Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima is the first in a trilogy relating the trials and tribulations encountered as an adolescent in New Mexico. Many consider it to be “classic” Chicano fiction in that it portrays New Mexican traditions and lifestyles the average reader had most likely never encountered while transcending a mere portrait of the southwest by representing Antonio’s rites of passage into maturity in a manner to which nearly anyone can relate (University of New Mexico). The reader follows along as Antonio moves from childish innocence to newfound maturity through a series of crises and conflicts.
They begin with Ultima’s arrival and end with her death, stimulating Antonio’s spiritual search and moving him closer to adulthood. Along the way, Antonio struggles through a duality of conflicts, convinced he must choose only one side of his heritage but made uncertain by his loyalties and beliefs for each. Maturity is finally reached when he realizes the solution is to fuse the differing elements in his family. In this way he finds satisfaction for both his inner needs and external influences.
The conflicts triggering Antonio’s maturation are the result of the dualities in Antonio’s life: his mother’s versus his father’s families, the Catholic religion versus curanderismo, Western versus Chicano culture, and myth versus reality. His family’s heritage is one of the impetuses to Antonio’s soul searching. On his mother’s side is a heritage of Catholicism and farmers who worked off the land; on his father’s side resides a Hispanic people who made their living as vaqueros on the llano. His mother wishes Antonio to become a priest while his father wishes he carry on in the Marez tradition.
This conflict is made clear through Antonio’s dream of his birth: his mother’s family brings him gifts of earth – “fresh green chile and corn, ripe apples and peaches, pumpkins and green beans” (Anaya, 5), while his father’s family destroys them and provides, instead, “a saddle, horse blankets, bottles of whiskey, a new rope, bridles, chapas, and an old guitar” (Anaya, 5). While both families rely on the earth and its bounty to provide, they have dissenting attitudes. It is the goal of the Marezes to “live free upon the earth and roam over it” while the Lunas “live tied to the earth and its cycles” (Lamadrid, 498).
Antonio asks Ultima: “Now we have come to live near the river, and yet near the llano. I love them both, and yet I am of neither. I wonder which life I will choose? ” (Anaya, 38), voicing his concerns over the ability to pick just one lifestyle. According to Black (155 – 157), Antonio’s coming-of-age involves separating from his family while integrating features from both sides. The young man is expected to physically separate from his mother as his brothers have done. Though they occupy little of the text, Andy and Gene also play significant roles in Antonio’s life.
In their minds, “all their lives they had lived with the dreams of their father and mother haunting them…. ” (Anaya, 62) and Gene avers, “We can’t be tied down to old dreams”: (Anaya, 62). The brothers are relieved, then, that Antonio is the scapegoat who can please their mother by embodying her dreams, leaving them free to pursue their own. Antonio is different than Andy and Gene, preferring, instead, to use “both waters” and create a new lifestyle. Gabriel succinctly sums up his son’s spiritual search like this: “every man is a part of his past. He cannot escape it, but he may reform the old materials, make something new” (Anaya, 236).
A further conflict in Antonio’s life is the dichotomy of the Catholic religion as opposed to Chicano beliefs and practices. He begins his spiritual search with the Catholic church, becoming preoccupied with sin and its consequences. After witnessing the death of the town’s sheriff and Lupito, he gives confession. Antonio struggles with the meaning of the Act of Contrition, the nature of confession, and his disappointment with the Communion ritual. He questions the church’s teachings regarding God and its definitions of good and evil, particularly after the deaths of Tenorio and his daughters, Narciso, and Florence.
The author states, “The boy is wrestling with the questions of good and evil and why evil exists in this world” (McDonald, from de Mancelos, 4). Although Antonio wonders, “Was it possible that there was more power in Ultima’s magic than in the priest? ” (Anaya, 99), it is Ultima who consoles him when the Catholic priest fails to heal Lucas. Ultima reaffirms Antonio’s faith in his fellow many by assuring him that the men of the llano would not resort to the act of killing another without good reason. She initiates him into the art of curanderismo.
As Antonio begins assisting Ultima in her healing practices, he is introduced to the legend of the golden carp. When he sees the mythical golden carp, Antonio experiences a moment of revelation: “This is what I had expected God to do at my first holy communion! If God was witness to my beholding of the golden carp then I had sinned! ” (Anaya, 105). Antonio does not give up his dream of being a priest, even though is severely disappointed by the Catholic religion. He becomes a different kind of spiritual leader, one his people are not quite ready to accept.
In a dream, Antonio cries out to Jesus as he suffers on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! ” (Anaya, 233). He is unable to fully believe in either Catholicism or curanderismo and consequently decides to combine the two different perspectives to gain his own answers. Antonio ultimately becomes “a man of learning” as Ultima had predicted. He acquires knowledge and understanding along the way to maturity. Antonio appreciates that life is naturally ever changing. He accepts his parents’ flaws as well as his brothers’ sins.
He realizes the extent of prejudice and accepts that others, too, are not firm in their beliefs, while recognizing his own sins. The duality of Western and Chicano cultures in his heritage is another conflict Antonio must resolve. The author represents three different acculturations: assimilation, integration and rejection (Black, 146). According to Black, Antonio’s brothers “are assimilated into the Anglo world in ways that result in their desire to leave la familia and move into the dominant cultural sphere”; because they reject their heritage, they lose their culture (149).
Antonio does a better job of assimilating his ethnic identity with Angle culture through adaptation: “…the innocence which our isolation sheltered could not last forever, and the affairs of the town began to reach across our bridge and enter my life” (Anaya, 14). Antonio begins his assimilation in school. He retains his heritage by speaking Spanish and eating his traditional Chicano lunch “of hot beans and some good, green chile wrapped in tortillas” (Anaya, 54). Although, as he says, “the other children saw my lunch [and] they laughed and pointed again”, the experience reminded him of the existence of prejudice (Anaya, 54).
It makes him feel different until he finally finds friends who share his Chicano roots and he is able to overcome his loneliness. This also helps him to realize that he can live in both worlds. Antonio strives to learn English and stay in school, in direct contrast to the rest of his family. At home, he is educated about Chicano culture through Ultima’s teachings. She urges him to appreciate the beauty of the land and embrace the ancient wisdom of curanderas. His family are the instructors in such things as personal integrity and the Chicano way of life.
Belief in myth as opposed to the reality presented by history also create a conflict in Antonio. According to Lamadrid, there is an important relation between myth and the socio-cultural identity of traditional Chicanos (497). He uses examples such as that of la llorona (wailing woman) to define myth as the “collective interpretation and mediation of the contradictions in the historical and ecological experience of a people” (Lamadrid, 496). This assertion becomes clear in examining Antonio’s representation of evil and native power; he believes La llorona is luring him, but he resists and escapes death.
Ultimately, Antonio learns to accept that life is the greater reality and understands “the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart” (Anaya, 237). He remembers Ultima’s teachings, which help him to “take life’s experiences and build strength from them and not weakness” (Anaya, 248). As de Mancelos states, Antonio must “understand the other side of the myth, the legends, the indigenous beliefs and the power of the earth” as well as more traditional religious beliefs (5).
An apocalyptic event – the development of the first atomic bomb for use in World War II combat – juxtaposes with Antonio’s increasing awareness. According to Lamadrid, “the awareness of the characters of the apocalyptic threat of the atomic bomb…demonstrates a real and historical dimension of apocalypse” (500). Upon its arrival, the village women dress in mourning clothes, assert that the bomb resembles “a ball of white heat beyond the imagination, beyond hell” and lay the blame on ignorant Anglos: “Man was not made to know so much…they compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself.
In the end, that knowledge they seek will destroy us all” (Anaya, 183). The village witnesses the loss of a large number of husbands and sons during the war while the state hosts the very first test of the atomic bomb. Even Antonio is affected as his brothers return from service traumatized. According to the villagers, these are all signs of an apocalypse requiring “the need for a synthesis…in this new time of crisis” (Lamadrid, 500). Antonio is fortunate enough to create his own synthesis by continuing his ties to the desert and La Virgen de Guadalupe, la llorona and the brotherhood of the golden carp.
His cultural conflicts are settled because of his synchronicity with Ultima’s belief that the purpose of his life is to do good. Her final blessing, “Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills” are the words he will live by(Anaya, 247). Antonio’s maturity comes as the result of completing a journey which alternately takes him away from, and then back to, his heritage. The conflicts of warring factions in his life cause him to question the values and beliefs of each and come up with his own explanation.
Rather than refusing his heritage, Antonio fuses the differences and acquires a richness of experience and strength of character. Along with this new understating, Antonio looks forward to a future based on the past but open to new possibilities – a mature outlook indeed. Works Cited Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1999. Black, Debra B. “Times of Conflict: Bless Me, Ultima as a Novel of Acculturation”. Bilingual Review, Vol. 25 (2), 2000, pp. 146-159. de Mancelos, Joao. “Witchcraft, Initiation, and Cultural Identity in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima”.
Revista de Letras, serie II, #3, 2004. 129-134. Lamadrid, Enrique R. “Myth as the Cognitive Process of Popular Culture in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima”: The Dialectics of Knowledge. Hispania, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Sep. 1985), pp. 496-501. Stone, Dan. “An Interview with Rudolfo Anaya”. National Endowment for the Arts: The Big Read. January 4, 2007. Retrieved October 15, 2008 from the NEA website: http://www. neabigread. org/books/blessmeultima/anaya04_about. php. University of New Mexico. “Writing the Southwest: Rudolfo Anaya”. Retrieved October 15, 2008 from the UNM website: http://www. unm. edu/~wrtgsw/anaya. html.
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