Bless Me, Ultima
Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, Bless Me, Ultima, occupies a unique place in modern literature. On one level, it is reminiscent of an enormous number of other novels in that it is a classic, coming-of-age story. The young boy at the center of the novel undergoes many of the same, traumatic changes that all children face as they move into the larger world around them. In these years, the isolation of the family as the child’s entire world is expanded, and the effects are as varied as the natures of the child and the surrounding culture. On another, Anaya has a very specific story to tell. His hero, Antonio, is Chicano, and the mid-20th century timing and New Mexico setting combine to create the unusual quality of this boy’s journey. Of a culture inherently divided within itself, the boy must also come to terms with the place his people hold in this world. Linked to this is the inevitable evolution of the Chicano people themselves, uneasily reflecting Native American ideologies while conditioned to embrace Latino Catholicism. Consequently, the novel addresses many crucial issues, and of deeply personal and social kinds. There is a real sadness to it as well, as a sense of loss must accompany any child’s transformation into individual. Beyond even this, however, Anaya’s novel is essentially a modern myth, rich in poetic imagery and powerful meaning. The real core of Bless Me, Ultima may be seen in its title, as it conveys the need in everyone to find truth and safety in a changing and often violent world.
The story of Bless Me, Ultima, begins in a literally “fabulous” way, in that it opens as fables do. The novel is a memory, and the pivotal one setting it in motion is when, at the age of six, Antonio learns that Ultima will be joining his family. She is a revered curandera of the community, or wise woman, and she is strongly tied to Antonio’s family. Her arrival creates the story itself, as all the episodes are experiences Antonion witnesses or undertakes with her guidance. In a sense, the novel is a spiritual journey like Dante’s Inferno; confusion and fear grip the boy, and Ultima is there to provide a base of strength and knowledge to assist him. The experiences are often painful as, for instance, Antonio worries over the fate of his father, involved in a local murder. Then, when Ultima intervenes and removes a curse placed on Antonio’s uncle, Tenorio, the vile maker of the curse, seeks to destroy Ultima. He eventually does this through the killing of her owl, which is her spiritual essence. Additionally, Antonio is conflicted throughout the story; he moves toward the Catholicism his mother wants for him, yet he is drawn to the folk wisdom and spirituality of Ultima and the old world she represents. The novel concludes with Antonio coming to realize that he need not abandon one faith for another, and that there may be a way to honor the good in all.
More important than actual events, however, are the dynamics governing the boy’s life. These are essentially the story being told, and these are powerful forces often competing with one another for dominance. Gabriel, Antonio’s father, cherishes a life no longer possible in the changing world, that of the free horseman on the llanos, or plains; his wife, Maria, is of farming people and eager to create a stable home, and one directed to accepting the Catholic faith. It is her dream, in fact, that Antonio become a priest. At the same time, forces are at play around the boy that are, again, virtually mythic. The bar owner Tenorio’s daughters celebrate black magic, just as Ultima is a protective and nurturing agent of the spiritual. In this town of Guadalupe, Antonio exists in a chaotic and highly diverse landscape, one wherein the prayers of the Catholic Church are observed just as the rites of the ancients are still sacred. In the midst of these issues, life itself is hopelessly complicated, as foundations of belief and thing are challenged at every turn.
If Anaya has a message, it is that good may arise from chaos, but not without something of the struggle and pain of all birth. Antonio moves forward spiritually and in learning, but the cost is high and includes the death of his guide. Then, as Antonio develops and confronts the currents of this life, his crisis may be seen as the crisis of the Chicano: displaced, coerced into new lands and ways of life, and in limbo between opposing faiths. Most importantly, Antonio is the soul of possibility; if the others are locked into fixed beliefs and defined through defiance, he is, as so young a boy, the hope for resolution. This translates to the author’s view on how the Chicanos may evolve. It is a message, not of embracing change necessarily, but of understanding that there is value in ideas contrary to those known, and that even harsh circumstances can open new ways of seeing. Antonio chooses in the end to create his own faith from the past beliefs of his people and the inevitable tide of Catholicism. In a sense, then, Anaya is saying that his people may do the same, which is also a means of holding onto a cultural identity.
To begin with, the most compelling quality I personally find in Bless Me, Ultima, is the novel’s consistent honesty. This honesty is captured, moreover, in poetic expression; as Anaya sees and feels from his life as a boy, the adult’s power with words gives shape to the wonder that is in a child. This is by no means a careless reminiscence, moreover, for the author makes it clear that the boy’s life, or actual beginnings of awareness, center on the arrival of Ultima. Before anything else is described, including the conflict surrounding her taking a place within the family, there is the crucial fact of her power as felt by Antonio. It is something that thrills him beyond anything he has known, as his hand slips into Ultima’s: “My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement” (Anaya 1). I find this introduction moving and beautiful, if only in that it presents a landscape that is real for a child. It is as though Anaya remembers how, when we are that young, impressions are far more expansive than they are even only a few years later, when experience has dulled our ability to recognize the mysterious. If the boy would not be able to express this feeling, the man can, and it gives an impression of absolute truth. We have all been children, after all, and we know how extremely we can feel moments at that time.
Even as I value Anaya’s honesty, however, I am equally drawn to the fable aspect of the novel. The intensity of childhood notwithstanding, Antonio is no ordinary boy of six, and there is a sense early on of the destiny that is to play so large a part in the tale. This is a boy who is caught between the conflicts of his parents and their changing world, but he is also one clearly tied to the mysteries of life as known by his people in ages past. On one level, when he speaks of how the llanos have meaning for his father, we understand that the adult is comprehending what the child only barely knew. Antonio’s dream, however, is another matter entirely. It is a vision of great mysticism, rather than a dream, and it is as mythic as any ancient Greek fable. This is a boy who closes his eyes and witnesses his own birth. More importantly, he has the “sight” allowing him to create symbolism at the event. If his mother’s people rejoice at the birth of a farmer, his father’s men, the roaming vaqueros, claim the boy for their own. Only the stern voice of Ultima can silence them; she alone will know the boy’s life.
The dream is central to the entire novel, and its extraordinary action actually works within the practical confines of the story. Fantastically envisioned or otherwise, Antonio knows in his being that his mother and father struggle against each other’s values. He knows he himself is symbolic in a time and place when the destiny of his people is uncertain. Then, as the novel begins with Ultima’s arrival, the stage is set for the journey promised by the old woman in the dream. This is what is so compelling about the story, in that the mystical is firmly rooted to the realities of life. It also prompts me to reflect on a significant difference between this type of spirituality and the Catholicism Maria wants for her son. The practices and beliefs embodied by Ultima seem to fully reflect the nature of all Native American spirituality; it is tied to the land and to every facet of living, whereas Catholicism tends to create a distance between God and man. This in turn supports the conflicts at the heart of so many characters. Maria, for example, honors Ultima highly and insists that she live with the family. At the same time, her dream is that Antonio study for the priesthood. This is the kind of duality that is real in human beings, and not often presented in literature. It may even be argued that, in the earliest stages of the book, Antonio’s mother is seeking to accomplish what he himself decides is important: combining values and beliefs in a way that embraces the best each has to offer.
I also very much am drawn to how consistently Anaya fuses the messiness of actual life with the inner life being taught to Antonio. The older boys are trouble, and there are gangs, of course, but the way in which Antonio gains the respect of Horse, the toughest boy, is real and believable. Then, even in this isolated world of the Chicano in Guadalupe, there is a realistic sense of what is occurring in the larger world beyond. The entire family, for instance, marches to Mass in black because local men have been killed in the war with the Germans and Japanese. In the procession, of course, is Ultima, also serving to reflect how one belief system need not defy another. Anaya subtly has Antonio making connections himself, even as the boy is endlessly full of questions. Ultima, whom he loves dearly, is a medicine woman of vast knowledge, and this would seem to be completely contrary to Catholic belief. She teaches Antonio, for instance, to speak to the plants and let them know why it is necessary to pull them from the earth, and there is no escaping the pagan nature of such spirituality. Antonio, however, comes to interesting conclusions when his family prays to the rosary every evening. He is entranced by his mother’s statue of the Virgin Mary, as he accepts that she is the soul of peace and caring. God is strong and demanding, with a will that can kill, as Antonio is instructed. Somehow, however, the boy begins to reconcile the two in his mind: “He was a giant man, and she was a woman. She could go to Him and ask Him to forgive you” (44). From this line of speculation in the boy, I feel as though Anaya is pointing to the shared foundations of so many faiths, in that “gender” dictates different forms of power. More importantly, it seems that Antonio is seeing that even the great Catholic Church follows the precepts of his people’s ancient beliefs, in that the male is the crushing force and the female is the gentle, caring one.
If I were to take issue with any aspect of Bless Me, Ultima, it would be – ironically – the insistence on combining the spiritual with the material that I admire in it. More exactly, and even as I think the novel boasts an enormous range of vivid characters, I am not entirely satisfied that so many express themselves in directly or obliquely spiritual terms. When Horse shows respect to Antonio, for instance, it is with a maturity possibly out of keeping with such a boy. Then, the metaphor of fish is used excessively, in regard to the worthiness of ways of living. Cico instructs Antonio in fishing, as does the boy’s father, but there is a heavy strain of mysticism here more expected from Ultimsa herself, as when Cico says: “But the real king is the golden carp, Tony. He does not eat his own kind” (113). In this world, virtually everything is a life lesson, and I think a stronger emphasis on the pragmatic would have more effectively supported Anaya’s core of the spiritual. I tend to think that the relationship between Antonio and Ultima alone would have served very well as the true emphasis on real spirituality needed.
As I fully reflect on Bless Me, Ultima, it strikes me all the more forcibly how I am unhappy with the very quality I applaud in it: the consistent addressing of the spiritual as the young Chicano boy finds his identity through questioning of faith. I try to remember, however, that another aspect of the book I like very much is its mythic quality, so I then seek to allow for the excess. Even my criticism, however, does not alter my feeling that this is as powerful and honest a coming-of-age story in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird. As noted earlier, in fact, my admiration may be said to be centered on the title, for here is where the thrust of all spirituality resides. Chicano or otherwise, we all require blessings, and Anaya brings this truth out in a well-crafted and fable-like memoir. Antonio’s story translates to many, as we all take some form of the journey he takes, and Bless Me, Ultima conveys the need in everyone to find truth and safety in a changing and violent world.
Anaya, R. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1994. Print.