).
For an excerpt from ChupaCabra Meets Billy the Kid, a Rudolfo Anaya novel, the book was featured recently in Somos en escrito under the title, “I am becoming a recorder of history.” The book is available at ChupacabrabyAnaya.
“She is like Julia in every way.”