Bless Me, Ultima is a coming-of-age novel that centers on Tony’s quest for personal and cultural identity. Perhaps the most prominent theme is that of Tony’s emerging spiritualism, which becomes an essential part of both his personal and cultural self. Anaya entrusts Tony’s spiritualism to Ultima, a wise healer, or curandera, who comes to live with Tony and his family. Upon meeting Ultima, Tony is overwhelmed by her powers. Suddenly the world comes alive for him, and we come to understand that Ultima will be the one to pave the path to Tony’s manhood.
Tony knew Ultima before she arrived, because he too has spiritual powers that he would soon learn how to tap. He is perceptive, and he had dreamt of Ultima and of her presence at his own birth. Revelation through dreams is one of the ways Anaya illustrates Tony’s metamorphosis. According to tradition, curanderas often attend laboring mothers, and Ultima had attended Tony’s mother during the birth of her children. In further keeping with tradition, she had buried the placenta after Tony’s birth, and with it the key to his destiny.
Ultima has always been with Tony in spirit, even before she comes to live with his family. She is not related to them, but the family welcomes her as one of their own. They call her Grande, meaning “large” which signifies the profound respect they feel for her. Ultima is a small woman in size, but she appears larger than life. Tony says “there was a nobility to her walk that lent a grace to the small figure.” It seemed to him as if she were part of the landscape, one with the spirit of the earth. He says that when he imitated her walk, he was no longer lost in the enormous landscape of hills and sky. “[He] was a very important part of the teeming life of the llano and the river.“ Ultima is confident, and she seems to possess an inner peace; she commands respect and she emanates power. Many people in the Chicano culture know the powers of curanderismo and consider them magical. But Tony can feel the magic. He is captivated by Ultima, and he speaks of the “clear bright power in her eyes [that] held [him] spellbound.” When he first shakes hands with Ultima he says that he “felt the power of a whirlwind sweep around [him].”
Ultima knows the secrets of the earth, and we know that Ultima will help Tony feel complete and reconcile his conflicting emotions. A strange, spiritual bond links Tony to Ultima, and Tony says that he “felt more attached to [her] than to his own mother.” Ultima and Tony both have powers of perception that others do not. Tony is learning to recognize the spirit in nature, so Ultima becomes both his protector and guide. Not only does she help him recognize the spirit, but she tells him stories and legends of his people, and she gives him a sense of place and an appreciation of his history and culture. When Ultima takes Tony under her wing, he spends hours listening to her stories and soaking in her knowledge. We know that her influence on him is so strong that he too will be able to feel the spirit of the earth, just as she does.
One of the major themes that emerges in Bless Me, Ultima is that of spirituality and healing. Ultima is a kind of shaman, a spiritual guide that helps Tony come to an understanding of God and nature and helps him use that understanding to recognize spirit in his world. The presence of shaman-like figures as mentors and guides is an important part of many traditional ideologies and Anaya makes it an integral theme in his works. Anaya entrusts many of his protagonists to spiritual guides, and Tony flourishes in the presence of his. Ultima has always been with Tony in spirit, and when she physically moves in with his family she helps him find the answers that he has been seeking. She helps him sort out his confusion. In many traditional cultures, folk healing is tied to a belief in the sacredness of nature. Curanderismo is an ancient system of Mexican American folk healing; it relies on the use of rituals and the power of herbs that arise from the land. Curanderas reputedly can heal both body and soul. To Tony it seems that they know earth magic. Anaya tells us that “for Ultima, even the plants had a spirit,” and everything in nature is a manifestation of life force. Ultima teaches Tony a respect for nature. She teaches him that spirit exists everywhere, and that his spirit “[shares] in the spirit of all things.”
Tony has a natural affinity for the land, but the conflicting views of his parents make it difficult for him to sort through his confusion. Should he be a rancher or a farmer? Should he roam the land like his father or remain grounded like his mother? Can he believe in the power of the Virgin and in the Golden Carp at the same time? For much of the novel, Tony feels he must choose between the nomadic lifestyle of his father and the agricultural lifestyle of his mother. His mother and father could not be more different. His mother is a devout Catholic and his father is anti-religion. His father makes fun of priests, but his mother wants him to become one. The differences between Tony’s parents represent some of the major contrasts in the novel, and Ultima gives Tony the ability to sort them out. Tony’s struggle with his religious faith becomes the novel’s primary focus, and we come to realize he will find that faith once he learns to understand the spiritual world of Ultima.
What Tony comes to realize through his relationship with Ultima is that spirit drives our existence. Christianity and pagan mysticism do not have to be in conflict, but rather they both attest to power in the world. Tony’s fascination with the land and the myths of the land emerge as a confirmation of God’s power. Traditional ideologies explained all forces of nature as evidence of such power. People of traditional cultures believed that the gods manifested themselves in the natural phenomena of our world. Tony speaks of the dust devils carrying the spirit of the devil. He speaks of being able to feel the soul of the river. His father and mother allude to the “spirit” of the sea and the moon. The major influences in Tony’s life seem to have their base in ancient myths and symbols. His father’s name, Marez, means sea, and his people are restless like the sea. They descended from Spanish Conquistadors and they are not content to remain settled, but they long to roam the open plains. His mother’s name, Luna, means moon, and her people descended from the Pueblo farmers who settle in one place and plant by the moonlight. Antonio has blood from both these peoples, so he struggles to reconcile native and conqueror, land and sea, Catholic and pagan.
In light of these conflicts, Tony has a difficult time coming of age. Anaya helps his protagonist along by incorporating into his story historical legends that parallel biblical teachings. Cuentos are full of witchcraft and mysticism, and Tony is preoccupied with magic. He believes in brujas (witches), and in the power of Ultima. He sees what such power can do when the Trementina sisters use their “magic” to strike Tio Lucas ill and when Ultima uses her magic to help him. Anaya puts this “magic” in focus by using myths and legends to explain nature’s forces. He concentrates primarily on the Legend of the Golden Carp. The river in the town is full of carp, and Tony learns from his friend that a golden carp swims the river as a manifestation of a pagan god.
If gods can appear as magic carp, then surely spirit exists everywhere. Only Cico, Ultima, Tony, the Indian, and Narciso can see the Golden Carp, presumably because these are the people who recognize earth magic. But Tony questions God throughout the novel, so Anaya relates more legends to answer his questions. The Golden Carp warned the people that the “land cannot take the weight of the sins and will sink.” He has the ability to punish sinners by filling the town with water and drowning all who live there. We find this same theme in myths of the Deluge in cultures all over the world.
Bless Me, Ultima is largely about faith; about the importance of having faith and the inevitability of, at some time, losing it. It is about the promise of finding it again. The Legend of the Golden Carp attests to power in the world. It renews Tony’s faith, and he comes to realize that pagan legends do not conflict with Catholic ideology but in fact make sense of it. He also learns that duality exists everywhere. The water in the river can cleanse and heal but can also destroy. God can both punish and provide. The theme of evil versus goodness drives Anaya’s plot. The Trementina sisters, three daughters of Tenorio, practice black magic and strike Tio Lucas ill. Then Ultima cures him. But two of Tenorio’s daughters die, and this sets off a series of events that leads to Ultima’s death. When the Trementina sisters die as a result of Ultima’s “magic,” Tenorio accuses her of being a witch and he vows to kill her. He submits Ultima to a test, making her walk through a doorway with needles pinned to the door frame in the shape of a cross, believing that witches or anyone with evil powers could never move through the doorway. Ultima walks through the doorway and passes the test. But only Tony knows that the needles they had pinned to the door frame fell down afterward. We know that Ultima’s power is good but that the Trementina sisters seem to have a power equally as strong. Goodness and evil exist side by side in the world, and Tony is gradually learning to blur the line between black and white.
Tony’s life in Guadalupe proves to test his strength and to challenge his ability to recognize spirit. He must grow up quickly as he faces turmoil in his family and discrimination from his classmates, and as he witnesses the effects of war and the death of several townspeople. Tony experiences the death of five people during the course of the novel; first his father’s brother and town sheriff; then Lupito, the crazed World War II veteran who shot the sheriff; then Narciso, his father’s drinking buddy; then Florence, Tony’s friend and a non-believer. Ultima is the fifth. Death is a major theme in the novel, and perhaps alludes to Tony’s death of innocence. Anaya treats the theme of life and death as another duality in the world rather than two forces in opposition.
Anaya uses the death scenes to contrast the violence of life in Guadalupe with the serenity of nature, but he also uses them to confirm Tony’s recognition of soul. Tony becomes preoccupied with the flight of the soul. He is concerned about what will happen to Lupito’s soul because he died before he could confess his mortal sin of killing the sheriff, and he is concerned about what will happen to Florence’s soul because he failed to understand God before he died. Tony questions God throughout the novel, but by the end he has gained a clear understanding of soul. When Ultima dies, he knows that he will continue to feel her spirit. Ultima tells him on her deathbed, “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. I shall be with you…” Tony can accept Ultima’s death with strength because he has learned to recognize spirit. He knows that goodness and evil exist side by side, and in recognizing this, life and death become simply two sides of the same coin. “What Ultima tried to teach me,” Tony says “[is] that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.” By the end of the novel Tony is just nine years old, but he has gained the insight that many grown people never have.
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One of the major themes of the novel is Antonio’s loss of innocence. At the opening of the novel, Antonio is an innocent boy, unaware of the dangers and tragedy of life. As the novel progresses, Antonio becomes more and more cognizant of the good and evil present in the world. By the end of the book, Antonio no longer possesses his innocence but has replaced it with wisdom and maturity.
Antonio’s transition from innocence to experience is highlighted through specific trials over the course of the novel. The first of these trials is Lupito’s murder, which sparks Antonio’s anxieties about sin and punishment. The murder of Narciso is another key moment in the novel, forcing Antonio to witness yet another death and also assume the role of a priest to give the dying man comfort. The remainder of Antonio’s innocence is lost with the accidental drowning of Florence. One of Antonio’s closest friends, Florence constantly reminded Antonio that a compassionate God could not exist in such an evil world. With his death, Antonio begins to question whether or not he can believe in a God who could allow Florence to die.
As Antonio feels the loss of his innocence, he looks to religion to answer his concerns. He hopes that his first communion will finally answer all of his questions but is disappointed when God remains silent to him. Feeling betrayed by the Christian God, Antonio looks to the Golden Carp and Ultima’s skills to help him reconcile his loss of innocence with his development as a young man. Antonio's mother associates the loss of innocence with sin and corruption, but Antonio eventually understands that loss of innocence is a crucial part of growing up.
Anaya uses his novel to introduce the reader to several conflicting cultures in Antonio’s childhood. First of all, Antonio’s early life is defined by the conflict between the Luna and the Marez, the two sides of his family. While the Luna are devout farmers who worship the earth and the moon, the Marez are free-spirited cowboys who are devoted to horses and the sun. Because Antonio’s three older brothers have already chosen the roaming life of the Marez, Antonio is expected to follow the path of the Luna and become a priest. However, Antonio is unwilling to make a decision either way and feels a great deal of pressure weighing on his destiny. Eventually, Ultima teaches Antonio that identity can be a combination of cultures and that he does not have to pick one side of the family to follow.
Another cultural conflict is emphasized through the tensions between Antonio’s life at home and life at school. At home, Antonio speaks only Spanish and follows the cultural expectations with which he has grown up. When Antonio goes to school, he is forced to experience the English-speaking academic world of the rest of the United States. He must learn to speak English and interact with children who are not from the same culture as he is. Although Antonio’s mother is extremely proud of his opportunity to learn English, Antonio finds that his schoolmates are less accepting of his own culture.
Antonio ultimately learns that he is able to accept elements of every culture when he creates his own identity and follows his own path to adulthood. Ultima assures him that not every type of faith is mutually exclusive, and Antonio is able to use the same lesson in dealing with the conflicting cultures in his life.
The conflict between good and evil in the novel is characterized through the relationship between Ultima and Tenorio. From the start, Ultima is described as the moral compass for the novel, protecting her community from the curses of evil witches. Tenorio, on the other hand, takes his place as Ultima’s arch-nemesis who shares his wicked daughters’ penchant for cruelty and evil. The battle between these two characters perpetuates the majority of the plot in the novel and, although both characters die at the end, Ultima’s goodness and Tenorio’s evilness are maintained.
However, as Antonio himself discovers, good and evil are not so easy to distinguish. Although Ultima performs many good deeds, she kills two of Tenorio’s daughters with her counter curse, using pagan powers that go against Catholic beliefs. The incident with the holy cross in Chapter 12 brings to light additional questions about Ultima’s “goodness” in the eyes of the church. Tenorio’s true evil is equally difficult to determine; his attempts to murder Ultima are only the result of his wish to avenge his daughter’s death. In some novels, a mourning father who seeks revenge would be the hero, rather than the antagonist. In both cases, neither character is easy to define as wholly good or wholly evil.
Near the end of the novel, Anaya explains that the goodness of a person is determined solely by his or her actions. Within this framework, Ultima still possesses much more "good" in her nature than Tenorio does. However, it is clear that good and evil cannot be distinguished in a clear-cut way, and this is one of the more important lessons that Antonio learns about life.
Myth is a very important theme in the novel because it is an underlying presence in the culture that surrounds Antonio. He comes across many different kinds of myths over the course of the book. Some of these come specifically from Native American culture, such as the story of the Golden Carp, while others come from a more general culture of pagan beliefs about the natural world, such as Ultima’s views toward plant life. The combination of these myths with Catholicism is a direct result of the colonization of New Mexico by Spanish colonists. As the colonist communities began to blend with the communities of Native Americans, the result was an amalgamation of cultures in which these myths maintained their importance alongside Catholic doctrine.
The myth of the Golden Carp, in particular, outlines a new set of beliefs for Antonio that he had never considered before. Although these beliefs initially seem to conflict with his Catholic upbringing, Antonio grows to realize that the Golden Carp simply offers a different perspective to the world than Catholicism. Neither is better than the other, but a combination of both is the way to find a satisfying faith. In the same way, Ultima’s explanation of the spirit in the natural world and the presence of the river allow Antonio to gain a broader scope of understanding.
In the book, Antonio’s discovery of these myths helps him to develop his own understanding of faith. By combining the beliefs that he learns from Christianity with the ideas he develops from the Golden Carp and from Ultima, Antonio is able to choose his own path, developing his own identity from all of the religious and cultural ideas available.
Antonio’s relationships with his brothers, his parents, and his uncles are extremely significant throughout the novel. Because Antonio comes from such a tightly-knit family, he feels a great deal of pressure coming from every side when it comes to determining his future. While his mother and his Luna uncles want him to become a farmer priest like their side of the family, his father and Marez uncles want him to become a vaquero like them. Antonio feels an obligation correspond to these desires, but he also wants to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers, all of whom he views in an idealized way. Antonio is especially willing to model himself off of the example of Andrew, and he is hopelessly disappointed to discover that his favorite brother is not actually worthy of such veneration. While Antonio strives to emulate his brothers, his brothers in turn have their own expectations for him. Because they chose to follow the lifestyle of the Marez, they have decided that Antonio must follow the Luna side of the family, simply to maintain the balance and fairness between the two families.
It is only after Ultima arrives that Antonio is able to gain some independence from the obligations he feels in his family. This freedom is largely due to the fact that Ultima is not an actual member of the family: she brings a freeing outside perspective to his future and does not have any ulterior motives when it comes to aiding his development as an individual. With Ultima’s help, Antonio is able to extricate himself from the oppressive expectations of his family and make his own decisions about his path in life.
Throughout the book, Antonio’s father hopes to fulfill his dream of moving to California with his sons. Because he had to give up his vaquero lifestyle to move to Guadalupe, Gabriel views this dream as his last remaining hope for contentment in life. Ever since his sons were children, Antonio’s father has expected them to follow his dream as well. When Antonio’s brothers return from war, Gabriel believes that the time for his dream is finally at hand, but he is dismayed to discover that his sons have no interest in California and wish to pursue their own dreams. This conflict must come to a breaking point when Leon, Eugene, and eventually Andrew abandon their father's dream in order to move to Las Vegas and seek their fortune.
Similarly, Antonio’s mother dreams that Antonio will be a priest to lead her Luna people back to the stability that they had once known. As a woman, Antonio’s mother could never hope to take this position herself, and she must see her dreams realized through her youngest son. Moreover, Maria chooses to shape her dream as she sees fit: instead of telling Antonio that the Luna priest was also the father, she creates a holier vision of a priest who remains physically pure. Although Maria’s dream is not rejected to the extent that Gabriel’s dream is, it still comes into conflict with Antonio’s eventual decision to pursue his own dreams. By the end of the novel, we are still unclear as to what path Antonio will follow in life; as a man of learning, he could be a priest to the Lunas or he could be something else. Either way, it is clear that Maria will be forced to acknowledge Antonio's independence at some point later in his life.
In both cases, the children in the Marez family are forced to grow up under the shadow of their parents’ dreams. Neither parent intends to oppress their children with their expectations, but both Gabriel and Maria have a difficult time accepting that Antonio and his brothers must lead independent lives.
Although World War II does not play a large role in the events of the novel, it is extremely significant in the way that it shapes certain characters. As the novel opens, the Marez family is incomplete because Leon, Eugene, and Andrew are all fighting overseas. As a six year old, Antonio does not understand the political issues that perpetuated World War II, but he does recognize the strain that his brothers’ absence places on the family. When the brothers return and the family is once more complete, things have still changed from the way that they were. All three men are suffering from post-traumatic stress from their experiences during the war. Because of the horrors that they experienced in the war, none of Antonio’s brothers are able to integrate themselves back into the quiet life of Guadalupe; Antonio describes them as “dying giants” because they can no longer cope with the life that they left behind when they went to war. Their decision to leave Guadalupe is indirectly linked to their experiences in the war.
The war also appears indirectly in one of the very first traumatic experiences described in the book: Lupito’s death. Like Antonio’s brothers, Lupito is also a veteran of the war, and he has a much more severe case of the “war sickness.” His war sickness becomes so overwhelming that he murders the sheriff of Guadalupe and ends up with a standoff at the bridge. As Antonio’s close observation of Lupito shows, Lupito does not intend to kill any of the men of the bridge; instead of firing at them, he shoots in the air to draw their fire. Lupito is so hopeless from his experiences in the war that he essentially chooses to commit suicide, placing himself in a position to be shot by the men on the bridge. This particular incident is Antonio's first step to discovering the horrors of the world, and because of it, Antonio’s innocence is also a victim of the war sickness and World War II.